Robert Hayden is considered to be one of the greatest African-American poets of the 20th century; writing many poems about the black experience, both contemporary and historical, Hayden also managed to tackle universal themes of loneliness, desperation, parental approval and freedom. Hayden’s work was deeply rooted in the plight of African-Americans, many poems dealing directly with the anxieties and tensions that existed for minorities even during his time. Living through segregation-era America and the Civil Rights Movement, Hayden’s work becomes seemingly synonymous with the struggles of black people to have a voice in culture and art.
In order to best understand Robert Hayden, it is important to know the culture in which he wrote. The 1960s were a politically volatile time, especially for black people and other minorities, due to the rising momentum of the Civil Rights Movement. Dealing with the centuries-long cultural history of slavery, imprisonment, harassment and violence on the part of the white establishment, African-American artists like Hayden often expressed their outrage and concerns through their poetry, prose or visual art. While Hayden did not do so exclusively (and has been quoted as saying he was not “into that Negro thing,” meaning he did not dedicate himself to radical black politicking), many of his works deal heavily with the cultural violence that has been perpetuated against his people (Conniff 280).
Hayden himself had many different influences, from Elinor Wylie to Langston Hughes to William Butler Yeats, and more. Haydn himself was attracted to the “radical politics” of authors like Stephen Spender Muriel Rukseyer and more in the 1930s (Goldstein and Chrisman 3). He was also attracted to their lyricism, and took from that to form Hayden’s own idiosyncratic, essayist structures. Langston Hughes, in particular, was influential because of his “blues structures,” utilizing the off-beat rhythms and spacing to create poems that did not conform to traditional poetic language (Goldstein and Chrisman 3). One of Hayden’s biggest influences was W.H. Auden, who actually mentored Hayden during his master’s program. Auden’s influence is very clear when looking at Hayden’s sense of verse, and how distanced and florid it can be, as well as his commitment to structure and technique (Ramazani et al., 2001).
After solidifying his influence, Hayden himself became an inspiration and influence to other poets. Hayden himself became a ‘posttraditional’ poet, which is a movement “largely informed by its authors’ paradoxical stance toward literary tradition” (Conniff 281). While he respected tradition, he did not feel it was confined to history; therefore, he was able to pass on these traditions to new poets to try anew. Poets like Camille Dungy, Kyle Dargan and Yusef Komunyakaa, as well as Talvikki Ansel, have all been influenced by Hayden, due to their precise and sparse writing that still cut to universal truths (Poetry Foundation, 2014).
Robert Hayden’s stylized, multi-voice prose is found in force with his poem “Middle Passage,” which essentially tells the tale of the slave revolt aboard the slave ship Amistad, and what it says about the hypocritical, cruel realities of slavery. In this poem, an essay-like approach is taken to show the trials and tribulations of various slave ships in the form of journals and voices of the slavers as their slave ships encounter troubles of various kinds. There is a sense of karmic justice being dispensed in the crews of Hayden’s poem; slaves revolt and kill their masters, sick slaves infect the crews with blindness, and more. Here, the irony Hayden injects is the supremely accusatory tone the slavers take to anyone else who isn’t them, blaming the slaves and the Americans alike for their problems. Hayden’s juxtaposition of the stately, lyrical language and the violence they speak of shows the cognitive dissonance between the crimes they commit and their perception of themselves while doing it: “the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there; that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh and sucked the blood” (Hayden). When discussing the Amistad affair, the Spanish ambassador calls out America’s hypocrisy for chastising them for having slaves, while their “wealth [and] tree of liberty are rooted in the labor of [their] slaves” (Hayden).
Hayden’s treatment of the subject matter betrays just how attracted he was to radical black literature, even if he seemed otherwise bored with their politics. The using of the white perspective in these works is to show the supreme arrogance of these slavers, and the cathartic justice they seemingly receive at the hands of both revolting slaves and their own cowardice. Even the white systems that protect the crew members of the Amistad are rightly pointed out for being hypocritical. To that end, Hayden’s highly political, lyrical writing creates an unconventional structure which shows the regal attempting to speak about the ‘savage.’
In “Those Winter Sundays,” Hayden’s theories about writing and literature become very clear. Taking from Auden his sense of repetition, lyricism and structure, “Those Winter Sundays” is an exercise in discovery and alliteration. Hayden uses repeated-sounding words (with a hard k like “blueblack,” “cracked” “ached” “chronic angers”) to illustrate this yearning for communication and reconciliation that the son feels toward his father. (Hayden). Telling the story of a father and son and their inability to reconcile, this poem utilizes a mastery of tone as the son asks himself “What did I know, what did I know?” in a way that suggests that he is both guilty and admiring of his father (Hayden). Coming from that understated opening line (“Sundays too my father got up early”) to these final lines of understanding of his father, “Those Winter Sundays” shows Hayden’s dedication to achieving master of literary structure and technique. Just as the characters themselves achieve reconciliation, the poem itself works its way from atonal dissonance to a sweet, subtle warmth of sound and word choice.
Robert Hayden had a very divided critical reception when he was writing; in 1966, he won the Grand Prix Award at the Third World Festival of Negro Arts, a prestigious award to win so early in his career (Conniff 278). Still, this was highly controversial, because he was still relatively unpublished and still teaching at Fisk University. While Hayden himself maintained a good response from literary and poetic critics, southern audiences hated him by categorizing him along with the other reactionary African American poets that were cropping up at the time (Conniff 278). Hayden himself never got the recognition that he deserved during the 60s, mostly because he was not sufficiently “concerned with issues of race” in his work; the other Black Arts Movement writers at the time thought he did not delve enough into the civil rights movements and black power attitudes of his peers (Conniff 280).
Conniff, Brian. “Answering The Waste Land: Robert Hayden and the Rise of the African-
American Poetic Sequence.” In Robert Hayden: Essays on the Poetry. Ed. Laurence Goldstein, Robert Chrisman. University of Michigan Press, 2001.
Hayden, Robert. “Middle Passage.” In Norton Anthology of American Literature (7th ed.) WW
Norton & Company, 2007.
Hayden, Robert. “Those Winter Sundays.” In Norton Anthology of American Literature (7th ed.)
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Ramazani, Jahan; Ellmann, Richard; O'Clair. The Norton Anthology of Modern and
Contemporary Poetry. vol.2 (Third ed.). New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.
Robert Hayden: Essays on the Poetry. Ed. Laurence Goldstein, Robert Chrisman. University of
Michigan Press, 2001.
“Talvikki Ansel.” Poetry Foundation. 2014. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/talvikki-