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Notes:

Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, by Robert Hayden:
Review

by Harryette Mullen

published in The Antioch Review, 53, pages 160-74
1997-03-22
Collected Poems
Author: Robert Hayden
Edited by F. Glaysher, Introduction by A. Rampersad
Published by: Liveright, 1996
Review in the form of dialogue between Harryette Mullen and Stephen Yenser


Theme and variations on Robert Hayden's poetry


4 July 1996

Dear Harryette,

The evening of Independence Day. A crepitation of fireworks in the distant west. What else to do, as I sit here amid stubbornly sanguine, inevitably white, and ineradicably blue thoughts of liberte and Crispus Attucks, John Brown and egalite, fraternite and Harriet Tubman, but drop a line to you about Robert Hayden? I really do want to ask, now that you have looked at Rampersad's edition of the Collected Poems, how you feel about Hayden. I want to hear because, although your background is different from mine, I feel a certain kinship, and because I know that hitherto, like me, you have not been intimately acquainted with his poems, and because my own reactions to this edition have been so — vivid? Those reactions include a strong sense of belated discovery (though I was taught in college that Hayden somehow belonged to the canon), with its attendant delight, alloyed only with some little chagrin at the suspicion that Hayden was canonized precisely because he so decorously did not belong, if you take my meaning.

One thing — if it's not itself many — that distinguishes Hayden's work, as Rampersad suggests, is its heterogeneity. There are several Haydens, often heard together. There is the modernist Hayden, the ultra-terse, post-Imagist Hayden, who is influenced by Pound and Williams; there is the classically literary Hayden, who alludes to the old canon, from Shakespeare through Keats and Hopkins to Yeats and Spender; there is the idiomatic Hayden, who grew up on the streets of Detroit; and there is the musical Hayden, who learned from jazz and blues what Bartok learned from Hungarian folk dances, or perhaps what Satie learned from ragtime. In "A Ballad of Remembrance" Hayden contrasts what he calls his "true voice," which speaks in tones that are "meditative, ironic, / richly human," with the off-key voices of New Orleans at Mardi Gras. The latter voices include that of
the sallow vendeuse of prepared tarnishes and jokes of nacre and ormolu, what but those gleamings, oldrose graces, manners like scented gloves? Contrived ghosts rapped to metronome clack of lavalieres.
In fact, however, this "baroque" mode (to use Hayden's term) is just one element in his own "richly human" presence, and even after he recalls coming to himself amid those eldritch voices, he incorporates their lovely grotesqueries in his concluding dedication to an old friend and academic:
And therefore this is not only a ballad of remembrance for the down-South arcane city with death in its jaws like gold teeth and archaic cusswords; not only a token for the troubled generous friends held in the fists of that schizoid city like flowers, but also, Mark Van Doren, a poem of remembrance, a gift, a souvenir for you.
There's no question, it seems to me, that he revels in the densities, the crossroads, sonic and otherwise, of "arcane city ... archaic cusswords" and "the fists of that schizoid city like flowers" and that the pleasure he takes is in large part responsible for his "true voice."

It might even be that on occasion he is overly fond of the precious — or the semi-precious — term....

Well, I have more speculations, but by now it's after midnight, cloudy and murky, and I need some orientation. You'll be my polestar.

Yours,
Stephen



7/18/96

Dear Stephen,

Years ago, when I lived for six months in Taos, the proximity of Los Alamos influenced my dreams. For several weeks, my sleep was disturbed by nightmares of nuclear Armageddon.
Enclave where new mythologies of power come to birth — where coralled energy and power breed like prized man-eating animals. Like dragon, hydra, basilisk.
Reading "Zeus Over Redeye," I know I share some of Hayden's fears about the national fascination with violence and apocalypse. This nation that began in violence seems to return to it again and again for a sense of self-definition and catharsis, as if determined that we should end as we began, with a scourging destruction.

This volume of Robert Hayden's collected poems offered me some unexpected pleasures and surprises. There is pleasure in the variety of Hayden's poetry, as well as in the opportunity to observe how the poems work through recurring preoccupations. When I first sampled his work, as a student, it seemed most useful to me for expanding the possibilities of what and how an African American poet might write.

He wrote, among other things, about black life, and even his poems devoted to black subjects are marked by a distinctive poetic idiom that is not strictly bound to African American oral tradition. It is, like the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, a purposefully literary language, owing much, as Arnold Rampersad suggests, to the King James Bible and the canon of British literature, as well as to American modernist poetry. Trying to remember my earlier response to his work, I think that I found it more temperate and virtuous than risky or showy, despite the occasional ornate or arcane word. Hayden was nowhere as fanciful as, say, Wallace Stevens, whose work attracted me in my student days, even though I was disappointed by the casually racist attitude I found there.

For me, Hayden had always seemed restrained, contained. He seemed to me a poet who shied away from extremes. I felt that his deliberation prohibited the kind of exuberant expression I was seeking in poetry. But, as you point out and Rampersad's introduction indicates, there are several different Haydens, and this collected volume edited by Frederick Glaysher allows us a retrospective view of those poems of Hayden's that are less likely to be included in anthologies of African American poets, or anthologies of American poets in which Hayden is included as a representative black poet.

This anthologized Hayden is the poet who wrote "Middle Passage," "A Letter from Phillis Wheatley," "Crispus Attucks," "Frederick Douglass," "Runagate, Runagate," "The Ballad of Nat Turner," and "El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz" for Malcolm X, as well as "Those Winter Sundays," a stern poem of familial love and duty, "of love's austere and lonely offices" set against "the chronic angers of that house" in which Hayden grew up in the care of foster parents. "Those Winter Sundays" demonstrates Hayden's self-restraint, scrupulous judgment, and sense of balance — qualities that he also brings to his poems dealing with black culture and historical subjects. His poems about those figures who have become familiar to us, through our now routine acknowledgment of black history, are never merely celebratory. In each the poet holds himself accountable to complex human truths often shrouded in legend, as Hayden considers, along with each historical character, our persistent need to make mythic heroes and heroines of exemplary figures, as well as those, like Crispus Attucks, who are history's chance victims.

Robert Hayden was certainly not alone among his contemporaries in pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable thematic and aesthetic territory for a black poet to explore. Melvin Tolson seems bolder than Hayden in his poetic ambition to rank among the modernists. Jean Toomer, before he became a mystic, was more robustly earthy, and more innovative in technique; he was born nineteen years earlier than Hayden. Bob Kaufman, only twelve years younger than Hayden, seems far more contemporary in spirit.

In "Full Moon," Hayden expresses disillusionment that the moon has lost its enchantment, no longer "a goddess to whom we pray" but reduced to "the white hope of communications men .... a mooted goal and tomorrow perhaps / an arms base." In contrast, Kaufman's response to the space race was flippantly antiromantic: "i shall refuse to go to the moon, / unless i'm inoculated, against / the dangers of indiscriminate love."

That, for Hayden, the moon stripped of its romantic haze and mythic significance is imagined as a "white hope" might suggest a possible association of hubristic reliance on technology with the white supremacy that has in part fueled the exploratory expeditions of the West. On the other hand, in "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home," Hayden adapts an archetypal western myth of technological hubris, making Daedalus a flying African whose desire conjures imaginary wings to take him home to the motherland.

In words he attributes to a slave trader (in "Middle Passage"), "I write, as one / would turn to exorcism," Hayden perhaps identifies one motivation for his own incantations. Rather than desiring to be "released from the hoodoo of this dance," as Hayden feels rescued (from its lure?) and free to claim his "true voice" upon the arrival of that utterly civilized poet and critic, Mark Van Doren, many younger black poets (Ishmael Reed and Ntozake Shange come immediately to mind) claimed their own voices as they threw themselves into that spirited dance of Africa's diaspora.

While Rampersad seems to affirm that Robert Hayden achieved the goal of transcending his racial identity, Hayden is more complexly multiple than is suggested by a simple dichotomy of the "black" poet versus the "transracial" poet. (Of course, it is curious that white poets are not routinely judged by their ability to transcend their race.) I want to think about this more in my next letter; but for now, I' m looking forward to your second round.

Still mulling it over,
Harryette



21.viii.96

Dear Harryette,

I was just thinking about an eccentric project of mine, a kind of commonplace book interspersed with glosses and meanderings and minicritiques, and was suddenly diverted back to Hayden by way of a little meditation on enantiosemes. Sorry to be precious myself, but I don't know a word except Barthes's (his coinage?) for the phenomenon I have in mind: single words that mean or imply contrary things. I'm thinking of words like "raveling," "pall," and "wan." (As in that last case, the opposition can develop over time.) The instance that turned me back to Hayden might not even be a true enantioseme, since although its cloven meanings are both homophonic and homographic, they seem to derive from different sources. As soon as I type it, you'll know the word I mean: cleave. A husband should "cleave to his wife," the Bible tells us, as the marriage ceremony instructs us that no one should put asunder the union of bride and groom; but then the Bible also tells us that "our bones are scattered at the grave's mouth, as when one cutteth and cleaveth wood upon the earth," and in this last case the meaning of "to cleave" is precisely "to put asunder." That the latter usage is in the (King James) Old Testament, so-called, whereas the former is in the (KJ) New Testament, might give us pause — if not much further insight — and might even suggest that those two biblical halves "cleave together"....

In any event, "cleave" with its two meanings has called to mind one of my favorite Hayden poems — which nonetheless seems to me representative. I'll quote it entire. Note especially line 11:
O DAEDALUS, FLY AWAY HOME

(For Maia and Julie)

Drifting night in the Georgia pines, coonskin drum and jubilee banjo. Pretty Malinda, dance with me.
Night is juba, night is conjo. Pretty Malinda, dance with me.
Night is an African juju man weaving a wish and a weariness together to make two wings.
O fly away home fly away
Do you remember Africa?
O cleave the air fly away home
My gran, he flew back to Africa, just spread his arms and flew away home.
Drifting night in the windy pines; night is a laughing, night is a longing, Pretty Malinda, come to me.
Night is a mourning juju man weaving a wish and a weariness together to make two wings.
O fly away home fly away
I remember your saying in your last letter that you thought Jean Toomer might be "more robustly earthy, and more innovative in technique than Hayden." While that might well be, the poem I've just quoted seems to me to have qualities, sensuous and especially innovative, that I also admire in Toomer's poems. I'm thinking especially of Toomer' s "Song of the Son," "November Cotton Flower," and "Tell Me," and some of the sound poems, in which he combines elements of an African American heritage with elements of a European legacy. In Hayden's "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home," those two influences are incipient in the title, one on either side of the comma. There's first the classical reference to the Athenian architect and inventor and then the allusion to the folk song ("Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home, / Your home is on fire, and your children will burn"). This poem's title, in sum, looks to me like a real cleaving, in both senses at once.

The "two wings" appear in Hayden's third stanza: "Night is an African juju man / weaving a wish and a weariness together / to make two wings." The twinning adumbrated sonically by "juju," which refers us to West African magic, works itself out in "a wish and a weariness," contraries bound together by the alliteration on w — itself carried on in "weavings" and in "wings" — a letter that patently looks like wings. And who would have both wish and weariness if not the African American, a forced exile (like Daedalus on Crete), who must devise an ingenious means of liberation? The African American descendant of slaves, then, is our contemporary artificer, working not with feathers and wax but with "coonskin drums and jubilee banjo." (If jubilee comes from a Hebrew root meaning "to conduct," which is to say "to lead together," whereas banjo evolves from an African American pronunciation of bandore, many spirituals have the same diverse parentage.)

So maybe it comes to seem that there's no end to duplicity, to "wish and weariness," to "laughing" and "longing" — to cleaving, in a word (or is it two?). In Hayden's poem, Africa is Daedalus's Athens, the biblical Eden, the blissful place from which we have all been ostracized and can only (and cannot but) recall. What can we do? Well, for one thing, we can write airs, cleaved, cleft, or cloven, that call up slave songs on the one hand and Sapphic stanzas on the other — but basta! So rarely do I catch a train of thought these days that I'm reluctant to get off one once I've done so. Everything human is mixogamous. (Which is probably why Terence could say [as Cicero quotes him] "Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto": "I'm a person: nothing human is alien to me.") It probably follows from my premise that no writer can be, in Rampersad's term, "transracial." To be "transracial" would be to have arrived at some quintessentially human (or even superhuman, since humans are "racial") point of view, n'est-ce pas? But — on my tentative premise — no point of view can be quintessential.

What do you think?

Yours,
Stephen



8/7/96

Dear Stephen,

I tried, in my last letter, to follow a thread into the labyrinth of Hayden's poetry, from his sense of history as violence and myth, to his view of nuclear and space technologies as expressions of humankind's linked urges of aspiration, exploration, and destruction. His several poems occasioned by our search for intelligent life in the universe — divine, humanoid, or utterly alien life form — alert the reader to the poet's sense of himself as alien, if not quite extraterrestrial.

In the collected poems one finds recurrent references to those whose difference, whether by choice or by circumstance, makes them, like the Gypsies of "Elegies for Paradise Valley" who are "like us" African Americans, "pornographers of gaudy otherness: / aliens among the alien." The presence of the alien pervades his work, as does the related persona of the freak. These figures of stigmatized deviation reveal the poet's capacity for empathy, as well as difficult aspects of Hayden's identity as an African American, as an artist, and as a thoughtfully religious man struggling to reconcile his sexuality with his spirituality.

It is the spiritual journey, and its relation to the intense, violent life of Malcolm X, that most interests Hayden in "El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz," as indicated by the title, referring to Malcolm's move toward traditional Islam in his pilgrimage to Mecca.

He fell upon his face before Allah the raceless in whose blazing Oneness all were one. He rose renewed renamed, became much more than there was time for him to be.
The poem suggests striking resemblances, as well as marked differences, between the poet and his subject. With Malcolm X, Hayden shared a midwestern background, a disrupted family history, an altered identity, conversion to a "raceless" religion, and a preoccupation with violence. Hayden, who received a college education Malcolm might have envied, lived an outwardly more peaceful life, and the two men chose divergent paths to personal transformation. Malcolm's final conversion connected him to the ancient sources and global diversity of Islam, but it in no way diminished his race consciousness as an African American. While Malcolm X made his individual metamorphosis a public model for a redefinition of the meaning of blackness, Hayden worked for most of his life in relative obscurity, and as he became more visible through his poetry, moved further from an identification of his writing with his race.

Hayden's identity was formed at a time when blackness and African American culture were more severely stigmatized than they are today, and his work is marked by residual attitudes of the nineteenth century that black Americans strove to eradicate, at least from our own psyches, in the decades of the 1960s and '70s. If the mantras of racial self-esteem were unconvincing to Hayden, it was perhaps because his ambivalence about race was more complicated than a psychosocially comprehensible internalized racism. Certainly, given the history that formed him, it was a significant resistance that motivated Hayden (like Toomer) to insist on the priority of his identity as an American, particularly if it was self-evident to a scholar of the literature that "he so decorously did not belong" to the canon of American poetry, as you put it in your opening letter.

William Meredith's book-jacket blurb is somewhat misleading in its insistence that Hayden "would not relinquish the title of American writer for any narrower identity," as is Arnold Rampersad's explanation of Hayden's desire to be counted as an "American" rather than a "black" or "African American" poet. No doubt, they accurately represent Hayden's preference; but why does neither question that the title of American should be considered more inclusive, given that more people of African descent inhabit the earth than "Americans" (if that term designates U.S. citizens), and "African American nationalism" has always been linked to a pan-African awareness of the global black diaspora.

Notwithstanding the critic's complicity in constructing the reputation of a "transracial" artist, or the poet's conversion to the supposedly color-blind Bahá'í religion, Hayden does not so much transcend race, as he employs racial identity as a metaphor for the opacity of the self. Race is one of myriad differences that might make a human being appear alien to another, one of the assorted labels that could cause an individual to feel estranged from others, as well as from himself.

Hayden's poetry offers an array of possible responses to alienation, from that of the tattooed man, "Born alien, / homeless everywhere" to the poet's reveling in his alien status as a kind of freedom, in "Kodachromes of the Island": "Alien, at home, as always / everywhere I roamed." Like the extraterrestrial visitor of "[American Journal]," Hayden "passed for an american," but claimed an identity more universal, as a denizen of the cosmos.

Astrally yours,
Harryette

P.S. I'd already written this letter when I heard on the news that scientists have found evidence of a Martian life form. Small galaxy, isn't it?



Labor Day 1996

Dear Harryette,

Without knowing what the other one was up to, each of us mused on Hayden's literary relationship to Toomer, both of us called into question the notion that Hayden is a "transracial" poet, and both of us got drawn into the metaphors of labyrinth and flight. In fact, I was so struck by what I took to be a chord that we had struck that I almost called you. But a telephone call might spoil the nature of this old- fashioned exchange, and I fended off the impulse. Maybe I'm wrong, but it looks to me as though we dovetail when I venture that Hayden is not really "transracial," although his Eden (in "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home") is "the blissful place from which we have all been ostracized," and when you argue that "Hayden does not so much transcend race as employ identity as a metaphor for the opacity of the self." If my ostracized self is one with your self rendered opaque, I'm delighted as I rarely am by agreement.

What I want to turn to for a moment is your quotation from the so-called scholar, to the effect that Hayden was canonized these several decades ago "because he so decorously did not belong." Since it's not quite clear to me how you read my sentence, or even how I wrote it, I want to clarify it here, to wit: my suspicion is that Hayden' s name was carved into the (old) "canon" when it was because his poetry was handsomely indebted to what have since been called mainstream Eurocentric traditions at the same time that it was markedly affected by his African American heritage. In his preface to Hayden's Collected Prose (1982), Frederick Glaysher begins by noting, "Hayden is now generally recognized as the most outstanding craftsman of Afro-American poetry." In this dubious respect (as who should say "she is the most outstanding technician among Chicana poets") Hayden seems to me different from, say, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Bob Kaufman, and the later Gwendolyn Brooks, who are less inclined to play by conservative cultural rules, even though Hayden was himself enlarging the playing field and changing its proportions. I should add that any alteration of rules in medias res strikes me as eminently "American" though that impression might itself be chauvinistic of me. But I think I take "American" to mean something less sharply defined than some of the influential anthologists of the 1950s took it to mean. I've just been reading David W. Stowe's essay "Uncolored People" in the new Lingua Franca, and I'm glad to be reminded by it of Albert Murray's belief that American culture is, "regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto." I think that's what I believe. (I understand my term "mixogamous," in my last letter, to be closely related to Murray's "mulatto.")

Among Hayden's poems that you mention in connection with alienation is his later "The Tattooed Man." As you say, it is a poem about a man who was "Born alien, / homeless everywhere," whose subsequent epidermal enhancements only confirmed that he is indeed a "grotesque outsider" who does not "belong." The literary antecedent that springs to my mind is Djuna Barnes's tour de force in Nightwood in describing Nikka, "the nigger who used to fight the bear in the Cirque de Paris, " who is elaborately "tattooed from head to heel with all the ameublement of depravity." Did Hayden know Barnes's novel? Surely he did — as I suspect Elizabeth Alexander would have known both when she wrote "The Venus Hottentot" — but in any case, his "Tattooed Man" shares with Nikka a paradoxical inclusivity.

Barnes's paragraphs, too long for quotation entire at this juncture, adumbrate Hayden's tattooed man, with his "jungle arms, / their prized chimeras" and "birds-of-paradise / perched on [his] thighs." Barnes' s Nikka seems to me a version of Othello, partly because "it [his penis] at a stretch ... spelled Desdemona" and partly because he brings together other contraries: for example, "over his belly was an angel from Chartres; on each buttock, half public, half private, a quotation from the book of magic, a confirmation of the Jansenist theory, I'm sorry to say and here it is." Hayden's performer seems at first also to represent simply the other, the abject, the "grotesque outsider whose / unnaturalness / assures them they / are natural, they indeed / belong." In the penultimate verse paragraph, the tattooed man worries that his own corporal artworks "repel the union of/your [the paying customer's] flesh with mine." In fact, however, his tattoos proclaim such a union. They include tattoos of "gryphons," creatures half-lion and half-eagle, and there is one of "naked Adam / embracing naked Eve," and what is evidently the largest tattoo pictures "the Black Widow / peering from the web / she spun, belly to groin." What manner of creature could escape this generative web? The poem's conclusion seems at first blush to insist on the speaker's singularity and the audience's alterity, but at every step it undercuts itself, beginning with the doubling, "I yearn I yearn," which iterates the poem's opening lines, "I gaze at you / longing longing," and thus reinforces those lines' latent identification by mirroring the I and the you. The crux of the matter here is in Hayden's lines "I do not want / you other than you are. / And I — I cannot / (will not?) change." Which is to say, first, "I want you to be other, as you are," and, second, "I must/will be other to you." The implied vows are symmetrical. And then when the poem ends with the Yahweh-like, seemingly monolithic assertion, "I am I," the reader cannot but feel that the I is such precisely because of the splitting manifest in the formulation: "I - I." The self, that is, is in expanded form the self-that-longs-because- incomplete.

But I've overstayed my welcome and will put on hold all related gossamer projections.

Yours in Shangri-L.A.,
Stephen



9/19/96

Dear Stephen,

Your richly elaborated reading of "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home" suggested to me another manifestation of the double consciousness signaled by the contradictory dual signification of the predicate "cleave." Looking at the poem again, following your explication, I noticed that, if the title and dedication are counted as lines, the poem divides into halves hinged by the provocative question, "Do you remember Africa?" Like Countee Cullen's "What is Africa to me?" this line poses the vexed question of the African American's divided identity. Here it highlights a generational difference and a crucial break separating captive Africans with a memory of "home" from their offspring born into American slavery. The latter remember Africa only indirectly, through the memory of their ancestors.

The legends of flying Africans always involved those with a recent memory of a home elsewhere, to which they walked, swam, or flew over the ocean, trusting in traditional African spiritual beliefs that the souls of the dead return to their birthplace. The speaker in the poem has reconciled himself to his alienation, and only the memory of the grandfather's faith suggests the possibility of some alternative existence. The African American's determination to build a life and create a culture in the "New World" is a commitment his legendary flying ancestor refused to make. The grandfather who flies away versus the grandchild who remains, together figure the internal struggle that DuBois termed "double consciousness."

All of us who are Americans of African descent know this place as home, while at the same time knowing that our claim to belonging here continues to be contested. The ancestor cutting his losses and cutting loose for Africa, cleaving the air, and the descendant cleaving to his earthly existence as dearly as he clings to the consolations of myth and music, dramatically represent DuBois's concept of double consciousness, as two halves of the "one dark body" whose dogged strength is the only thing that prevents its being torn asunder. Double consciousness describes the psychic constitution of African Americans who are at home neither in Africa, where we are foreigners, nor in the U.S., which declined to assimilate us in its melting pot. We who cleave to a home that was never fully ours, regardless of our labor, faith, and blood, are divided from ourselves by our compulsory awareness of how others see us. We are reminded every day that we are aliens here, and so we keep alive in ourselves the memory of the Middle Passage and the ancestors' flight.

For Hayden, a further aspect of double consciousness seems also reflected in the poet's attempt to reconcile the presumption of Western literacy with the presumption of African American orality — or, put in somewhat different terms, the presumption of the master's literacy and the slave's illiteracy. Traces of the strain of these interlocking presumptions are apparent in the body of Hayden's poetry.

Particularly useful for this discussion would be a comparison of "Middle Passage" with "The Dream." With its references to the written documents of slave traders, to passages excerpted or paraphrased from the letters, journals, and ships' logs of those who bought and sold Africans, to transcribed records of court testimony from the disgraced captains and wretched crews of ships embarked on disastrous voyages, and even with its parody of a song from Shakespeare's The Tempest, "Middle Passage" eloquently illustrates the problem of representing or reconstructing the history of the subjugated from the writings of the dominant culture.

In "Middle Passage," the Africans themselves are wordless, if not silent — their speech unintelligible to their captors. What is reported is their "moaning" and "shrieking," their "crazy laughter" and their singing. Even Cinquez, the leader of a successful slave mutiny aboard the Amistad, and the only captive African here mentioned by name as an individual historical subject, is merely "that surly brute" in the eye-witness account of the slave trader. Hayden takes quite a different approach in "The Dream (1863)," a Civil War narrative from the point of view of two black Americans, an illiterate slave in the South and a soldier from the North, literate in African American vernacular, who has joined the Union army to defeat the Confederacy. Here again we find "laughing crying singing" black folks, but also the free indirect discourse of Sinda, a slave disappointed with the brusque white Yankees: "Marse Lincum's soldier boys ... were not the hosts the dream had promised her." Her narrative alternates with passages from a letter written by Cal, a black soldier who might be related to Sinda, sending news of the war home to kin in the North. Cal, who has "listed" in the army to make sure that "old Jeff Davis muss be ketch an hung to a sour apple tree," fulfills Sinda's dream that she might one day greet an army of black soldiers fighting for freedom.

Together these poems suggest some of the difficulties and creative strategies of the poet seeking to forge a literary language of disparate cultural materials. Hayden's orchestration of folk speech and song with the written language of slaveholders, slaves, fugitives, and free people of color had been enabled by other African American writers who had reclaimed black vernacular from its debased use and abuse in American popular culture. Hayden's work might be seen in relation to a history of arguments and experiments of black poets, from Dunbar to James Weldon Johnson, from Cullen to Hughes and Sterling Brown, from Toomer and Tolson to Kaufman and Baraka. As Henry Louis Gates argues persuasively in Figures in Black, African American poets had to reconcile a western poetic tradition built on a foundation of classical texts, with a maligned African American tradition of orality that had been forcibly uprooted from its ancient sources in Africa.

White American writers and entertainers had heard the fresh invention of African American speech, which they stole and warped in order to ridicule the speakers. With the exploitation of black dialect by others, most of whom created works demeaning black people, African American writers felt that they had lost a possible avenue of expression. In addition to their alienation from a literary tradition that excluded African Americans, black writers also had reason to feel estranged from the African American vernacular. Only by reclaiming and remaking it as a literary language with attention to its particular expressive potential, and also by claiming and "mastering" the language of the dominant literary tradition, were black poets able to overcome the presumed stigma of black English as well as the presumed alienating effects of western literacy.

So this is it, the end of our summer correspondence. I have certainly enjoyed it, and found your comments always stimulating as well as eloquent.

      Your pen pal,
      Harryette
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