ABOUT THE POET:
Poet Robert Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey into a poor family in the Paradise Valley neighborhood of Detroit; he had an emotionally traumatic childhood and was raised in part by foster parents. Due to extreme nearsightedness, Hayden turned to books rather than sports in his childhood. After graduating from high school in 1932, he attended Detroit City College (now Wayne State University) on scholarship and later earned a graduate degree in English literature from the University of Michigan. As a teaching fellow, he was the first Black faculty member in Michigan’s English department. Hayden eventually became the first African American to be appointed as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. His collections of poetry include Heart-Shape in the Dust (1940), Figure of Time (1955), A Ballad of Remembrance (1962), which won the grand prize at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, Selected Poems (1966), Words in the Mourning Time (1970), The Night-Blooming Cereus (1972), Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (1975), and American Journal (1978). Hayden’s formal, elegant poems about the Black history and experience earned him a number of other major awards as well. “Robert Hayden is now generally accepted,” Frederick Glaysher stated in Hayden’s Collected Prose, “as the most outstanding craftsman of Afro-American poetry.”
The historical basis for much of Hayden’s poetry stemmed from his extensive study of American and African American history. Beginning in the 1930s, when he researched Black history for the Federal Writers’ Project in his native Detroit, Hayden studied the story of Black people from their roots in Africa to their present condition in the United States. “History,” Charles T. Davis wrote in Black is the Color of the Cosmos: Essays on Afro-American Literature and Culture, 1942-1981, “has haunted Robert Hayden from the beginning of his career as a poet.” As he once explained to Glenford E. Mitchell of World Order, Hayden saw history “as a long, tortuous, and often bloody process of becoming, of psychic evolution.”
Other early influences on Hayden’s development as a poet were W. H. Auden, under whom Hayden studied at the University of Michigan, and Stephen Vincent Benet, particularly Benet’s poem “John Brown’s Body.” That poem describes the Black reaction to General Sherman’s march through Georgia during the Civil War and inspired Hayden to also write about that period of history, creating a series of poems on slavery and the Civil War that won him a Hopwood Award in 1942.
Although history played a large role in Hayden’s poetry, many of his works were also inspired by the poet’s adherence to the Baha’i faith, an Eastern religion that believes in a coming world civilization. Hayden served for many years as the poetry editor of the group’s World Order magazine. The universal outlook of the Baha’is also moved Hayden to reject any narrow racial classification for his work.
James Mann of the Dictionary of Literary Biography claimed that Hayden “stands out among poets of his race for his staunch avowal that the work of black writers must be judged wholly in the context of the literary tradition in English, rather than within the confines of the ethnocentrism that is common in contemporary literature written by blacks.” As Lewis Turco explained in the Michigan Quarterly Review, “Hayden has always wished to be judged as a poet among poets, not one to whom special rules of criticism ought to be applied in order to make his work acceptable in more than a sociological sense.” This stance earned Hayden criticism during the polarized 1960s. He was accused of abandoning his racial heritage to conform to the standards of a white, European literary establishment. “In the 1960s,” William Meredith wrote in his foreword to Collected Prose, “Hayden declared himself, at considerable cost in popularity, an American poet rather than a black poet, when for a time there was posited an unreconcilable difference between the two roles… He would not relinquish the title of American writer for any narrower identity.”
However, much of Hayden’s best poetry is concerned with Black experience and history. “The gift of Robert Hayden’s poetry,” Vilma Raskin Potter remarked in MELUS, “is his coherent vision of the black experience in this country as a continuing journey both communal and private.” Hayden wrote about such historical figures as Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and Cinquez. He also wrote poems about the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and the American slave trade. Edward Hirsch, writing in the Nation, called Hayden “an American poet, deeply engaged by the topography of American myth in his efforts to illuminate the American black experience.”
Though Hayden wrote in formal poetic forms, his range of voices and techniques gave his work a rich variety. “Hayden,” Robert G. O’Meally wrote in the Washington Post Book World, “is a poet of many voices, using varieties of ironic black folk speech, and a spare, ebullient poetic diction, to grip and chill his readers. He draws characters of stark vividness as he transmutes cardinal points and commonplaces of history into dramatic action and symbol.” “His work,” Turco wrote, “is unfettered in many ways, not the least of which is in the range of techniques available to him. It gives his imagination wings, allows him to travel throughout human nature.” Speaking of Hayden’s use of formal verse forms, Mann explained that Hayden’s poems were “formal in a nontraditional, original way, strict but not straight-jacketed” and found that they also possessed “a hard-edged precision of line that molds what the imagination wants to release in visually fine-chiseled fragmental stanzas that fit flush together with the rightness of a picture puzzle.”
It wasn’t until 1966, with the publication of Selected Poems, that Hayden first enjoyed widespread attention from the nation’s literary critics. With each succeeding volume of poems his reputation was further enhanced until, in 1976 and his appointment as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, Hayden was generally recognized as one of the country’s leading poets. Critics often point to Hayden’s unique ability to combine the historical and the personal when speaking of his own life and the lives of his people. Writing in Obsidian: Black Literature in Review, Gary Zebrun argued that “the voice of the speaker in Hayden’s best work twists and squirms its way out of anguish in order to tell, or sing, stories of American history—in particular the courageous and plaintive record of Afro-American history—and to chart the thoughts and feelings of the poet’s own private space… Hayden is ceaselessly trying to achieve… transcendence, which must not be an escape from the horror of history or from the loneliness of individual mortality, but an ascent that somehow transforms the horror and creates a blessed permanence.”
Hayden once said that he considered himself to be “a poet who teaches in order to earn a living so that he can write a poem or two now and then.” He taught at Fisk University for more than twenty years, where he rose to become a professor of English. Hayden ended his career with an eleven-year stint at the University of Michigan. His honors and awards included the Academy of American Poets Fellowship. He died in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1980. His Collected Prose (1984) was published posthumously.
Jesús, Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy:
Sails flashing to the wind like weapons,
sharks following the moans the fever and the dying;
horror the corposant and compass rose.
voyage through death
to life upon these shores.
“10 April 1800—
Blacks rebellious. Crew uneasy. Our linguist says
their moaning is a prayer for death,
ours and their own. Some try to starve themselves.
Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter
to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under.”
Desire, Adventure, Tartar, Ann:
Standing to America, bringing home
black gold, black ivory, black seed.
Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,
of his bones New England pews are made,
those are altar lights that were his eyes.
Jesus Saviour Pilot Me
Over Life’s Tempestuous Sea
We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord,
safe passage to our vessels bringing
heathen souls unto Thy chastening.
“8 bells. I cannot sleep, for I am sick
with fear, but writing eases fear a little
since still my eyes can see these words take shape
upon the page & so I write, as one
would turn to exorcism. 4 days scudding,
but now the sea is calm again. Misfortune
follows in our wake like sharks (our grinning
tutelary gods). Which one of us
has killed an albatross? A plague among
our blacks—Ophthalmia: blindness—& we
have jettisoned the blind to no avail.
It spreads, the terrifying sickness spreads.
Its claws have scratched sight from the Capt.’s eyes
& there is blindness in the fo’c’sle
& we must sail 3 weeks before we come
What port awaits us, Davy Jones’
or home? I’ve heard of slavers drifting, drifting,
playthings of wind and storm and chance, their crews
gone blind, the jungle hatred
crawling up on deck.
Thou Who Walked On Galilee
“Deponent further sayeth The Bella J
left the Guinea Coast
with cargo of five hundred blacks and odd
for the barracoons of Florida:
“That there was hardly room ’tween-decks for half
the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;
that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh
and sucked the blood:
“That Crew and Captain lusted with the comeliest
of the savage girls kept naked in the cabins;
that there was one they called The Guinea Rose
and they cast lots and fought to lie with her:
“That when the Bo’s’n piped all hands, the flames
spreading from starboard already were beyond
control, the negroes howling and their chains
entangled with the flames:
“That the burning blacks could not be reached,
that the Crew abandoned ship,
leaving their shrieking negresses behind,
that the Captain perished drunken with the wenches:
“Further Deponent sayeth not.”
Pilot Oh Pilot Me
Aye, lad, and I have seen those factories,
Gambia, Rio Pongo, Calabar;
have watched the artful mongos baiting traps
of war wherein the victor and the vanquished
Were caught as prizes for our barracoons.
Have seen the nigger kings whose vanity
and greed turned wild black hides of Fellatah,
Mandingo, Ibo, Kru to gold for us.
And there was one—King Anthracite we named him—
fetish face beneath French parasols
of brass and orange velvet, impudent mouth
whose cups were carven skulls of enemies:
He’d honor us with drum and feast and conjo
and palm-oil-glistening wenches deft in love,
and for tin crowns that shone with paste,
red calico and German-silver trinkets
Would have the drums talk war and send
his warriors to burn the sleeping villages
and kill the sick and old and lead the young
in coffles to our factories.
Twenty years a trader, twenty years,
for there was wealth aplenty to be harvested
from those black fields, and I’d be trading still
but for the fevers melting down my bones.
Shuttles in the rocking loom of history,
the dark ships move, the dark ships move,
their bright ironical names
like jests of kindness on a murderer’s mouth;
plough through thrashing glister toward
fata morgana’s lucent melting shore,
weave toward New World littorals that are
mirage and myth and actual shore.
Voyage through death,
voyage whose chartings are unlove.
A charnel stench, effluvium of living death
spreads outward from the hold,
where the living and the dead, the horribly dying,
lie interlocked, lie foul with blood and excrement.
Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,
the corpse of mercy rots with him,
rats eat love’s rotten gelid eyes.
But, oh, the living look at you
with human eyes whose suffering accuses you,
whose hatred reaches through the swill of dark
to strike you like a leper’s claw.
You cannot stare that hatred down
or chain the fear that stalks the watches
and breathes on you its fetid scorching breath;
cannot kill the deep immortal human wish,
the timeless will.
“But for the storm that flung up barriers
of wind and wave, The Amistad, señores,
would have reached the port of Príncipe in two,
three days at most; but for the storm we should
have been prepared for what befell.
Swift as the puma’s leap it came. There was
that interval of moonless calm filled only
with the water’s and the rigging’s usual sounds,
then sudden movement, blows and snarling cries
and they had fallen on us with machete
and marlinspike. It was as though the very
air, the night itself were striking us.
Exhausted by the rigors of the storm,
we were no match for them. Our men went down
before the murderous Africans. Our loyal
Celestino ran from below with gun
and lantern and I saw, before the cane-
knife’s wounding flash, Cinquez,
that surly brute who calls himself a prince,
directing, urging on the ghastly work.
He hacked the poor mulatto down, and then
he turned on me. The decks were slippery
when daylight finally came. It sickens me
to think of what I saw, of how these apes
threw overboard the butchered bodies of
our men, true Christians all, like so much jetsam.
Enough, enough. The rest is quickly told:
Cinquez was forced to spare the two of us
you see to steer the ship to Africa,
and we like phantoms doomed to rove the sea
voyaged east by day and west by night,
deceiving them, hoping for rescue,
prisoners on our own vessel, till
at length we drifted to the shores of this
your land, America, where we were freed
from our unspeakable misery. Now we
demand, good sirs, the extradition of
Cinquez and his accomplices to La
Havana. And it distresses us to know
there are so many here who seem inclined
to justify the mutiny of these blacks.
We find it paradoxical indeed
that you whose wealth, whose tree of liberty
are rooted in the labor of your slaves
should suffer the august John Quincy Adams
to speak with so much passion of the right
of chattel slaves to kill their lawful masters
and with his Roman rhetoric weave a hero’s
garland for Cinquez. I tell you that
we are determined to return to Cuba
with our slaves and there see justice done. Cinquez—
or let us say ‘the Prince’—Cinquez shall die.”
The deep immortal human wish,
the timeless will:
Cinquez its deathless primaveral image,
life that transfigures many lives.
Voyage through death
to life upon these shores.
Robert Hayden, “Middle Passage” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1962, 1966 by Robert Hayden. Copyright © 1985 by Emma Hayden. Reprinted with the permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.
Source: Collected Poems (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1985)