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poet, reviewer, U.S.A.
An examination of the poetry of Robert Hayden in Light of the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh
by Duane L. Herrmann, U.S.A.
Robert Hayden was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1913. His early life was marked by the poverty and deprivation common to any non-white person growing up in the United States in the 1920s and 30s.
Not only was day-to-day living an economic and emotional struggle for the family, but Hayden's own poor eyesight kept him from participating in neighborhood activities with the other children. It was an added agony to his life. He sought refuge in the world of books. He taught himself to read before entering public school and kept on reading. Hayden developed a passion for learning which was encouraged by his natural mother when they had contact. The foster family she placed him with did not share this passion and did not even understand it. The differences between these two attitudes were an additional tension in Hayden's childhood. Eventually Ma and Pa Hayden did accept the literary yearnings of the young Robert. Later in life the failure of the Hayden's to formally and legally adopt him also caused Robert Hayden anguish.
When he applied for a passport no record could be found of the birth of Robert Earl Hayden. Instead records indicated that his legal name was Asa Earl Sheffey, the name his natural mother had given him. She divorced Hayden's father shortly before he was born, and placed him in the care of the Haydens to raise while she went to work. The pull on his life between the Haydens, his natural mother (whom he saw frequently) and his natural father (whom he saw only a few times) was a major force on Robert Hayden's life.
A librarian at the public library selected books for the young Hayden to read and expanded his horizons beyond the ghetto. A social worker assisted him in obtaining a scholarship to go to college. The Haydens finally accepted the boy's dream and sacrificed further to help him. The entire neighborhood contributed nickels and dimes to help him get "colleged." He was the first in the ghetto to successfully complete high school and go on to a higher level of education.
After college another influence entered his life: Erma Inez Morris. They were married in 1940. "In some ways she was quite different in temperament from the young poet. She was demonstrative, happy, affirmative, resilient. The granddaughter of an Episcopalian priest, the daughter of parents who had met in medical school, Erma was born in Philadelphia in 1911 into a family which had infused in her expectations of college and achievements."
(John Hatcher, From the Auroral Darkness (Oxford: George Ronald, 1984), p. 13.)
Publication of his first slim volume of poetry, Heart-shape in the Dust, the year they were married, may have eased some of the family's objections to the marriage. Here was evidence, at least, that Hayden was serious about poetry. And this collection was reviewed in the New York Times -impressive indeed.
But this little book did not stand up well to the passage of time. Even Hayden himself came to criticize it and eventually relegated it to the large body of his work which he considered unworthy. Today it is extremely difficult to find even a copy to copy. Critics of this book contend that it is, "more protest statement than poetry, it no longer pleases the modern readers, partly because we are no longer moved by the subjects treated." (Arthur Davis, From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900-1960, (Washington D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974), p. 176.)
The poems in it are "...dated and repetitious, echoing themes already used too often during the (Harlem) Renaissance years." (ibid.)
If he had continued in this vein, Hayden would have disappeared long ago in the mass of protest rhetoric that buried so many of his contemporaries who are no longer remembered today. Hayden rejected poetry for propaganda's sake. The art was as important as the message. He refused to write poetry according to a "Black agenda," determined by radical black racists.
During the 1940s his poetic career looked promising. Yet in the 1950s and early 60s he accomplished little. In 1966 he was awarded the "Grand prix de la Poesie" in Dakar, Senegal, at the First World Festival of Negro Arts. In the last decade of his life honor and accomplishment followed one another in a steady stream. One of the highest honors was his appointment, not once, but twice, as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress of the United States. His terms extended from 1976-78. He was the first Black American to receive this honor. In 1985 this position was renamed "Poet Laureate of the United States," to more clearly reflect the honor it bestowed. So Robert Hayden was in effect Poet Laureate of his country, a long way indeed from the ghetto of Detroit.
Hayden became Bahá'í, he said, for several reasons: the belief in progressive revelation; the belief that the Bahá'í teachings could effect the relationship between religious thought and scientific discovery necessary to a unified physical and metaphysical outlook; and, most important, the belief, in the transcendentalist principle of universal brotherhood. (Pontheolla T. Williams, Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), p. 26.)
His first reaction to the Bahá'í Faith was one of detached interest. His wife of two years urged him to investigate and he finally stated that, if she persisted, he would refuse to consider it. In his own time, and at his own pace, Hayden learned more and more about the Faith of Bahá'ulláh. Though the cardinal principles of universal brotherhood and world peace were dear to his heart, the Bahá'í religion was radically different from his intense Baptist upbringing. In 1943 he made the decision and formally entered the Bahá'í community.
This decision did not appear to immediately influence the poetry he wrote. Even years later he did not consider it to have had much effect, but upon reflection, he concluded that it must have, "I realize it has given me a base, a focus." (Robert Hayden, 'From the Life: Some remembrances,' unpublished autobiographical notes, Hayden Papers, Bahá'í National Archives, pp. 15-16.)
Writing from 'a Bahá'í perspective,' or as some would say, 'with a Bahá'í agenda' was not a conscious decision. The influence of the Revelation came through his work naturally and spontaneously. He did not set that as a goal, it simply was a part of his life. Gerald Parks concluded that Hayden's poetry cannot be understood except by reference to his religious attitudes. (Gerald Parks, 'The Bahá'í Muse: Religion in Robert Hayden's Poetry,' World Order, 16, No. 1 (1981), p. 38.)
Hayden participated in the Bahá'í community at a local as well as national level. In 1967 he was appointed as Poetry Editor to the quarterly, World Order. He retained the appointment for the rest of his life. Hayden was not a spokesman for the Bahá'í community. The Bahá'í references in his poetry come from Hayden himself, not from any "position" he held. As poetry editor for World Order he selected poems for publication and wrote brief introductions to three collections published in its pages.
The influence of the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh is reflected in Hayden's work on various levels. One could be the general influence that took his work from social protest to a celebration of the Black American experience. Next would be the indirect references to the Bahá'í Revelation or some aspect of it. These references and poems are not written for a Bahá'í audience, for the meaning of the poem continues without the reader knowing the Bahá'í reference. The Bahá'í references add an another layer of meaning and depth to the poem for those familiar with the Bahá'í Teachings. After that would come clear and direct references to some aspect of the Bahá'í Faith. And, finally, the most direct reflection of the Revelation would be the incorporation of quotations from the Bahá'í Writings into the text of a poem.
Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith wrote that: "the believers should make use, in their meetings, of hymns composed by Bahá'ís themselves, and also of such hymns, poems
and chants as are based on the Holy Words." (Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, Bahá'í Meetings and the Nineteen Day Feast Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976) p. 25.)
Robert Hayden has done this on all levels. Examples of each will be examined in turn.
That Hayden alluded to the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh often in his poetry was confirmed by Hayden himself in an interview in January 1971 with Paul McCluskey, his editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. This interview was later published as a section of How I Write. In it he referred to the poem "Full Moon," the fifth and sixth stanzas of which read:
And burned in the Garden of Gethsemane,
its light made holy by the blazing tears
with which it mingled
And spread its radiance on the exile's path
of Him who was The Glorious One,
its light made holy by His Holiness.
(Robert Hayden, "Full Moon," Ballad of Remembrance (London: Paul Breman, 1962) and Collected Poems, (New York: Liveright, 1985) p. 6.)
Hayden stated: "From there (the time of Christ) we move to the nineteenth century - to a spring in 1862, to be specific. "The Glorious One" alluded to is Bahá'u'lláh, like Christ a Divine Manifestation."
(How I Write, 'Robert Hayden, The Poet and His Art: A Conversation,' New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1972, p. 209.)
In another poem "The Night-Blooming Cereus" are these lines:
older than human
cries, ancient as prayers
invoking Osiris, Krishna,
Here is more evidence of a religious harmony which would not occur to most people. The poem is about waiting for the flowering of this exotic blossom. The watchers are in awe of the unfolding event.
in whispers when
(Robert Hayden, 'Night-Blooming Cereus,' in Angle of Ascent, (New York: Liveright, 1975), pp. 24-26; also in Collected Poems, (New York, Liveright, 1985), pp. 114-116.)
They are aware of the transcendence of this event, at least that it transcends the ordinariness of their own lives. As John Hatcher, explains, the characters in the poem are aware that they are in the presence of a vital connection to an eternal ordering, much as the succession of Prophets (Osiris to ancient Egyptians, Krishna to the Indian sub-continent, Tezcátlipóca to the Aztecs) likewise reflects divine ordination in human history. (Hatcher, pp. 184-5.)
In Hatcher's analogy the flower is Bahá'u'lláh, or perhaps the Bahá'í Revelation, which like all revelations of the major religions, came in a time of a spiritual darkness. The theme of a spiritual winter and then of a springtime as the result of the coming of a messenger of God, comes from the Bahá'í writings. Hatcher comments, "The appearance itself is "Lunar" (fleeting and in the night-time), but the effect it has on the observers, we infer, will be lasting. For this reason Hayden has written the poem in the past tense to indicate the lasting impact this epiphany has had on their lives."
(ibid, p. 185.)
In a note he adds, "In effect, awaiting the flower's bloom may symbolize the couple's search, and the flower's bloom may symbolize the fulfillment of that search in discovering the Bahá'í Faith."
(ibid, p. 327, note 12) The symbolism works both ways, humankind is lost in the darkness which precedes the appearance of each Prophet, and individual's lives are in darkness until they personally find the Revelation. The critic, Pontheolla Williams, not recognizing the Bahá'í references, considers it as "Hayden's most deeply moving recognition of the creative life force... ...The poem's interest arises from Hayden's insistence in recognizing both the spiritual and the physical. It represents the reaction of a sensitive, intelligent man whose roots in the human race are as ancient as the civilizations he cites. He is fascinated by observation of the natural process. The dramatic tension is high because his vigil is idealistic, romantic, ..."
( Williams, p. 136 -137)
Another example of Hayden's reference to the Bahá'í Faith is in the closing stanza of the poem "Year of the Child," written in honor of his grandson Michael Ahman Tedla. He expresses his concerns and admiration like any grandfather who hopes for a better life for the coming generation. He closes with a benediction:
May Huck and Jim
attend you. May you walk
with beauty before you,
beauty behind you, all
around you, and
The Most Great Beauty keep
you His concern.
(Robert Hayden, 'Year of the Child,' American Journal, (1978, Effendi Press; 1982, New York: Liveright), p. 43-44 and Collected Poems, p. 179.)
The first sentence refers, as any American would know, to Huckleberry Finn and his runaway companion Jim, an interracial pair united forever in American literature, symbolizing the freedom, adventure, conflicts and growth of boyhood. The next three lines and their reference to beauty may seem a bit out of place to most readers, not part of the boyhood image invoked immediately before. The critic, Fred M. Fetrow, described this "benedictive closing"
as an eclectic fusion of secular wish, Navaho Indian song, and Bahá'í prayer.
(Fred M. Fetrow, Robert Hayden, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984), p. 128.)
The reference to "The Most Great beauty" would be recognized by most Bahá'ís as a reference to Bahá'u'lláh (Bahá'u'lláh, 'Tarazat,' in Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, (Haifa: Bahá'í World Center, 1978), p. 43.).
Another example is the poem "The Prisoners." Hayden describes a visit to a prison: the physical reality of the prison, the characteristics of the prisoners, their reaction to his visit and what the persona (presumably Hayden with at least one companion) did during the visit. The fifth stanza:
We shared reprieving Hidden Words
revealed by the Godlike imprisoned
One, whose crime was truth.
(Robert Hayden, "The Prisoners," American Journal, p. 18 and Collected Poems, p. 159.)
Each line contains a reference to some aspect of the Bahá'í Revelation. The "Hidden Words" is the title of one of the most familiar books by Bahá'u'lláh. The "Godlike imprisoned One" refers to Bahá'u'lláh, who spent most of his life imprisoned by the Persian and Ottoman authorities for "the crime of truth". Bahá'u'lláh was imprisoned for being a follower of The Báb.
Probably the poem which most directly refers to the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh is titled: 'Bahá'u'lláh in the Garden of Ridwan.' This poem originally appeared in "Ballad of Remembrance" with the title: 'The Prophet' (it is not clear why he changed the title, or why Ridvan has a variant spelling). The "Garden of Ridvan" refers to either of two identically designated island gardens, one on the edge of Baghdad in the Tigres River, the other in Israel in a stream that has since become dry. The poem speaks of events which occurred in the first where Bahá'u'lláh announced, in 1863, that he was a messenger of God. After twelve days in the Garden of Ridvan, Bahá'u'lláh left Baghdad, by order of the Sultan, to further exile, the next destination being Constantinople. His final destination was the penal colony of Akka, in present-day Israel. He remained there for the last decades of His life.
The text of the poem reads:
Agonies confirm His hour,
and swords like compass-needles turn
toward His heart,
The midnight air is forested
with presences that shelter Him
and sheltering praise
The auroral darkness which is God
and sing the word made flesh again
Eternal exile whose return
He watches in a borrowed garden,
prays. And sleepers toss upon
their armored beds,
Half-roused by golden knocking at
the doors of consciousness. Energies
like angels dance
Glorias of recognition.
Within the rock the undiscovered suns
release their light.
(Robert Hayden, 'Bahá'u'lláh in the Garden of Ridvan,' Angle of Ascent, p. 117,
and Collected Poems, p. 47.)
"As My Blood Was Drawn" is another poem with specific reference to the Bahá'í Faith. This time the reference is to the "People of Baha," a term for the followers of Bahá'u'lláh. The poem compares the cancer then invading his body with the concurrent persecution of the Bahá'í community of Iran. This poem appears in American Journal, first published in 1978, the first year of the most violent persecution of the Bahá'ís at the close of the twentieth century. Those events in revolutionary Iran shocked the world. The poem begins:
As my blood was drawn,
as my bones were scanned,
the People of Bahá
were savaged were slain;
(Robert Hayden, 'As My Blood was Drawn,' American Journal, p. 40, and Collected Poems, p. 176.)
and compares the cancer invading and destroying his body with the evil that was destroying the Bahá'ís of Irán. The fourth stanza of the poem again relates his fate to that of the Bahá'ís:
As surgeons put
me to the knife,
This is also one of the rare instances where Hayden uses what is almost a rhyme, an off-rhyme; generally he uses no rhyme at all.
In section "X" of "Words in the Mourning Time," subtitled, "and all the atoms cry aloud," not only is the name of Bahá'u'lláh directly used and identified as "the mystery of God: / Baha'u'llah,"
(Robert Hayden, 'Words in the Mourning Time," in Words in the Mourning Time and Collected Poems, pp. 99-100.) the poem contains quotations from the Bahá'í Writings as well. The first line, "I bear Him witness now" is close to the first words of the Bahá'í short obligatory prayer: "I bear witness, O My God..."
Near the end of the poem the merger is more complete, when the words of the poem are nearly exactly the words from the Bahá'í Writings:
I was but a man
like others, asleep upon
My couch, when, lo, the breezes of the All-Glorious
were wafted over Me...
This is Bahá'u'lláh's description of the process by which the Revelation came to Him in 1853 (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982, XLI, p. 90.)
Thematically the poetry of Robert Hayden does not seem to have changed a great deal during the course of his career. As a young man with hope of being a poet, he dwelt with racial injustice, calling for equality and world brotherhood. As a poet confident of his voice, he celebrated the diversity of the human race, calling the world to witness. The protest of his early years matured into a dynamic force for the same ends. As his assurance grew, he more and more referred to the source of his positive vision of the human race.
In the interview in 1971, McCluskey asked Hayden: "The reference to the Bahá'í faith in this poem (Full Moon) is one of many that appear in your poetry. How important are your religious beliefs to you as a poet?" Hayden answered: "As a Bahá'í I am committed to belief in the fundamental oneness of all races, the essential oneness of mankind, to the vision of world unity. And these are increasingly powerful influences on my poetry today.
(How I Write, p. 209.)
It is obvious that it is the Bahá'í Revelation which transformed and channeled his early protest into celebratory song. The frequent allusions to that Revelation are just hints of the source of that song. Just as an exultant singer cannot hide the sources of his song, a poet, in Hayden's own words, will "try to tell all the truth"
but, in Emily Dickinson's words, "tell it slant."
(ibid. p. 167.)
Robert Hayden did that and more.
This is an edited adaptation of the article "A Preliminary examination of the poetry of Robert Hayden in Light of the Revelation of Baha'u'llah" which appeared in the December 1992 and March 1993 issues of the BAFA newsletter.
Published Work of Robert E. Hayden:
Heart-Shape in the Dust, Detroit, Michigan: Falcon Press, 1940
The Lion and the Archer, Nashville, Tennessee: Hemphill Press, 1948
Figure of Time, Nashville, Tennessee: Hemphill Press, 1955
Ballad of Remembrance, London: Paul Breman, 1962
Selected Poems, New York: October House, 1966
Kaleidoscope (editor), New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1967
Words in the Mourning Time, New York: October House, 1970
Night-Blooming Cereus, London: Paul Breman, 1972
Angle of Ascent, New York: Liveright, 1975
The Legend of John Brown, Detroit, Detroit, Institute of Arts, 1978
American Journal, Taunton, Massachusetts: Effendi Press, 1978
American Journal, New York: Liveright, 1982
Collected Prose, New York: Liveright, 1984
Collected Poems, New York: Liveright, 1985
- Article: On Robert Hayden by Cal E. Rollins, Arts Dialogue, November 2002
- Poem: A Plague of Starlings, Arts Dialogue, November 2002
- Article:A Preliminary Examination of the Poetry of Robert Hayden
in Light of the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, Part two,
by Duanne Herrmann BAFA newsletter, March 1993
Article:A Preliminary Examination of the Poetry of Robert Hayden
in Light of the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, Part one,
by Duanne Herrmann BAFA newsletter, December 1992
Arts Dialogue, Dintel 20, NL 7333 MC, Apeldoorn, The Netherlands