Lesson 2 Menu

By Peter E. Murphy

Robert Hayden (1913 - 1980) was one of four poets remembered at the 1998 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival where Stanley Kunitz and others shared tributes, remembrances, and readings of his work.

Examine the complex relationship of Hayden's beliefs, life, and art.
Articulate themes in Hayden's poetry.
Understand how poetic subtlety can be more effective and powerful than overstatement.
Analyze Hayden's revision process on selected poems.
Write and revise their own poems.

Procedures for Teachers is divided into two sections:
Prep -- Background Information
Steps -- Conducting the Lesson
Discussing the poems
Examining Hayden's revisions
Writing and revising poems

Robert Hayden, the first African-American Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress -- a position now called the U.S. Poet Laureate -- is a writer whose work can enrich the lessons of both English and social studies classes. Not widely known until the last decade of his life, Hayden's reputation has been increasing as new audiences discover the beauty and strength of his poems. While his remembrances like "Those Winter Sundays" and "The Whipping" are widely anthologized, other poems like "Night, Death, Mississippi," "Middle Passage," and "Runagate, Runagate" (about slavery and its consequences) are less well-known and are a wholly original contribution to American literature. Students will be inspired by Hayden's commitment to a vision of world unity inspired by his belief in the Bahá'í Faith, "where man is permitted to be man" and is not regarded as less human because he is different.

More on Hayden's life and poetry can be found online at:
longman.awl.com/kennedy/hayden/biography.html#legacy and

Robert Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey in a destitute area of Detroit, ironically known as "Paradise Valley," on August 4, 1913. Because his parents, Ruth and Asa Sheffey, separated before he was born, he was raised by neighbors William and Sue Hayden. Severe myopia prevented him from participating in sports, so he managed to turn to books as a youth and was befriended by local librarians, who encouraged him to pursue his education. He majored in Spanish at Detroit City College (now Wayne State University) but left needing one credit to graduate. He worked for several years as a writer in the Detroit Branch of the WPA Writers Project, where he did research on African-American history that would later become the basis for some of his poems.

In the early 1940s, Hayden began a graduate program in English at the University of Michigan and won the prestigious Hopwood award for his first collection of poetry, HEART-SHAPE IN THE DUST. Hayden had emulated poets such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and others. It was not until 1942, when he studied with W.H. Auden, that he abandoned the imitative style and began to write in an original way. While at Michigan he married Erma Inez Morris, a concert pianist and teacher, who encouraged and nurtured him until his death. Their daughter Maia was born in 1942, and the following year, Hayden became a member of the Bahá'í Faith, whose teachings promoting world unity and racial amity influenced his poetry throughout his life. In 1946, Hayden accepted a teaching position at Fisk University in Nashville, where he remained for 23 years. He bemoaned living in the segregated South and did not want to raise his daughter there, but he was unable to find a suitable teaching job elsewhere. At Fisk, he continued to write and quietly produced several volumes of poems: THE LION AND THE ARCHER, 1948; FIGURE OF TIME, 1955; A BALLAD OF REMEMBRANCE, 1962; and SELECTED POEMS, 1966.

An important year, although it was both fortunate and miserable for Hayden, was 1966. He was awarded the Grand Prix de la Poesie at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, for "A Ballad of Remembrance" and was named Poet Laureate of Senegal. Langston Hughes was one of the judges, and Derek Walcott, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992, was a runner-up. However, at home, controversy broke out when the First Black Writers' Conference was held at Fisk.

Hayden was attacked by other African-American writers for his moderate views and for not using his poetry to further the cause of the Black Arts Movement. Influenced by his Bahá'í belief in the oneness of humanity, Hayden refused to support those who urged separation of the races. In his introduction to KALEIDOSCOPE, an anthology of Negro poetry published the following year, Hayden argues that to label any Negro writer a "spokesman for his race" places him in a "kind of literary ghetto where the standards applied to other writers are not likely to be applied to him." (Collected Prose 56) Hayden lamented the need for a "Negro Anthology," but he realized that it was the only way for many of the writers included in it to be published and read by a wide audience.

Hayden asserted that there was only "good poetry" and "bad poetry" and that it should not be judged by any political or racial criteria. He insisted that he was a poet who was "Negro." Ironically, he wrote such superior poetry on the black experience that one wonders if his critics had actually understood it. Nonetheless, he was discouraged when he was replaced as writer in residence at Fisk by the novelist John Oliver Killens, who had organized the First Black Writers' Conference.

Hayden eventually returned to the North when the University of Michigan offered him a position in the English Department in 1969. Settled and more confident, he continued to teach, to write prolifically, and to publish (WORDS IN THE MOURNING TIME, 1970, THE NIGHT-BLOOMING CEREUS, 1972, and ANGLE OF ASCENT, 1975), until finally gaining recognition as an important and original voice in contemporary American poetry. He was awarded the annual $10,000 fellowship by the Academy of American Poets for "distinguished poetic achievement" in 1975, and in 1976, he was appointed to a two-year term as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (the position now known as the Poet Laureate), the first African-American writer to hold that position. In January 1980, he was among a small group of American poets celebrated by President Jimmy Carter in a White House ceremony. In February, ailing with cancer, he was honored in absentia at a tribute by the Center for Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan. Poet Michael S. Harper led a small group of admirers to Hayden's home just off campus, where they were greeted by the poet, who dressed and came downstairs to meet them. The next day, February 25, 1980, Hayden died. His last book, AMERICAN JOURNAL, 1982, was published posthumously by Liveright, who also published his COLLECTED POEMS.

COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN, Frederick Glaysher, ed. (Liveright, 1985, 1996).
COLLECTED PROSE OF ROBERT HAYDEN, Frederick Glaysher, ed. (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1984).
ROBERT HAYDEN, Fred M. Fetrow (Boston: Twayne, 1984).
ROBERT HAYDEN: A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF HIS POETRY, Pontheolla T. Williams (Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1987).

Poems found on this Web site:
"Those Winter Sundays"
"Monet's 'Waterlilies'"
"The Prisoners"
"Night, Death, Mississippi"
from "Words in the Mourning Time" (Parts 1, 9, 10)
"Frederick Douglass"
All poems are from COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN, Frederick
Glaysher, ed. (New York: Liveright) 1985, 1996.

Poems linked to at:
"Full Moon"
"Middle Passage"
"Runagate, Runagate"
"Soledad," with a Real Audio display of Hayden reading the poem
"The Whipping"

Discussing the Poems

Robert Hayden's beautiful and powerful poems never fail to stir the attentive reader. In this lesson, your students will become familiar with his life and influences and will examine some of his most important poems, including a peek at some early drafts. Then they will write and revise their own poems supported by what they have learned. Be warned: Hayden wrote about the best and the worst of human behavior, and some of these poems are nightmarishly explicit. Out of these depths, however, Hayden finds hope that humanity might outgrow and outlive its history of genocide, racism, and oppression. Consider which poems will be best to use with your students.

A good place to begin is "Those Winter Sundays," especially if you skipped Lesson #1. If you have covered it, have your students reacquaint themselves. Lesson #1 "Memory is a kind . . ."

Your students will probably be interested to know that the father in the poem refers to Hayden's stepfather, William Hayden, and the "chronic angers" to Sue Ellen Hayden, who was not at all happy in her marriage. Later in this lesson you will have the opportunity to examine a previous draft of the poem to better understand how Hayden worked so hard to perfect his art.

Another poem in which Hayden reconsiders his childhood is "The Whipping."
As in the previous poem, the adult wanders through the neighborhood of memory after seeing a boy thrashed by his mother. This leads to his own remembrance of beatings past and of further "chronic angers," and eventually to understanding and forgiveness.

Some Useful Questions:
How does the point of view change in stanza four?
What does the narrator understand at the end of the poem?
What do "Those Winter Sundays" and "The Whipping" have in common?

"Names" also deals with the past. Here the poet learns he cannot escape it no matter how far he has progressed. Hayden wrote this poem after finding out that "his name was not his name" as an adult. He was shocked and saddened to learn that he was legally Asa Bundy Sheffey and had to "become" Robert Hayden all over again.

The poem alludes to other names Hayden was called, such as "Four Eyes. And worse." His poor eyesight required him to wear absurdly thick glasses throughout his life, and one can guess the other names a black American might have been called. Ironically, Hayden "fled" to the library where he held the books close to his face to read them and to keep the world at a distance.

Begin by asking, what is a name and what does it signify? What happens when we are called the wrong name? Or a bad name? Why have some African-Americans rejected their European names in favor of an X?


Once they were sticks and stones
I feared would break my bones:
Four Eyes. And worse.
Old Four Eyes fled
to safety in the danger zones
Tom Swift and Kubla Khan traversed.

When my fourth decade came,
I learned my name was not my name.
I felt deserted, mocked.
Why had the old ones lied?
No matter. They were dead.

And the name on the books was dead,
like the life my mother fled,
like the life I might have known.
You don't exist -- at least
not legally, the lawyer said.
As ghost, double, alter ego then?

Some useful questions:
What does "Four Eyes. And worse" mean?
Where did "Old Four Eyes" flee?
What does it mean to lose a name?

While Hayden's humanity exerts itself in much of his writing, the poems he wrote during the turbulent 60s are perhaps his most compelling. In the beautiful opening quatrain of "Monet's Waterlilies," he likens apprehension over the struggle for racial equality and the divisive war in Vietnam to the omnipresent fear of nuclear annihilation.

Monet painted many different "Waterlilies" during the last twenty years of his life.
Hayden viewed the huge triptych on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

"Monet's 'Waterlilies'"

Today as the news from Selma and Saigon
poisons the air like fallout,
I come again to see
the serene, great picture that I love.

Here space and time exist in light
the eye like the eye of faith believes.
The seen, the known
dissolve in iridescence, become
illusive flesh of light
that was not, was, forever is.

O light beheld as through refracting tears.
Here is the aura of that world
each of us has lost.
Here is the shadow of its joy.

Some useful questions:
What do "Selma," "Saigon," and "fallout" mean and what effect do they have on the speaker? How does Monet's painting transform him? Knowing what you do about his poor eyesight, what is ironic and poignant about Hayden's description of "illusive flesh of light"? What is the world "each of us has lost"?

In "The Prisoners" Hayden describes a visit he made to Jackson State Prison to read his poems and share the Bahá'í teachings with the inmates. He feels the intensity of the convicts, recognizes them as fellow exiles, and, as always, prizes their "humanness."

Although the poem depicts one particular inmate, the "scarred young lifer," the plural "Prisoners" suggests that others are in bondage, including the poet himself. Hayden refers to another prisoner, the "Godlike imprisoned One, whose crime was truth," a reference to Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892), the prophet-founder of the Bahá'í Faith who was a prisoner of the Persian and Turkish governments for 40 years. Bahá'u'lláh's writings include a book titled THE HIDDEN WORDS, a collection of brief, poetic, meditative passages composed in Arabic and Persian, which distills the universal spiritual teachings of world religions. Hayden's poem is especially moving because of the diffident voice of its speaker, his striving to share poems he "hoped were true," and the response of the inmate that confirms Hayden's gift.

"The Prisoners"

Steel doors -- guillotine gates --
of the doorless house closed massively.
We were locked in with loss.

Guards frisked us, marked our wrists,
then let us into the drab Rec Hall --
splotched green walls, high windows barred --

where the dispossessed awaited us.
Hands intimate with knife and pistol,
hands that had cruelly grasped and throttled

clasped ours in welcome. I sensed the plea
of men denied: Believe us human
like yourselves, who but for Grace. . . .

We shared reprieving Hidden Words
revealed by the Godlike imprisoned
One, whose crime was truth.

And I read poems I hoped were true.
It's like you been there, brother, been there,
the scarred young lifer said.

Some useful questions:
How does the speaker feel at the beginning of the poem?
Why is he at the prison?
What does he mean, "poems I hoped were true"?
Who is "the Godlike imprisoned One, whose crime was truth"?
How do the last two lines acquit the speaker of his apprehension?
Who are the prisoners?

Hayden has written much about the nature of evil and how it continues to flourish. As evidenced in the following poem, Hayden believes that the sins of the children are quite literally learned from the parents.

The first speaker in the poem is an old white man wishing he could be with his son, who has gone out for the night. Next is a narrator who speaks within the lines of the old man throughout Part 1. It is only after three or four stanzas that the reader understands the son has gone to a lynching. The old man remembers the "good old days" when he too was at it. The old man's lament is pitiful, and the reader is repulsed that he may have felt tenderness toward him at the beginning of the poem.

In Part 2, the son returns full of stories and blood. He is the man who has unmanned another, and he is excited and jubilant. Both he and his victim have been dehumanized, as in one breath he utters "Christ" and "bear." However, the true horror is revealed by the mother, who sends her little ones off to get water so their daddy can wash himself. If there were a Part 3 to this poem, it would take place twenty years later when the kids have come home to their own families with blood on their hands. The last voice is Hayden's intoning a quasi-Biblical cry of despair:
O Jesus burning on the lily cross
O night, rawhead and bloodybones night
O night betrayed by darkness not its own

Hayden's subtlety is disturbing. He doesn't say that the old man and his family are evil; instead, he shows it through their naked thoughts and unambiguous actions and speech. He applies this technique in "Middle Passage," which uses many voices, quoting at times from the manifest of the Amistad: "It sickens me / to think of what I saw, of how these apes / threw overboard the butchered bodies of / our men, true Christians all, like so much jetsam."

Hayden mocks that the "true Christians" were slave traders and the "apes" were captured Africans who rebelled against them for their freedom. Yet, nowhere does Hayden moralize. Instead, he probes inside the mind of the supremacist and the slave trader and shows us what's there, and we shudder and understand. The mother's words terrify because they guarantee that her children will grow up repeating the atrocities of their parents -- whom they see as virtuous.

"Night, Death, Mississippi"

A quavering cry. Screech-owl?
Or one of them?
The old man in his reek
and gauntness laughs --

One of them, I bet --
and turns out the kitchen lamp,
limping to the porch to listen
in the windowless night.

Be there with Boy and the rest
if I was well again.
Time was. Time was.
White robes like moonlight

In the sweetgum dark.
Unbucked that one then
and him squealing bloody Jesus
as we cut it off.

Time was. A cry?
A cry all right.
He hawks and spits,
fevered as by groinfire.

Have us a bottle,
Boy and me --
he's earned him a bottle --
when he gets home.

Then we beat them, he said,
beat them till our arms was tired
and the big old chains
messy and red.

O Jesus burning on the lily cross

Christ, it was better
than hunting bear
which don't know why
you want him dead.

O night, rawhead and bloodybones night

You kids fetch Paw
some water now so's he
can wash that blood
off him, she said.

O night betrayed by darkness not its own

Some useful questions:
How do you feel about the old man in the first stanza and how does that
feeling change when you realize where he wishes he could go?
Hayden creates unusual images such as "windowless night," "sweetgum
dark," and "groinfire." How do they help build the tone of the poem?
What is ironic about the two references to Christ? What does it suggest
about the lynching victim?
What is frightening about the mother's speech at the end of the poem, and what does it suggest about the nature of evil?
If there were a Part 3 to this poem, who might the speakers be?

"Words in the Mourning Time," a poem in ten sections, was written as blood was spilling in the "Selma and Saigon" referred to in "Monet's 'Waterlilies.'" Hayden expresses remorse for a politically, racially, and spiritually divided America. He recognizes that prejudice of all types is the cause of our inhumanity, and that we must defeat oppressors and oppression to become more fully human.

He compares the two assassinated American leaders to Bahá'u'lláh, "The Blessed Exile" who later in the poem brings him hope. Throughout the poem, Hayden struggles against despair and clings to the faint beams of his faith. He finds hope in the face of devastation, concluding that the kind of peace he desires -- "humanness," our greatest achievement -- comes about by overcoming the chaos of civil and spiritual strife.

Below are three of the sections. They can be read separately or together.

from "Words in the Mourning Time"

For King, for Robert Kennedy,
destroyed by those they could not save,
for King for Kennedy I mourn.
And for America, self destructive, self-betrayed.

I grieve. Yet know the vanity
of grief -- through power of
The Blessed Exile's
transilluminating word

aware of how these deaths, how all
the agonies of our deathbed childbed age
are process, major means whereby,
oh dreadfully, our humanness must be achieved.

Through an explicit litany of atrocities in Part 9, Hayden scrutinizes the contradiction of an honorable America guilty of inconceivable carnage. He then calls for a moral struggle to earn our "humanness." The "monsters of abstraction" which "police and threaten us" are the conjectural creeds and ideologies which, throughout history, have caused pogroms and genocides, including the racial discrimination he was victim to. Just as Hayden uses physical images to drive his poems, he believes that the concrete expression of any "ism" should manifest itself in a way that unifies rather than destroys.

As the gook woman howls
for her boy in the smouldering,
as the expendable Clean-Cut Boys
From Decent American Homes
are slashing off enemy ears for keepsakes;

as the victories are tallied up
with flag-draped coffins, plastic bodybags,
what can I say
but this, this:

We must not be frightened nor cajoled
into accepting evil as deliverance from evil.
We must go on struggling to be human,
though monsters of abstraction
police and threaten us.

Reclaim now, now renew the vision of
a human world where godliness
is possible and man
is neither gook nigger honkey wop nor kike

but man

  permitted to be man.
. . .

While a prisoner of the Turkish government, Bahá'u'lláh addressed the kings, rulers, and religious leaders of the world, proclaiming that he was the bearer of a new message from God that would lead to an era of world peace and universal rapport. Hayden quotes from several of these texts, including a tablet to the Persian monarch Násiri'd-Din Sháh, who first imprisoned Bahá'u'lláh and sent him into exile. "O king! I was but a man like others, asleep upon My couch, when, lo, the breezes of the All-Glorious were wafted over Me and taught me the knowledge of all that had been ... " (Esslemont, J.E. BAHÁ'U'LLÁH AND THE NEW ERA, 1923. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980).

The epigraph "and all the atoms cry aloud" that begins part X is from a tablet addressed to Czar Alexander II: "He, verily, is come with His Kingdom and all the atoms cry aloud ... " (THE PROCLAMATION OF BAHÁ'U'LLÁH, 1867. The Universal House of Justice. Haifa: 1967). Hayden alludes to other Bahá'í writings before concluding his mournful vision of America with a paean to Bahá'u'lláh. The early, plaintive cry of Part 1 has changed to a prayerful appeal to the founder of his faith.

  and all the atoms cry aloud

  I bear Him witness now
Who by the light of suns beyond the suns beyond
  the sun with shrill pen

  revealed renewal of
the covenant of timelessness with time, proclaimed
  advent of splendor joy

  alone can comprehend
and the imperious evils of an age could not
  withstand and stars

  and stones and seas
acclaimed -- His life its crystal and
  magnetic field.

  I bear Him witness now --
mystery Whose major clues are the heart of man,
  the mystery of God:

Logos, poet, cosmic hero, surgeon, architect
  of our hope of peace,

  Wronged, Exiled One,
chosen to endure what agonies of knowledge, what
  auroral dark

  bestowals of truth
vision power anguish for our future's sake.
  "I was but a man

  "like others, asleep upon
My couch, when, lo, the breezes of the All-Glorious
  were wafted over Me. . . ."

  Called, as in dead of night
a dreamer is roused to help the helpless flee
  a burning house.

  I bear Him witness now:
toward Him our history in its disastrous quest
  for meaning is impelled.

Some useful questions:
Part I
How is America self-destructive, and why does the speaker mourn?
Who is the "Blessed Exile," and what is the process Hayden alludes to?

Part IX
Why is "Clean-Cut Boys From Decent American Homes" capitalized?
Why is it ironic?
What might "struggling to be human" mean and how does it relate to the section's ending?
What are "monsters of abstraction" and how can they "police and threaten us"?
How appropriate is Hayden's use of "gook," "nigger," "honkey," wop," and "kike"?

According to Hayden, how is "godliness" possible?

Part X
Hayden lauds the founder of his religion, Bahá'u'lláh, with the following description: "Logos, poet, cosmic hero, surgeon, architect of our hope of peace ... Wronged, Exiled One." What does this litany express?

In light of this and Hayden's other poems, what might he mean by "our history" and "its disastrous quest for meaning"?

"Frederick Douglass" is a lovely poem to conclude a unit on Robert Hayden, particularly after "Night, Death, Mississippi" and "Words in the Mourning Time," which take the reader through severe emotional and physical depths.

I imagine that my students' lives are the lives Hayden has written about in this sonnet, how their lives have grown out of Douglass's life, how they too are in pursuit of the "beautiful and terrible thing," this freedom that we must breathe to live fully human. My wish is that my students too will comprehend it and, by living it, teach it to others.

"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 matter, 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 statue's 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.

Some useful questions:
What did Frederick Douglass achieve in his life that Hayden should honor him?
How can liberty be a "beautiful and terrible thing"?
How does it change to the "beautiful, needful thing"?
What is Hayden's "vision" and how has it been expressed in all of the poems you have read?

Examining Hayden's Revisions

[The drafts below are from the Robert Hayden Collection, National Bahá'í Archives, Wilmette, Illinois. My gratitude to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States for permission to examine them. My thanks also to the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, whose Summer Institute for Teachers spurred my interest in writing about the influences of Bahá'u'lláh on Hayden's poetry. And, finally, to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation for sponsoring the biennial poetry festival which is the occasion for FOOLING WITH WORDS, and for awarding me a generous Summer Opportunity Grant several years ago, which allowed me to do much of the research used in these lessons.]

Robert Hayden was known as a master of craft. In his 40-year career, he produced a relatively small body of work, but its quality is extremely high. He abandoned the poems written in his formative years, not wanting them to be included in his COLLECTED POEMS. Among his papers at the National Bahá'í Archives are drafts of countless poems he did not publish. It was not unusual for him to write over a hundred drafts of his finished poems in order to, as Hemingway said, "get the words right."

The drafts in this section should help motivate your students to revise their own writing. Although a Hayden poem is always good, one can see from earlier drafts that he didn't attain perfection on his first or second try. Have your students examine the different versions and explain the changes he made in the final one. Then, ask them to evaluate their own writing process and predict how it might improve as they revise (literally to "see again") not just their poetry, but their other writing as well.

"Those Winter Sundays"

The first is the version published for the first time in A BALLAD OF REMEMBRANCE in 1962. The one that follows is an earlier draft which shows some of the problems Hayden faced along the way.

"Those Winter Sundays" (final version)

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?

"Those Winter Sundays" (earlier version)

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the stiffening cold,
and then with hands cracked and aching
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering
and breaking and smell the trellised blooming of
the velvet heat. When the rooms were warm,
he'd call me. Sighing I would rise and dress,
dreading the chronic angers of that house,

Dreading my father's kindness most of all;
and had but monosyllables for him
who'd driven out the cold -- who had as well
polished my best shoes. What did I know
of love's austere and rich and lonely offices?

"Names" (final version)

Once they were sticks and stones
I feared would break my bones:
Four Eyes. And worse.
Old Four Eyes fled
to safety in the dangers zones
Tom Swift and Kubla Khan traversed.

When my fourth decade came,
I learned my name was not my name.
I felt deserted, mocked.
Why had the old ones lied?
No matter. They were dead.

And the name on the books was dead,
like the life my mother fled,
like the life I might have known.
You don't exist -- at least
not legally, the lawyer said.
As ghost, double, alter ego then?

"Changing My Name" (earlier version)

But it seems my name
was never legally my name,
and soon I will take the stand
and testify that A. B. S.*
and R. E. H.* are one and the same.


Once they were sticks and stones
I feared would break my bones.
Four eyes. And something worse.
Old Four Eyes fled from gym and playground
Books and scribbled verse wre (sic) safety zones
. . . . and microscopic eyes.

*Asa Bundy Sheffey / Robert Earl Hayden

"Monet's 'Waterlilies'" (final version)

Today as the news from Selma and Saigon
poisons the air like fallout,
I come again to see
the serene, great picture that I love.

Here space and time exist in light
the eye like the eye of faith believes.
The seen, the known
dissolve in iridescence, become
illusive flesh of light
that was not, was, forever is.

O light beheld as through refracting tears.
Here is the aura of that world
each of us has lost.
Here is the shadow of its joy.

"Monet's 'Waterlilies'" (early draft)

Here is charisma. Here is perfection --
this light reflecting light,
fugue of iridescence,
light blooming from the mirage,
the vision, the echo of light
like joy remembered reclaiming joy.

Saigon, Selma: multitudes multitudes
march in pitching hellmouth glare.
Horror is hourly,
is radar, clock and calendar;
like virus horror spreads, infecting all.
Our nightmares patrol the world
in power and bloody privilege.

Here is the light that never was
yet was forever is.
Here is the light whose lyric shape and color
the eye like the eye of faith beholds,
light vulnerable, serene and perfect.
Here is charisma. Here is joy.

Writing and Revising Poems

If you have not read (and used) Lessons 1 and 3, I advise you to become familiar with the strategies for having your students write and revise their own poems.
Lesson #1 "Memory is a kind . . ."
Lesson #3 Drop a Poem into Your Class

Writing Assignment: (Don't forget to refer to the "Common factors for writing prompts" for this and all the poetry writing assignments.)

1 - Hayden writes, "We must go on struggling to be human, / though monsters of abstraction / police and threaten us." Think of an abstraction such as loyalty, freedom, duty, nationalism, racism, communism, etc. Write a poem which gives it "monster" qualities. Make your personification as physical as possible by exaggerating and by using strong action verbs.

2 - Take a favorite phrase or line from one of Hayden's poems and write your own poem with a preliminary title, "Poem Beginning with a Line by Hayden." After you have written several drafts, create a new title.

3 - Write a poem about your Name. You can choose your actual name or the secret name within you that no one calls you by.

4 - The best protest poems use subtle images to object to injustice. Think of an inequity you are familiar with and write a poem in which you demonstrate its repulsive heart without calling it evil in a didactic way.

5 - Write a poem about a piece of art (or music or book or dance or film or drama, etc.) which has stimulated you or changed your life.

6 - Consider the ironies in Hayden's life. He was born in a ghetto called "Paradise Valley"; he was legally blind yet became a writer. Think of an irony from your own life and write a poem in which you examine it. It may be humorous.

7 - In addition to Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, Hayden wrote about other great leaders who labored for "this beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air." Hayden wrote about Crispus Attucks, John Brown, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Paul Robeson, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, and others. Write a poem about someone you admire who has sacrificed for the benefit of others. Be as specific as you can.

Peter Murphy teaches English and creative writing at Atlantic City High School. His poems have appeared in numerous journals, including THE ANGLO-WELSH REVIEW, THE ATLANTA REVIEW, THE BELOIT POETRY JOURNAL, COMMONWEAL, THE NEW YORK QUARTERLY, THE NEW YORK TIMES, WITNESS, and YELLOW SILK. His essays and reviews have been published in THE AMERICAN BOOK REVIEW, THE CORPORATION FOR PUBLIC BROADCASTING TEACHERS' DIGEST, THE SHAKESPEARE QUARTERLY, THE TEACHERS & WRITERS GUIDE TO FREDERICK DOUGLASS, WORLD ORDER and elsewhere. He has received awards and fellowships for writing and teaching from The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Corporation of Yaddo, The Folger Shakespeare Library, The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars. In addition, he was the first recipient of the Robert Hayden Poetry Fellowship at the Louhelen Bahá'í School in 1986. He is a consultant to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation's poetry program and has been an educational advisor to five PBS television series on poetry, including FOOLING WITH WORDS WITH BILL MOYERS. He is also the founder/director of the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway (www.wintergetaway.com), a writing and arts conference for teachers and others held annually in Cape May.

Photos by Lynn Saville

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