April 411, 1996
Collected Poems of Robert Hayden
Edited by Frederick Glaysher
Much like a visual artist's retrospective, the publication of a poet's collected works is truly a celebratory event. We lovers of language are afforded the opportunity to glimpse the evolution and shaping of a life-vision, in the truest sense of the word. Reading the Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, reissued in hardback and edited by Frederick Glaysher, I feel an overwhelming sense of admiration.
With a keen introduction by scholar Arnold Rampersad, the Collected Poems is a compilation of Hayden's most representative books of poetry: A Ballad of Remembrance, Words in the Mourning Time, Night-Blooming Cereus, Angle of Ascent and American Journal, nominated for the National Book Award in 1982. Hayden, a former poetry consultant to the Library of Congress and tenured professor at University of Michigan, published an additional four books of poetry, but left a wish that his " 'prentice pieces" not be included in any definitive collections of his work, including his first book of poetry, Heart-Shape in the Dust, published in 1940. Hayden died of cancer in 1980.
As a young poet, Hayden found inspiration in the poetry of Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Countee Cullen, whose blending of race-consciousness and traditional verse would serve as the model for his early writings. However, it wasn't until Hayden returned to the academy in 1942 at the University of Michigan would he formulate his style of writing. There he met British poet W. H. Auden. More so than Hughes or Cullen, it is Auden who would ultimately influence Hayden, introducing the budding talent to the "modernist poetry of technical and meditative complexity, in which judicious erudition and imagination, rather than pseudo-folk simplicity or didacticism, were vital elements."
With Yeats as his model, Hayden would sustain his passion for African-American lore by bringing his creativity to bear on such historical moments as the slave insurrection of Nat Turner and the tragic journey of enslaved Africans in the "Middle Passage." In other poems, Hayden, who shunned racial propaganda, immortalizes the heroic lives of Frederick Douglass, Bessie Smith and Malcolm X.
Throughout Hayden's poems we sense an intensity of language at times complex and ornate, at times colloquial and austere that often reveals itself in images of violence, which was for Hayden a necessary evil within the context of black freedom. Witness Hayden's control in what the poet Michael Harper likes to refer to as 'perfect pitch' in "Those Winter Sundays,""Night, Death, Mississippi" or "The Whipping," in which a mother slays her poor, "daddyless" children. However crafted these poems may seem, they are imbued with a sharp awareness of the emotional cost of violence.
Richly humane in vision and profoundly elegant in craft, the Collected Poems of Robert Hayden reflect an American poet's commitment to the magic of language and its inherent ability to illuminate the human condition a commitment that at times borders obsessiveness. In this sense, Robert Hayden is a poet's poet, and incarnate proof that all poets are not created equal.