READ THIS POET: Four Poems by Robert Hayden

A stylized photo of African American poet Robert Hayden, in sepia tones, wearing his trademark thick eyeglasses under a cloudy sky.

If there is one common denominator that remains imperative when applied to literature and poetry specifically, it is the demonstration of craft. After all, anyone can write a political screed, but that doesn’t mean such a work is well rendered. Rather, to be presented with a skilled mind that has not only put great thought into each line but also has consideration for the reader—well, this makes all the difference. Thankfully, Robert Hayden was this sort of poet and person. An African American who grew up in the slums of Detroit, Michigan, he spoke adamantly of not wanting to neglect his history and experience, nor to be limited by either. Much of his career seemed to involve a need for his own identity—to write what he wanted, rather than what activists might have expected of him. ‘There is no black poetry or white poetry, there is only American poetry,’ Hayden states in this interview, dated March 1975, wherein he also notes his opposition to the way Black writing is presented—that is, as sociological works rather than literature.

Much of Hayden’s poetry found online are his more historical leaning poems involving the Black experience, e.g., “Middle Passage,” “Frederick Douglas,” “The Whipping,” and “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” among others (including his great boyhood classic, “Those Winter Sundays”). However, this essay will not be discussing any of those wonderful poems. Rather, I wish to address those poems involving his more personal experiences, as well as how he used nature observation for his distillation. Why should these fine works be overlooked? Alas, one such poem is “Ice Storm”:

Ice Storm

Unable to sleep, or pray, I stand
by the window looking out
at moonstruck trees a December storm
has bowed with ice.

Maple and mountain ash bend
under its glassy weight,
their cracked branches falling upon
the frozen snow.

The trees themselves, as in winters past,
will survive their burdening,
broken thrive. And am I less to You,
my God, than they?

Note the strong winter imagery in the first stanza that equals the power of “The Snowman” by Wallace Stevens. However, while Stevens remains a wonderful, philosophical “thinker,” Hayden is more emotional in how he pulls the outside in:

The trees themselves, as in winters past,
will survive their burdening,
broken thrive. And am I less to You,
my God, than they?   

And sure, since we know that this was written by a Black poet, one could imbue race into those final lines, but within this poem’s context, who is to say that this can’t be about accepting of one’s mortality—Robert Frost, anyone? Already, in just this one poem, I am put to mind two of the 20th Century Greats—Stevens and Frost.

Robert Hayden, born Asa Bundy Sheffey, was raised by foster parents after his mother abandoned him. For years, he remained unaware of his real name until he reached his 30s (or as the following poem notes—his 4th decade). Beginning with a nursery rhyme cliché that Hayden subverts well, the speaker is presented with information that results in him questioning his identity:

Names

Once they were sticks and stones
I feared would break my bones:
Four Eyes. And worse.
Old Four Eyes fled
to safety in the danger zones
Tom Swift and Kubla Kahn traversed.

When my fourth decade came,
I learned my name was not my name.
I felt deserted, mocked.
Why had the old ones lied?
No matter. They were dead.

And the name on the books was dead,
like the life my mother fled,
like the life I might have known.
You don’t exist—at least
not legally, the lawyer said.
As ghost, double, alter ego then?

How effortlessly this poem reads, where it seems that Hayden did not expend much labor constructing it. He begins with the history of this sort of mocking—childish name-calling like “Four Eyes,” which then diverts into:

When my fourth decade came,
I learned my name was not my name.
I felt deserted, mocked.
Why had the old ones lied?
No matter. They were dead. 

One can see, according to this stanza, that the speaker feels a sort of betrayal for having had this information withheld from him, which follows with his smooth melding of the practical and philosophical:

You don’t exist—at least
not legally, the lawyer said.
As ghost, double, alter ego then? 

Wow, if only more academics wrote as this, rather than defending ephemeral politics, I might have felt compelled to keep English as my major. But it is difficult to avoid such creative dissolution in undergrad when the best line a certain simpleminded PhD in literature yields is, “The heart is a treasure box.” (Those who can’t do, teach?)

For years, Robert Hayden was often overlooked by other poets due to his belief that poetry comes before politics. A lover of both Countee Cullen and W.B. Yeats, Hayden speaks of the overwhelming influence these two poets had upon him—Cullen for his literary approach and Yeats for the ‘outsider’ status he felt among his fellow Irishmen. However, what I most appreciate is Hayden’s absorption of the overlooked—that is, his focus on the poor and downtrodden—as one might say—and constructing such observation into a poem. As example, take “The Rag Man,” which features a homeless individual—a man named Herbert who, due to his circumstances, would otherwise be overlooked by society. Putting me in mind of Bruce Ario, the speaker evokes a desire to be nice to this man because, you know, it’s what is expected:

The Rag Man

(for Herbert)

In scarecrow patches and tatters, face
to the wind, the Rag Man walks
the winter streets, ignoring the cold
that for weeks has been so rigorous
we begin to think it a punishment
for our sins—a dire warning at the very least.

He strides on in his rags and word-
less disdain as though wrapped in fur,
noted stranger who long since
(the story goes) rejected all
that we risk chills and fever and cold
hearts to keep. Who is he really, the Rag Man?

Where is he going or coming from?
He would not answer if we asked,
refusing our presence as he would
our brief concern. We’d like to buy
him a Goodwill overcoat, a bowl of soup;
and, yes, we’d like to get shut of the sight of him.

Note that in the final stanza, the speaker uses the word ‘like’ over ‘need’ when it comes to buying the Rag Man a Goodwill overcoat and bowl of soup. The last line, especially, evokes that patronizing attitude often displayed when encountered by such individuals:

refusing our presence as he would
our brief concern. We’d like to buy
him a Goodwill overcoat, a bowl of soup;
and, yes, we’d like to get shut of the sight of him.

I remember once as a kid, when my mom picked me up from a rundown part of town, she stood alongside her car while a homeless man timidly asked her if she had any food. Politely, out of obligation and time, she informed him no. Sadly, his disheveled image always stuck with me. Just another Herbert was he? How many Herberts have you stumbled across? And what a pity we even had to see him at all.

Poetically, Hayden remained dedicated to his use of the personal and refused to compromise his craft for the sake of whatever Zeitgeist haunted the current political scene. But if one reads closely, his societal commentary becomes apparent in a poem like “The Performers”:

The Performers

Easily, almost matter-of-factly they step,
two minor Wallendas, with pail and squeegee along
the wintery ledge, hook their harness to the wall
and leaning back into a seven-story angle of space
begin washing the office windows. I
am up there too until straps break
and iron paper apple of iron I fall
through plate glass wind onto stalagmites below.

But I am safely at my desk again by the time
the hairline walkers, high-edge
balancers end their center-ring routine
and crawl inside. A rough day, I remark,
for such a risky business. Many thanks.
Thank you, sir, one of the men replies.

For those unfamiliar, the Wallendas were a family of high-wire circus performers who fell to their deaths during one of their performances. Here, we’re presented with a couple of window washers that Hayden compares to this circus act, which also evokes the separation between social classes, as the speaker goes from imbuing himself into their roles:

am up there too until straps break
and iron paper apple of iron I fall
through plate glass wind onto stalagmites below. 

Then, the scene switches back to the moment of realization:

But I am safely at my desk again by the time
the hairline walkers, high-edge
balancers end their center-ring routine

Here, the use of ‘desk’ to evoke safety already implies a white-collar existence. These ‘performers,’ however, remain ‘out there’, and are the ones continually undergoing the danger of their daily working lives. The speaker then thanks the workers for their ‘risky’ service, followed by the italicized ‘you’ in ‘Thank you, sir, one of the men replies.’ This moment is the opposite of that in Hayden’s great sonnet, “Those Winter Sundays”, when the speaker mentions, “no one ever thanked him.” How often have those in service thanked those who are being served, rather than the other way around?

I encourage readers to watch the full Robert Hayden Brockport Writers Forum interview, where he shows himself to be an intelligent, kind-hearted, and thoughtful individual. Early on, Hayden mentions how his foster father cared very deeply for him and wanted him to get an education. Then, after his death, Hayden admits to never telling his foster father how much he meant to him. It is a touching moment that puts to mind the importance of remembering and appreciating those who are kind—to never overlook them. A point that Robert Hayden recognized, and his verse is evidence of this.

Read this poet.

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