3 Poems by Robert Hayden

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Hayden’s Poetry Foundation Bio talks about his somewhat unique place in African American literature as a great African American poet who focused on race and ethnicity, yet nonetheless denied the limitations of a narrow label for himself. At least, he seems to be one of the first major black poets to take that stand so seriously.

[From the poetry foundation:]
“‘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.’ Ironically, much of Hayden’s best poetry is concerned with black history and the black experience.”

Perhaps Hayden’s crowning achievement is the longish poem, Middle Passage. It is gloriously complex and fine, with meaningful dramatic surprises throughout. It is also a grisly depiction of moral baseness set with rich, elevated language. I suppose it must be one of my favorite poems. In 1976 Hayden became “Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress”, that is, our Poet Laureate.

Here are three poems by Robert Hayden in PDF: Middle Passage; a dramatic poem on Harriet Tubman Runagate Runagate; and a wonderfully even handed poem on Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

 

Sam Allen’s A Moment, Please

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Sam Allen (1917-2015) first studied with the magnificent James Weldon Johnson at Fiske, a black university in Nashville. Allen’s bachelor’s degree was in sociology. Then in 1941 he received a law degree from Harvard. He taught both law and literature on the college level.

After serving in WWII, then briefly in New York’s D.A. office, Allen moved to Paris, where he became immersed in the expatriate literary scene. Allen became friendly with people like James Baldwin, (both men were the sons of pastors), Richard Wright, Leopold Senghor, and Aime Cesaire. And through Wright he began to publish in the black literary journal, Presence Africaine. Mr. Allen also attended the Sorbonne on the GI Bill.

Sam Allen began publishing poetry and translations and writing essays under the name Paul Vesey. Here is one of his most deft and delicate pieces of his I’ve seen: A Moment, Please. This poem interests me especially because of the interplay between the two strings of speech. The one in caps at the margin works as an independent meditation, while the indented lines give a narrative. In experimental poetry magazines today, (really this is a centuries old practice at least), poets will sometimes give a poem that runs across rows that is also divided into two or more columns. However, usually the relevance of the phrases is much looser than in Allen’s A Moment, Please; and I appreciate the way that he chooses to build meaning through actual coherent syntactical structures.

In fact, the tension of the meditative column, which is vast in time and space, and naturally inclines the soul to a perspective of freedom and detachment, is caught and caught again by the needling humiliation at the hands of a few impudent teenage girls. The experience of being worn down by something constantly, unfairly, nagging away at one’s vision is thereby well captured. The technique of having two columns, to communicate two things in this struggle is thereby not at all arbitrary.

Old Testament Biblical poetry commonly uses paired expressions, in lines A and B, where B is often a recasting of the sense of A, but with greater specificity and intensity. Much of the time these parallel lines are contraries, however, or are very distantly or obliquely related. Poetry is captured here in some cases when the reader’s mind is not merely called to process the line’s assertion in terms of truth value, but expression A is pitched against expression B, and the contemplation mounts up, even makes us gape in awe, or stuns us, as we consider the relations of the terrain of the entire “burden”, that is, flow of prophetic speech. Parallelism is a technique which tends to provide depth to thought.

There is an incredible ability of the human mind to appreciate a vast number of things that may seem meaningless at other times, like one’s kitchen backsplash, or the West Texas plains, or the mole on a face. We can appreciate flat lines, even fall into them. But this poem contains a great height, (in the lines in caps), still almost undiscernible in a quick read, (as though the TV were on), such is the attractive force of the little pathos laden narrative. In poetry with paired lines and contrasting juxtaposition, as in Biblical parallelism, there is given a fair freedom to compare the meaningful values of the things represented. And so as Allen says, “a moment, please”.

The video below shows Allen in a short reading. Highly recommended.

Lucille Clifton’s Cutting Greens

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Cutting Greens
by Lucille Clifton

curling them around
i hold their bodies in obscene embrace
thinking of everything but kinship.
collards and kale
strain against each strange other
away from my kissmaking hand and
the iron bedpot.
the pot is black,
the cutting board is black,
my hand,
and just for a minute
the greens roll black under the knife,
and the kitchen twists dark on its spine
and I taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.