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Robert Hayden: Essays on the Poetry. (Reviews).

Laurence Goldstein and Robert Chrisman, eds. Robert Hayden: Essays on the Poetry. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001. 337 pp. $57.50.

Admirers and students of Robert Hayden's poetry will welcome Robert Hayden: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Laurence Goldstein and Robert Chrisman. The selections are divided into four categories: "The Poet's Voice," "Reviews," "General Essays" on the poetry, and "Essays on Individual Poems." The first includes two interviews with Hayden, three reviews by him, a brief statement on poetics, and two poems--an unfinished draft of "Entrance and Tableux for Josephine Baker" and "Ballad of the True Beast," which appeared in The Night-Blooming Cereus but was not included in Collected Poems. Among the fifteen reviews of Hayden's books that comprise section two are pieces by Gwendolyn Brooks, Julius Lester, and Michael S. Harper. Darwin T. Turner, Reginald Gibbons, W. D. Snodgrass, and Harper are among the contributors of the eleven general essays. Brian Conniff, Calvin Hernton, and Yusef Komunyakaa are among the eight who discuss individual poems. The volume brings together already published work from widely scattere d sources and a substantial amount of previously unpublished material. Each of the editors is represented by a substantial essay, and together they contribute a brief introduction, helpful chronology of Hayden's life, and a selected bibliography of works by and about the poet.

As is inevitable in a collection of this kind, the pieces vary somewhat in quality and in interest. The overall level, however, is quite high. Unfortunately space prevents me from commenting on more than a select few. Particularly noteworthy in the first section are Hayden's interviews with Dennis Gendron and A. Poulin, Jr. Referring to a poem "about Prophet Jones" ("Witch-Doctor"), Hayden tells Gendron of his seeking the dramatic, the "element of mystery" in people: "There is a kind of mystery--there is something that lies beneath the appearance they present. I like to try to find what it is that gives them their unique and special qualities." Hayden speaks, too, of what he has learned from others: Wylie, Cullen, Dunbar, Hughes, Bontemps, Keats, Auden, Yeats. When asked about "El Hajj," Hayden responds interestingly about how his reading of The Autobiography caused him to be "won over to [Malcolm X]. I realized what he represented, and the theme of metamorphosis took over in the poem because I guess that's w hat I became aware of as I read The Autobiography: you know, evolving, changing, and so on." Many passages offer biographical detail that opens up particular poems. Hayden remembers, with some bemusement, reading "abominably" at a UAW-CIO meeting in Detroit in the '30s and later being "voted the people's poet of Detroit." He speaks of working on Words in the Mourning Time as a way of "resolving anxieties and fears and the great overwhelming sadness" he felt after Dr. King's assassination. Moving, too, is his comment about the first Vietnam poem of the sequence: "I was trying to convey the idea that the horrors of the war became a kind of presence, and they were with you in the most personal and intimate activity, having your meals and so on. Everything was touched by the horror and the brutality and criminality of war. I feel that's one of the best of the poems."

Reviewing Selected Poems, Gwendolyn Brooks describes Hayden as a poet "who finds life always interesting, sometimes appalling, sometimes appealing, but consistently amenable to a clarifying enchantment via the powers of Art." This clarifying power is extraordinarily evident, for her, in "Those Winter Sundays," whose "straightforward but achieved simplicity" gives us "a household, a race, a world." Julius Lester remembers Hayden teaching "fifteen hours of classes a week" at Fisk as "just another instructor in the English department." Later Lester saw Hayden again at Fisk just after the writer's conference in 1966 where Hayden "had been severely attacked as an 'Uncle Tom' by the students and other writers." Explaining Hayden's well-known insistence on being regarded "a poet, not a black poet," Lester argues (in 1971) that Hayden wanted to escape the fate prepared for him by both blacks and whites: "Both races think the black writer is a priest, offering absolution to whites or leading blacks to the holy wars." Describing Hayden as a "symbolist poet struggling with historical fact," Michael Harper calls Hayden a "master conversationalist and handler of idiom" whose "perfect pitch is always pointed toward heroic action" and whose "central images are almost always an embracing of kin."

Of the "General Essays," three are especially valuable for the historical contexts they provide for Hayden's work. Turner comments on Hayden's work broadly in relation to African American literature and history of the '50s, '60s, and '70s. Dennis Gendron provides important history of Detroit and the Paradise Valley slum, so "pervasively present" in Hayden's poetry, particularly Heart-Shape in the Dust. Chrisman concentrates on the years 1946-48 in Hayden's life and art, showing how this period constituted a crucial "transition" in which Hayden "transformed his poetry from a Left populist style that favored social commentary to a modernist aesthetic rich in symbolism and surrealist method." Particularly rewarding among the interpretive "essays" is a Haydenesque series of letters by Harryette Mullen and Stephen Yenser presented as "Theme and Variations on Robert Hayden's Poetry." Mullen concludes with a fine comparative reading of "Middle Passage" and "The Dream" that shows Hayden wrestling with "the difficulti es and creative strategies of the poet seeking to forge a literary language of disparate cultural materials." She argues that Hayden's "orchestration" of folk speech and written language "had been enabled by other African-American writers who reclaimed black vernacular from its debased use and abuse in American popular culture." Thus Hayden's "work might be seen in relation to a history of arguments and experiments of black poets, from Dunbar to James Weldon Johnson, from Cullen to Hughes and Sterling Brown, from Toomer and Tolson to Kaufman and Baraka."

The book's final section includes readings of many of Hayden's finest poems: "Those Winter Sundays," "Perseus," "Frederick Douglass," "Middle Passage," "Runagate Runagate," "Monet's 'Waterlilies,"' and "[American Journal]." Especially suggestive here is Brian Conniff's treatment of Hayden and the African American poetic sequence. Conniff describes Hayden as a "posttraditional" poet, one who is "intensely conscious" of tradition yet "view Es] any distinctly literary tradition as historically contingent." In the struggle to construct a "personal heritage" from the provisional and heterogeneous materials available to him, Hayden had to "answer" or overcome the "monumental" figure of Eliot, particularly The Waste Land. Conniff reads "Middle Passage" with an eye toward showing how "Hayden uses his historical sources to turn Eliot's own poetics against his restricted vision of cultural decline." By returning Cinquez, "through poetry, to living history--Hayden asserts the possibility that an unlikely individual, eve n after one of the most convoluted journeys through the Middle Passage and the American courts, can act in a manner that 'transfigures many lives."' Conniff concludes his essay with what amounts to an agenda for further work on Hayden by suggesting that his "legacy" lies in the contemporary African American sequences of such poets as Harper, Brenda Marie Osbey, Melvin Dixon, Komunyakaa, Elizabeth Alexander, and Jay Wright. Those who pursue this work will surely want to have Robert Hayden: Essays on the Poetry.
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Author:Oehlschlaeger, Fritz
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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