poem index

The Metaphysics of American Journal

Written by

Michael S. Harper
Contributor Page

Year

2006

Finally, I want to experiment with forms and techniques I have not used before—to arrive at something really my own, something patterned, wild, and free.
—Robert Hayden, "The New Poetry Scene"

I met Robert Hayden in 1970 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I approached him after a reading at the University of Michigan with a copy of his Words in the Mourning Time in hand, and said "Mr. Hayden, it's an honor to meet you. Would you mind signing my copy of your book?" He smiled as he fumbled for a pen and muttered, "I was all prepared not to like you." Hayden had assumed his post at the University of Michigan as a professor of English. In his first full year in residence, William Jay Smith nominated him to be the next Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He had to decline the invitation at that time due to his commitments to the university but was later able to accept when William Meredith nominated him again. And so, from 1976 to 1978, Hayden was the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Over the next few years, mostly in occasional correspondence, we became friends.

Robert Hayden grew up in the black section of Detroit called Paradise Valley and had two sets of parents, his seminal ones, the Sheffeys, who gave him the name Asa Bundy Sheffey, and his foster parents, the Haydens, folk people under the cumulative stress of poverty and sometimes welfare, laboring under a brand of Calvinistic religion. Hayden was a member of "the save your sight" program that provided him with cokebottle like eyeglasses. As a result, classmates ridiculed him, and his failing eyesight continued to be a source of insecurity for him throughout his life. Since his poor vision made athletics an impossibility, Hayden learned to love literature and the movies. He read Edna St. Vincent Millay, Countee Cullen, and Carl Sandburg in high school and at eighteen published his first poem, an imitation of Countee Cullen's "Heritage," in a Chicago magazine, Abbott's Monthly. He told the welfare caseworkers that he would one day be a poet and on one occasion carried Countee Cullen's Color for support. Later the welfare caseworker who chided Hayden about his ambition to be a poet helped him gain a scholarship at Detroit City College, later Wayne State University. Hayden graduated with a degree in Spanish.

As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, he had several small parts in Arthur Miller plays and wrote a play himself, "Go Down, Moses," about Harriet Tubman. With his interest in Black-American history and folklore, he produced a manuscript called The Black Spear, Hayden's answer to Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body. He won two Hopwood prizes. W. H. Auden was Hayden's only poetic model. He studied with him at the University of Michigan, where Auden exposed him to Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hayden's experiments with an accentual sonnet resulted in "Frederick Douglass," which was later published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1947.

From 1946 to 1968, Hayden taught at Fisk University in Nashville. He never adjusted to segregation in the south, and insisted that his daughter, Maia, attend The Little Red School House in the north. He spent three years in the Schomburg Library in Harlem researching his tour de force, "Middle Passage," a poem in a series of eight dramatic voices that depicts the complexities of the African slave trade, the abomination and complicity of the agents, including the religious groups, which profited by selling black cargo, black gold. Hayden would not concede the residue of that trade: "voyage through death / to life upon these shores," the conclusion of his epic poem.

In 1978 we sat down to discuss publishing a limited edition collection of his work. He wanted to demonstrate, "at this late date," that he was still a working poet. I was to be his publisher. Effendi Press was established, and Hayden's book would be the first installment of a "dream deferred." When we began working on the book, Hayden requested that we use typeface large enough for him to read easily. This book would be something he would use as an indicator of his new poetic resolve to speak freely about America's conundrum, race and identity. Hayden had some ideas and poems for this project. He had been wrestling with the poem "A Letter from Phillis Wheatley," its manner, the neo-classical "mockingbird" idiom of the late eighteenth century, and wanted to add a poem written for Paul Laurence Dunbar, representative of the early twentieth-century modernism. Hayden also wanted to include the prose poem "[American Journal]," envisioned as a commentary on "our condition" for the bicentenary, which he had delivered at the University of Michigan as the Phi Beta Kappa poem. These poems became the starting point for our project, American Journal, which was meant to convey to Hayden readers "something patterned, wild, and free" in the ongoing productivity of a working poet.

The contents and arrangements of American Journal were always changing. Hayden was always taking away from an original manuscript to create something cleaner, clearer, and often understated to the point of abstraction, so concerned was he with the spiritual aspects of his life. Hayden was also worried about "live presences," people who could be offended by what he might write about them. He changed names in the poem "Elegies for Paradise Valley" so that the book could be sold in the neighborhood. As we planned cloth and paper copies of the book, Hayden asked if we could donate one hundred paperback copies to Josephine Love's Your Heritage House, an art center in his old neighborhood. This was agreed and done. In addition to the poems, we often discussed the mechanics of the book: the cover design, typeface, quality of paper, the margins of the poem, paying close attention to both the vertical and horizontal access of the layout—the space Hayden loved "on both sides of the aisle"—how the poems were to be centered, and the stanzaic relations.

So much of Hayden's aesthetics are framed in the thirteen poems in the limited edition of American Journal. "A Letter from "Phillis Wheatley" and "Paul Laurence Dunbar" are the two bookends, revealing Hayden's poetic development as a master of the psychograph and his special use of the parenthetical, as they commented on the outer and inner actions of the persona analyzed with surgical precision and prosody. "Elegies for Paradise Valley," a series of eight elegies in dramatis personae, illustrates Hayden's theory of increment in his use of complex control and simplified diction. This series rendered gypsies more alien than the blacks who occupied the same turf with empathy, except for the ritual of dying: "aliens among the alien: thieves, / carriers of sickness: like us like us."

Hayden transformed classic stereotypes into dramatic portraiture. What is metaphysics but the intangible that computes in symbiotic human terms beneath and above "the veil," the American conceit in so much of our writing masquerading as white supremacy? The portrayal of the extraterrestrial as agent in Hayden's poem "[American Journal]" was a promise for a true embracing of that "unknowable essence," the same for them as for the United States. The last lines of "Elegies for Paradise Valley," "I knew myself (precocious / in the ways of guilt / and secret pain) / the devil's own rag babydoll," are full of incriminating allusions to his strongest gifts: his own strategic idiom and a startling use of the parenthetical.

Hayden's astute prognosis for what is African and other in the American idiom was also clearly delineated in our project and further fleshed out in the posthumous commercial publication of American Journal, which added ten new poems, among them "Theory of Evil," Hayden's narrative of two renegades, the Harpe brothers, along the Natchez Trace, which include his favorite folk song "Po'wayfaring / stranger, none / to ease his moans." The extraterrestrial narrator in "[American Journal]," Hayden's "other," comments, "here among them the americans . . . disguise myself in order to study them unobserved / adapting their varied pigmentations white black / red brown yellow the imprecise and strangering / distinctions by which they live by which they / justify their cruelties to one another."

Many of Hayden's strategies in composing poems, lyrics, narratives, his adaptations of classical patterns—the sonnet, the ballad, and the ballade—were experiments with "silence," that part of every poem, which approaches the unutterable. He said a poet should "change gender," meaning invest greater rhetorical resolve and polish in that area of one's weaknesses, rather than one's strengths, which are often mechanical. He located his best storytelling in the heart of the American idiom, his situation and the nation's amnesia and responsibility. His poems sought the questions: Where does race fit in the American story? What are its voicings, its canonical stories, its overarching idiom? And, finally, how does the poet's voice become as distinct from all others? What was Hayden's metaphysics? "America as much a problem in metaphysics as / it is a nation earthly entity an iota in our / galaxy. . ." he says in "[American Journal]."

Hayden's early immersion in the Federal Writers Project gave him fluency with African American folklore. He wrote several key essays on the African American presence in the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit, as part of his duties on the project. He knew the traducement of the key elements in African American contributions to the nation at large. Sterling Brown's seminal essay, "Negro Character As Seen by White Authors," was not lost on Hayden. Hayden's poems about race and the American character straddle and contextualize the complex arena of what is black and what is American in the preservation of what is continually being lost in the pithy folk-say of semiliterate people: their jokes, heartaches, frustrations, mostly their sacrifices for those they could not fully protect: their children. As Hayden writes in "Elegies for Paradise Valley," "Godfearing / elders, even Godless grifters, tried / as best they could to shelter / us."

In his Library of Congress talk, "The Life: Some Remembrances," Hayden spoke of one of the ten notions he called gumbo yaya—Creole patois for "everybody talks," He said, "To be a good liar you got to have a good remembrance." Although remembering and memory was important in Hayden's poetics, he unfortunately did not keep records of his own work. He did not leave many manuscript records of his arduous revisions pouring out and a cutting away from initial poetic outbursts, a lively arduous songwriting in dramatis personae. Parsing these songs into meaningful coherence, was, in part, his wrestling with his audience, black and other, the Scylla and Charybdis of writing engagé and writing belletristic. His task was a form of mastering a discipline he called his high-wire act which all performers live and die for, the vivid retelling of that inner zone, Hayden's demons and their expiation. There are no poems about the Detroit riot of 1943 that Hayden witnessed. No record of a contract for his Selected Poems from Vanderbilt University. Nothing of the grand party May Miller Sullivan (Kelly Miller's daughter) threw for the Haydens to welcome them to the Washington community, which included Henry Kissinger among its guests.

Hayden's poems, with their expansive connotations, transcend sociological definition. They are irreducible in their themes of transit and journeying that only the poet can name. Hayden's ultimate testament, including the privacy of religion and spiritual development, was his poetry. His students at Fisk University and the University of Michigan called him "the best kept secret in their universe," So he was. Like the Baha'i prayer, "I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known."