Today’s piece uses words by Robert Hayden, who was a 20th Century American poet who often wrote about that essential American subject, Afro-American history. He was born just before WWI, and was writing poetry both before and after WWII, during the rise of the New Criticism, which held that the poem exists as a thing created as a conscious work by an author but is best judged irrespective of who that author is.
To the degree that this theory was actually practiced, it solves a number of problems. One of them are the issues of discrimination, old-boy networks, and literary log-rolling where who you know or where you are in the social and academic order pre-emptively decree the worth of writing. It helps deal with thorny problems, like having poetic Modernism’s great progenitor Ezra Pound becoming a Fascist propagandist during wartime. If it was still in vogue, it might assist in considering issues around artists in our time who’ve committed heinous acts or supported political opinions we judge to be beyond the pale.
One of my favorite sayings is: In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there is. Historically, the New Criticism as a critical movement didn’t consistently break down cultural barriers, though things like the post WWII GI Bill certainly did. Extra-academic movements like the Beats and their successors, and the Black Arts Movement did so as well. Great cultural shifts such as the civil rights movement have literary impact. In the end, the New Criticism seemed to restrict itself to giving students and academics a framework to discuss literature without the need to refer to the problems in their authors lives.
Perhaps too, it’s just easier to judge works based on friendship, affinity groups, or cultural and political stances. Even for an artist, how much can we live in an prospective artistic world separated from the daily, inescapable effects of the political and economic world?
But let’s not be too unfair to the New Critics. They cared about the work as it exists, treating art not as inessential decoration for something else. They offered open structures, criteria that were open to any to master. When Robert Hayden, born in the crowded Detroit ghetto swelling with southern migrants looking for industrial work, mastered those structures, he (eventually) earned a place in the culture of his time. How did this play out as my generation, born after WWII, came of age? Let’s look at the tape.
This is a time capsule from over 40 years ago, yet it could be longer for all the patina of time. The monochrome of the film makes the impassive white interviewer, the smoke from his constant cigarette, and the later-life Hayden each look gray. You see the coke-bottle glasses on Hayden’s face, but not the tint of his skin that would have born him instant misjudgments throughout his life, misjudgments that he would have to have dealt with along with his art. You will hear him make the claim I made to describe him at the beginning of this: that he’s an American poet who will write about Afro-American subjects, and hear him begin to make the case as to why this distinction is important. I can clearly hear how important he believes this is. Around 10 minutes in, he’s asked to engage with the separatist strain in Afro-American culture, and he offers his full-throated disagreement with what he thinks are their goals. That’s too big a subject to deal with here, but apparently at the point at which he was finally achieving some recognition for his poetry, some aligned with the Black Arts Movement saw him as an assimilationist. Some might view this part as a “damn kids, get off my lawn” generational moment.
Also, in the film Hayden reads two poems. One is probably his most well-known work “Those Winter Sundays,” and the other is today’s piece, “Frederick Douglass.” In the later, using only the eloquent words in his sonnet, Hayden makes that argument that he could write a political statement timeless and yet incisive, and in the former, he writes a poem of gratitude to his foster father, an unpoetic man who made it possible for him to be a poet.
“Those Winter Sundays” will be featured this month on Poetry In America on PBS. It’s a fine poem, and I’ll be interested in seeing what they do with that poem’s details, things that one needs to linger a bit to see. I, on the other hand, had already chosen to present “Frederick Douglass” for my first Robert Hayden poem here. If you take the poems together, you’ll see two arguments for paying attention to Hayden. One the universalist for liberation (a political theory Hayden shared with Frederick Douglass) and the other the argument for gratitude to those, however imperfect, that helped us.
When I first read Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass” this year I was immediately struck by the poem’s uncanny details, laid in-between the eloquent flow. It was written over 50 years ago, but it’s more current than that B&W film from 1975. Perhaps you’ll hear them too if you attend to them: freedom that can be beautiful and terrible, hunted aliens, metal statues more valued than lives made possible.
Thanks to the publisher for permission to perform this. “Frederick Douglass” is Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. From COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN by Robert Hayden edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Company