Academic journal article MELUS

Robert Hayden's Epic of Community

Academic journal article MELUS

Robert Hayden's Epic of Community

Article excerpt

As early as 1941 Robert Hayden prepared himself for the task of writing a "black-skinned epic," an ambition he formed after reading Stephen Vincent Benet's long Civil War poem, John Brown's Body. Interviewed in 1972, Hayden spoke of this ambition in the following manner:

   I've always been interested in Afro-American history, and when I was a
   young poet, since I knew that our history had been misrepresented, I wanted
   to contribute toward an understanding of what our past had really been
   like. I set out to correct the misconceptions and to destroy some of the
   stereotypes and cliches which surrounded Negro history. (Collected Prose
   162)

Speaking here of "our" history and "our" past, Hayden shifts easily from the first person singular to first person plural, a reminder that all historical epics are first of all affirmations of community. Yet readers familiar with Hayden's concerns, with the care of his writing, will hear in this particular affirmation a quiet but important ambiguity. For while he speaks in this passage in the first person plural, it is not entirely clear whether his "our" is meant to encompass all of America, or only the Negro portion. As I shall try to show, the possibility afforded by this ambiguity is a major theme of Hayden's later work.

Over the years Hayden's planned epic--his ambitious corrective to cliches and misconceptions about black history--would assume many forms, reaching temporary completion as a collection of poems called The Black Spear, "a mixture of styles, idioms" submitted to various publishers but eventually withdrawn (Collected Prose 187). Asked about the genesis of this collection, Hayden recalled:

   Specifically, I became interested in writing it largely as a result of
   reading Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body. There's a passage in
   which he says, "O, black-skinned epic, epic with the long black spear, I
   cannot sing you now, having too white a heart." And he goes on to say that
   someday a poet will rise to sing of the black spear. I dared to hope that I
   might be that poet. (Collected Prose 162)

Hayden eventually abandoned The Black Spear, but the inspiration driving the project remained strong. Indeed, the inclusion of a sequence of meditations on John Brown in the posthumous volume American Journal--there are also poems for Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar--indicates the depth of Hayden's commitment to this original impetus of his work. The principal difference between The Black Spear and American Journal is the nature of Hayden's use of the first person plural--the pronoun of community. Implicit from the beginning in Benet's call for a black epic was an essentialist understanding of the poet's relationship to this pronoun. Hayden's increasingly deft interrogation of this essentialism thus provides an especially useful means of tracing the development of Hayden's art. Leaving behind the writing of Benet's "black-skinned epic," he increasingly took on the task of writing a more generally American poetry, first under the aegis of a passionate universalism, later through a stance somewhat akin to multiculturalism.

An early collation of The Black Spear won for Hayden the Hopwood Award for 1942, judged by W. H. Auden; a single poem survives from that manuscript in Hayden's Collected Poems--"O Daedelus, Fly Away Home."(1) Another early poem, "Frederick Douglass," conceived originally as the final sonnet in a sequence celebrating "outstanding figures in the antislavery struggle," was also written for that project (Collected Prose 185). Then too there's "Middle Passage," prepared specifically as The Black Spear's opening, now Hayden's most famous poem, an early version of which appeared in Phylon. Epic in scale if not length, this astonishing work allows us to consider Hayden's abandonment of The Black Spear as something other than a sign of failure.

Of course, as is often the case with writers' projects, The Black Spear was never really abandoned after all, but only underwent a metamorphosis. …

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