Monday, April 30, 2007

National Poetry Month Recommendation: Robert Hayden

It's the last day of National Poetry Month. I must admit I'm sad to see it go. I've been enjoying finding favorite poems and poets and sharing them.

I'll give you a few today. And use the comments fields to recommend your own. I'll drop them all in a final post.

I attended a lecture by A. Van Jordan (recent Guggenheim fellow, which I mentioned earlier) last July, and he introduced me to the work of Robert Hayden. Jordan discussed the poem "American Journal." Here's a selection, but you can follow the link on the title to read the entire thing:

here among them the americans this baffling
multi people extremes and variegations their
noise restlessness their almost frightening
energy how best describe these aliens in my
reports to The Counselors

disguise myself in order to study them unobserved
adapting their varied pigmentations white black
red brown yellow the imprecise and strangering
distinctions by which they live by which they
justify their cruelties to one another

and later:

america as much a problem in metaphysics as
it is a nation earthly entity an iota in our
galaxy an organism that changes even as i
examine it fact and fantasy never twice the
same so many variables

I like this voice he's using. There's a level at which this is a poem about the African-American experience. (Hayden was African-American, born in 1913 in Detroit, and started having his work collected in the '60s.) Hayden was given to depression, near-sighted, spent much of his life in books. He was an outsider, a member of no movement. So there's another level as well. The voice in the poem is his own: the observer, unaffiliated to any organized human endeavor. And unaffiliated as he is, he can see the cracks in the paint, and the whole of the painting, and report on both.

(We don't have a copy of his Collected Poems in right now, but we can get it. Call us to place an order at 1.800.335.READ or 206.634.3400. We do have some of his work in The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry, though.)

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