Several years ago I went to a poetry recitation competition in Lincolnshire that had two unforgettable consciousness-shifting highlights. One was Ursula Ledbetter’s magnificent and hilarious rendering of Tennyson’s Lincolnshire dialect poem Northern Farmer: Old Style (yes friends, this is technically my native tongue). The second happened when an elderly man in a shabby coat, fat like a great tenor, shuffled onto the stage and said in a rich, deep, sonorous voice “I’d like to recite a poem by Robert Hayden”. The poem was this:
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labour 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?
I still think this is the most perfect poem I know, and I was grateful enough to buy this book without further research to thank Hayden for giving me a poem that shows me how to feel for my own dad… The book has finally reached the top of my pile and I have discovered that he was an African-American poet, and converted to his wife’s Ba’hai religion from his adoptive parents Baptist faith, so I read and (mis)interpret his work through this knowledge.
In the introduction Arnold Rampersad suggests that the consciousness of violence is probably the most constant element in his work, whatever the theme. Many poems deal with Black history, both to work through and reflect on the violence perpetrated against Black people and to memorialise and celebrate some heroic figures like Frederick Douglass (who gets a sonnet here) and Sojourner Truth.
Violence is everywhere though; In ‘The Tattooed Man’ he says ‘all art is pain/suffered and outlived’. Elsewhere art is a refuge from violence. In ‘Zeus over Redeye’ he gives eloquent, conflicted passion to protest against nuclear weapons couched in their absurd machismo: ‘guarded/like a sacred phallic grove/Your partial answers reassure/me less than they appall’. His poem ‘Perseus’ ends
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.
I can’t help but think of Alice Walker’s discussion of Medusa in The Temple of my Familiar” where she interprets the ‘gorgon’ with her ‘snake’ hair and fatal ‘ugliness’ as an archetype for Black Woman, a defensive European demonisation of an African mother goddess. How does this relate to the ‘hero”s overflowing will-to-violence?
Rampersad shows how Hayden’s sense of ‘the uses of violence’ evolved over the course of his life, towards strong opposition. For example in his poem about Macolm X he celebrates the renunciation of racial hatred, and again in ‘Words in the Mourning Time’, he calls on us thus:
We must not be frightened nor cajoled
into accepting evil as deliverance from evil.
We must go on struggling to be human,
though monsters of abstraction
police and threaten us.
And he also says ‘I am tired today/of history, its patina’d cliches/of endless evil’. He seeks tranquility and love. I am writing too much, I ought to just say that Hayden wrote luminous verse and that I can’t understand why more people don’t read it. Perhaps his pessimism is too much. In ‘The Mirages’:
And the mirages, the
I knew what they were
changed my course
and followed them.
Less lonely, less
the stranger said
is something profoundly sad that rings true, echoed in ‘Traveling through Fog’: ‘the cloudy dark/ensphering us seems all we can/be certain of. Is Plato’s cave’, but also too harsh for me, because we put meaning into our paths by walking them, mirage led or no, (and there is nothing outside the cave for the wise old White man to bring back down to us. Their claims are lies.)
Perhaps this ‘pessimism’ is best exemplified by Hayden’s gently mocking poem ‘Astronauts’, in which he asks ‘What is it we wish them/to find for us, as/we watch them on our screens?’ Part of this scepticism may come from the amusement of a religious man with the childlike excitement of science setting out to find meaning far from the quotidian. Part of it may come from frustration with the White man’s untroubled sense of himself as all humanity. In any case, his questions send us into ourselves for answers.