Robert Hayden at the Brockport Writers Forum

Robert Hayden at the Brockport Writers Forum

That’s a favorite poem of mine. It was
written for my foster father, who made it possible for me to go to college
and all the rest of it and who was a hard-working man, a Baptist. I grew up a
Baptist, and he cared a great deal for me, and when the other other boys would
have to go out and in the summers– winters too for that matter–
and work, why he would he would help me to stay in school, and I owe him a great
deal, because had he been like some of the other fathers in the neighborhood I
might–oh, I might have gotten an education eventually, but he really
cared–he really cared about me, and he cared about my getting my education. He
used to say to me, you know, “Get something in your head, and you won’t have to live
like this.” And well, anyway, here’s the poem which I wrote for him, called “Those
Winter Sundays.” Sundays too my father got up early and
put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from
labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. I’d
wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and
slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house,
speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good
shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely
offices? And what hurts me is that, you know, he never lived to know that I cared
that much. He didn’t know anything about poetry–I mean the people that I
lived–that I grew up with didn’t, and in a way that was a blessing, because they
left me alone. Nobody had any any any prejudice against poetry,
you know, and when I won a small Hopwood at the University of Michigan back in
the 30s, my foster father was still alive and he was delighted. He didn’t
know anything. He didn’t know what the poems meant, but he thought it was great
that that the boy had begun to to get some recognition and win prizes. You say that you read early and people read to you. Do you recall what you were reading?
Yes. This is going to sound almost too good, but Uncle Tom’s
Cabin was one of the things. There was Robinson Crusoe, and later on there was
Paul Laurence Dunbar, and when I was a little older and began trying to
write poetry I tried to write dialect verse the way Dunbar did. And of
course I hadn’t heard the kind of dialect that Dunbar has in the–in which
Dunbar wrote the poems, but those were some of the things that I remember and
much later on in my adolescence of course I read George Eliot’s Romola and I read Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun and I read all the Afro-American poets. Of course, you know, one doesn’t know what to say
today–Negro, Afro-American, Black–I’m not really used to Black. I prefer, I think,
Afro-American. But anyhow I had read in my adolescence I began to read the Afro-American poets. Besides Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Countee
Cullen and so on, and of course when I was a little older I was trying to write
very much like those poets. Hughes, and Cullen were especially dear to me because
they wrote about themes and subjects that–or they wrote about things, let us
say–that I was very much aware of that were swirling all around me in the
old slum section of Detroit. I grew up the old poor slum section of Detroit,
Michigan and they and especially Langston Hughes wrote about those
matters and I was attracted to them because I wanted to learn how to use
that material I was intrigued by it and so. And then there was another
thing too–there was a certain amount of pride I took in knowing that those
writers were Afro-Americans and I was one, and perhaps if I worked hard
enough I could, you know, I could be like them. I could achieve something too. I
remember I wrote a poem that was very much like Countee Cullen’s “Heritage,” and mine
was about Africa too, and you know, it’s really a laugh today, because
I’m about as far–I was then about as far away from Africa as you could get, you
know psychologically and every other way. But it was a convention that Afro-American
poets all seemed to use, and I think I learned something. I keep
mentioning Countee Cullen because I love him so much. I met him and
had a chance to tell him how much I cared for his poetry, and he liked some
things of mine. In the 30s I discovered Auden and Yeats and Spender and C. Day-Lewis and later on Gerard Manley Hopkins. I also read Hart Crane and Marianne Moore.
As a matter of fact I read everybody get my hands on. I mean I knew everybody. When I was–I sometimes would neglect schoolwork to read poetry. It wasn’t
until much later in my life that I sort of really read Yeats and have been and remain influenced by Yeats
in a way–not in terms of my–not in terms of my writing so much as in terms of my
life, in terms of my thinking. Yeats, you see, was an Irish poet–or let me put it the
other way around– I think of myself as an Afro-American
poet in the same way that Yeats was an Irish poet. I have no desire to to ignore
my heritage. To ignore, let us say, my experiences as an Afro-American.
I have no desire to to to turn away from that and ignore it and so on
any more than Yeats wanted to turn away from being an Irishman. At the same
time I don’t want to be limited to that. I want to–I want to be able to
function as a poet who maybe, you know, touches on all kinds of things.
Yeats’s life is somehow an example to me and in a strange way that I can’t tell
you. As a matter of fact the–his struggles as an artist who had to
come to grips with being Irish and who was disliked, you know, by the Irish
even, because he did not do what they expected him to do–well, you know, I feel
myself pretty much in the same situation very often, and during the
60s I drew a lot of strength from knowing what Yeats had gone through and
so on. For the most part, where our work is
concerned–you know, it’s approached as though it were a
sociological document or a sociological work or sociological
treatise and what we have to say about our situation as minority people or as
ethnics and what we have to say about and the kind of protest that we make when we do write protest poetry–these things assume an importance that that overrides the work as art and
allows people to–or as literature–and it allows people to ignore it as literature
and think of it as some kind of social statement all the time and
yet when when critics and readers go to the work of, say, some of
the poets I’ve mentioned–or even your own poetry, for that matter–they aren’t
going to be concerned first of all with the–with the social implications and so
on, they’re going to look at it as poetry and see whether or not it’s true to the laws that it sets up for itself. They’re going to be concerned about whether or not it’s really poetry. You go into American Lit courses in general and you’ll find that if you
really want to know what any of us have done you’ve got to go and take the Black–you know, the course in Black lit. Well I think this is all wrong. I think, so far
as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as black poetry. There’s no such thing as
white poetry. In America there is just American poetry. That’s all. And I think
that it does a lot of harm to keep this kind of polarization going. I
know that some people are capitalizing on this, are profiting from it, and people
who might not otherwise have any recognition at all can stand up
and be called poets because they’re dealing with a particular kind
of subject matter, you know. They’re dealing with the liberation of their own
people, or so they think. What you just expressed might very well
result in certain people accusing you of literary Uncle Tomism. Mmm-hmm. And how
would you respond to that? I respond to it by ignoring it. Because the people
who would say that have never read anything. They don’t know the past, they
don’t know–you know–they don’t know American literary history, they don’t
even know the the work of–you know–they don’t know the work of their own people. And I would just simply dismiss it. Because it is not true.
Ralph Ellison is to be judged by the standards that would be applied to any
novelist, and not just by some spurious standards that could be created and
applied to, you know, to a Black novelist. We’ve been in this country for almost
four hundred years. If anybody’s got a stake down here, we
have. See? And I personally feel–I can trace my folks rather far back, and on my
mother’s side we were, you know–the family came from Pennsylvania, on the
foster parents’ side from Kentucky, on my father’s side from Virginia and so
and so forth, and anybody who tells me I don’t have a stake down here, you know, is
out of his cotton-pickin head. What was all that sweating and bleeding and
dying about, you know? I had ancestors in the Civil War, and who knows? I
might have had them in the Revolutionary War for all–you know–
and so I know why people feel alienated and I know why
they feel isolated but I think that to advocate or to
support separatism in any form is to give aid and comfort to the bigots, you
know? I think the Toms are the ones now who are running around being all
separate and wanting and–on college campuses wanting their own dormitories
and their own cafeterias and so on. I mean those are the Toms. And I feel that, you
know, this is something that ought not to be. They really are giving aid and comfort to the bigots who, you know, if they can get rid of
us–push us all over in the corner somewhere– then nobody has to bother with us. You
don’t have to deal with us. If we’re in a separate dormitory and in separate
classrooms–heh! You know, we don’t have to be dealt with. So that’s my answer to
that. I was attracted to Douglass because he is a kind of universal figure. He
fought for Afro-American freedom, yes, and that’s certainly
important, and but for him where would I be today? But he was also concerned–or I should say– and he was also concerned with
with women’s suffrage, with temperance, with all the great
causes. And I think that–I am a Baha’i, and I think that’s another thing that
attracted me to him, is that–I see a universality in his outlook and some sense of the basic unity and the basic oneness of mankind which is a cardinal principle of the Baha’i faith. “Frederick Douglass.” When
it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful and terrible
thing, needful to man as air, usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain manner, diastole, systole, reflex action; when it
is finally won; when it is more than the gaudy mumbo-jumbo of politicians: this
man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro beaten to his knees, exiled
visioning a world where none is lonely, none hunted, alien, this man, superb in
love and logic, this man shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone, but with the lives grown out
of his life, the lives fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

Danny Hutson

6 thoughts on “Robert Hayden at the Brockport Writers Forum

  1. I appreciate what Mr Hayden had to say about not agreeing with separating poets from American poetry based on their race. I've thought similar to that categorizing female writers as 'women writers', 'feminist writers' because in a way it does seem to exclude them from the general body of poetry, stamping a label on writers who may just want to be considered based on their work.

  2. Dude, his hair and the turtleneck. Still in in his final release of poetic success he was conforming to dumb white intellectual aesthetics. Hayden is the shit, I hope he's at peace now.

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