His was a difficult but bookish childhood. Poetry was a refuge; he read widely and especially revered the work of Countee Cullen, the "Harlem Renaissance" poet who embraced double roots: that of African-American racial consciousness and English literary tradition. It might be argued that Hayden eventually surpassed his mentor in both arenas.
Especially in the volatile 1960’s, but now as well, a black poet who reveres the English canon and works within its conventions, is often put in a defensive position. Is not English the language of the masters? Recently, the fine poet Marilyn Nelson has argued eloquently that by co-opting the English forms she "masters the masters." Robert Hayden, whose work was often inspired by African-American history and culture but not ever limited to it, who defined himself primarily as an American poet, would have agreed.
Hayden is most famous as the author of Those Winter Sundays, a beloved poem that deservedly turns up on almost everyone’s list of favorites. Indeed, I can’t think of another personal poem that achieves such poignancy and depth. I never tire of it. To accompany it, I’ve chosen a number of other penetrating and lyrical works. Hayden's influence is deeply underappreciated, I think; surely Adrienne Rich took theme and inspiration from his "The Diver" in her own heralded poem, "Diving into the Wreck"?
The DiverSank through easeful
creatures flashed and
into canyon of cold
as in dreams of
plunged through infra-
space and came to
the dead ship,
carcass that swarmed with
lively blue and
yellow prised from
darkness by the
thronged her portholes.
Moss of bryozoans
blurred, obscured her
gold groupers explored her,
fearless of bubbling
manfish. I entered
the wreck, awed by her silence,
feeling more keenly
the iron cold.
With flashlight probing
fogs of water
saw the sad slow
dance of gilded
chairs, the ectoplasmic
swirl of garments,
drunken shoes. Then
eldritch hide and
seek of laughing
faces. I yearned to
find those hidden
ones, to fling aside
the mask and call to them,
yield to rapturous
done with self and
Yet in languid
frenzy strove, as
one freezing fights off
sleep desiring sleep;
strove against the
cancelling arms that
me, fled the numbing
kisses that I craved.
Reflex of life-wish?
belling? Swam from
the ship somehow;
somehow began the
Electrical StormGod’s angry with the world again,
the grey neglected ones would say;
He don’t like ugly.
Have mercy, Lord, they prayed,
seeing the lightning’s
Mene Mene Tekel,
hearing the preaching thunder’s deep
They hunched up, contracting in corners
away from windows and the dog;
huddled under Jehovah’s oldtime wrath,
I huddled too, when a boy,
mindful of things they’d told me
God was bound to make me answer for.
But later I was colleged (as they said)
and learned it was not celestial ire
(Beware the infidels, my son)
but pressure systems,
colliding massive energies
that make a storm.
Well for us. . . .
Last night we drove
through suddenly warring weather.
Wind and lightning havocked,
berserked in wires, trees.
Fallen lines we could not see at first
lay in the yard when we reached home.
The hedge was burning in the rain.
Who knows but what
we might have crossed another sill,
had not our neighbors’ warning
kept us from our door?
Who knows if it was heavenly design
(or knows if there’s a difference, after all)
that brought us and our neighbors through—
though others died—
the archetypal dangers of the night?
I know what those
cowering true believers would have said.
PerseusHer sleeping head with its great gelid mass
of serpents torpidly astir
burned into the mirroring shield—
a scathing image dire
as hated truth the mind accepts at last
and festers on.
I struck. The shield flashed bare.
Yet even as I lifted up the head
and started from that place
of gazing silences and terrored stone,
I thirsted to destroy.
None could have passed me then—
no garland-bearing girl, no priest
or staring boy—and lived.
The Broken DarkSleepless, I stare
from the dark hospital room
at shadows of a flower and its leaves
the nightlight fixes like a blotto
on the corridor wall. Shadow-plays
of Bali—demons move to the left,
gods, in their frangipani crowns
and gold, to the right.
Ah and my life
in the shadow of God’s laser light—
shadow of deformed homunculus?
A fools’ errand given by fools.
Son, go fetch a pint of pigeon’s milk
from the drugstore and be quick.
Demons on the left. Death on either side,
the Rabbi said, the way of life between.
That groaning. Man with his belly slashed,
two-timing lover. Dying?
The nightnurse rustles by.
Struggles in the pit. I have come back
to tell thee of struggles in the pit.
Perhaps is dying.
Free of pain, my own death still
a theorem to be proved.
Alláh’u’Abhá. O Healing Spirit,
Thy nearness our forgiving cure.
Zeus over Redeye(The Redstone Arsenal)
Enclave where new mythologies
of power come to birth—
where coralled energy and power breed
like prized man-eating animals.
Like dragon, hydra, basilisk.
Radar corollas and Holland tulips
the colors of Easter eggs
form vistas for the ironist.
Where elm, ailanthus, redbud grew
parabola and gantry rise.
In soaring stasis rocket missiles loom,
the cherished weapons named for Nike
(O headless armless Victory),
for Zeus, Apollo, Hercules—
eponyms of redeyed fury
greater, lesser than their own.
Ignorant outlander, mere civilian,
not sure always of what it is
I see, I walk with you among
these totems of our fire-breathing age,
question and question you,
who are at home in terra guarded like
a sacred phallic grove.
Your partial answers reassure
me less than they appall.
I feel as though invisible fuses were
burning all around us burning all
around us. Heat-quiverings twitch
danger’s hypersensitive skin.
The very sunlight here seems flammable.
And shadows give
us no relieving shade.
Ice StormUnable to sleep, or pray, I stand
by the window looking out
at moonstruck trees a December storm
has bowed with ice.
Maple and mountain ash bend
under its glassy weight,
their cracked branches falling upon
the frozen snow.
The trees themselves, as in winters past,
will survive their burdening,
broken thrive. And am I less to You,
my God, than they?
The Year of the Child(for my Grandson)
And you have come,
Michael Ahman, to share
your life with us.
We have given you
an archangel’s name—
and a great poet’s;
we honor too
hero of peace.
May these names
may they invoke divine
magic to protect
you, as we cannot,
in a world that is
no place for a child—
that had no shelter
for the children in Guyana
slain by hands
they trusted; no succor
for the Biafran
child with swollen belly
and empty begging-bowl;
no refuge for the child
of the Warsaw ghetto.
What we yearned
but were powerless to do
for them, oh we
will dare, Michael, for you,
knowing our need
of unearned increments
I look into your
brilliant eyes, whose gaze
each common thing, and hope
that inner vision
their seeing. I am
content meanwhile to have
you glance at me
sometimes, as though, if you
could talk, you’d let
us in on a subtle joke.
May Huck and Jim
attend you. May you walk
with beauty before you,
beauty behind you, all
around you, and
The Most Great Beauty keep
you his concern.
Those Winter SundaysSundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?