Sunday, 10 January 2010

Collected Poems by Robert Hayden

Marianne Burton on Collected Poems by Robert Hayden (Liveright, 1996)

The blurb on the back of this book says ‘Robert Hayden (1913 – 1980) was one of the most important African-American poets of the twentieth century’ which is putting it mildly. Hayden was appointed first black American laureate in 1976 (they called it Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress in those days). He is much better known in the US than the UK, not surprisingly, and is superb.

You can Google him and look at his wide-eyed thick-spectacled photographs: he had terrible eyesight all his life. You can also Google a couple of poems and have the top of your head blown off in true Emily Dickinson fashion.

Where to start? Well, let’s start quietly with ‘Those Winter Sundays’. I’m not going to comment; quality speaks for itself here. I’ll just print the whole sonnet:

Sundays 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?

Look at the alternating vowel sounds in the closing couplet. It’s a poem about understanding and forgiveness, but that line about the ‘chronic angers’ is interesting. In the Collected Poems it faces a poem called ‘The Whipping’ where the narrator buries his head in the ‘bony vise’ of his knees remembering his childhood as he hears, ‘The old woman across the way/ … whipping the boy again’:

Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
pursues and corners him.

His poetry is full of violence and attempts to understand why people are violent; the poem ends as the woman :

…leans muttering against
a tree, exhausted, purged –
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
she has had to bear.

In ‘Night, Death, Mississippi,’ Hayden writes of an ‘old man in his reek/ and gauntness’ who hears a cry in the night and wishes he out nigger hunting with his son:

Be there with Boy and the rest
if I was well again,
Time was. Time was.
White robes like moonlight

In the sweetgum dark.
Unbucked that one then
and him squealing bloody Jesus
as we cut it off.

As the poem concludes with Boy’s triumphant return, Hayden intersperses his dialogue, and his wife’s dialogue, with italicised lines, that could be meditations, or lines from a prayer or a negro spiritual:

Then we beat them, he said,
beat them till our arms were tired
and the big old chains
messy and red.

O Jesus burning on the lily cross

Christ, it was better
than hunting bear
which don't know why
you want him dead.

O night, rawhead and bloodybones night

You kids fetch Paw
some water now so's he
can wash that blood
off him, she said.

O night betrayed by darkness not its own

Hayden is a formal, technically assured, concise, and careful poet. The Collected Poems is a modest sized paperback; like Elizabeth Bishop, Hayden re-wrote constantly, and different versions of his poems are used in Creative Writing courses in the States to teach editing. He is lyrical, passionate, sometimes adjectival, often spiritual. He wrote about the Vietnam War and race and slavery, but always argued that there are only good poets and bad poets, not black poets and white poets. This is a wonderful book.

* Marianne Burton's pamphlet is The Devil's Cut (Smiths Knoll).