Life Upon These Shores

How did Robert Hayden, devoted formalist, suspicious of identity politics, come to write the most powerful poem about the transatlantic slave trade?

This autumn in New York, in a composition course on New York City history, I taught E. B. White's essay "Here is New York" and encountered, once again, his wonderful definition of poetry: "a poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning." In "Middle Passage," one of Robert Hayden's best known and most anthologized poems, Hayden lyrically compressed the complex history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade into a compelling narrative. Into this poem he compressed the theological justifications behind slavery, the global capitalist economy it created, the political system that codified it, the complicity of African slave traders in it, the sexual violence against enslaved women, and the constant threats of revolt. And into this poem Hayden also added the will to freedom--"the deep immortal human wish / the timeless will."

"Middle Passage" was first published in 1945 in Phylon, the journal founded and edited by W.E.B. Du Bois at Atlanta University. It's a complex, allusive text that draws on the history and archives of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, incorporates the 1839 Amistad rebellion and court case, and ends with Joseph Cinquez, the leader of the rebellion, presented as a transcendent, messianic, world-historical figure. The poem's stark images of the cruel, calculating, violent, and exploitative nature of the slave trade, articulated in a lyrical, ironic multi-vocal form, makes it among the most provocative representations of slavery in African-American poetry. It's one of several poems in Hayden's oeuvre in which he uses the breadth of his language, experience, and historical research to reckon with the peculiar institution, to make sense of the staggering human atrocity of the thing, and to examine slavery's legacy in contemporary American life.

But Hayden wasn't always appreciated. The biographies and criticism on him are full of statements about his critical neglect, his disappointments, and his political differences with other black artists and intellectuals. The mannered quality of his poems, the way he portrayed black history through "high" modernist poetry, made him less interesting to some black poets and scholars in the 1960s and '70s, and maybe even diminishes his profile now. My students in the African-American poetry class I taught last year appreciated the content of his writing, but they were less convinced about his politics and aesthetics. It's hard to make a case for picking through the intricately baroque lyrics and allusions of "Middle Passage" when placed next to, say, the passionate urgency of Amiri Baraka's poem/manifesto "Black Art." My class listened to Baraka's work in recorded form--a fiery performance, brimming with defiant negritude, in which Baraka shouts the poem, backed by a band including jazz notables Sonny Murray, Don Cherry, and Albert Ayler.

Hayden had a fraught relationship to the evolving identity politics of his time, as the Black Arts Movement picked up steam in the 1960s and "Negroes" began calling themselves "Afro-American" and "Black." He found himself on the wrong side of it by declaring himself a "poet" first and not a "black poet." John Hatcher's biography of Hayden, From the Auroral Darkness, has a chapter simply titled "The Controversy," which focuses on the argument between Hayden and Black Arts Movement devotees at a 1966 literary conference at Fisk University, and how the fallout from that period resonated through the remaining years of Hayden's life. He was suspicious of political poetry (which he dabbled in earlier in his career by writing strident leftist poems) and remained skeptical about the poetry of "self-expression." At the same time, the essays in Hayden's Collected Prose show that he kept up with new trends in American poetry, reading and writing about Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka, and the Beats such as Corso and Ginsberg.

Read the full article on the Poetry Foundation website.