Robert Hayden (1913-1980)
Robert M. Greenberg
Classroom Issues and Strategies
It's important to get students to fully appreciate Hayden's effects
of sound, image, and atmosphere. For better appreciation of the poems'
aural qualities, have students read such selections as "Summertime
and the Living" and "Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday"
Discuss a condensed narrative poem such as "Tour 5" as a short
story. This should permit a discussion of the evolving point of view of
the travelers and the evolving psychological quality of the imagery.
Point out also Hayden's control of voice. "Mourning Poem,"
for example, is spoken in the idiom of the black church, as if by a chorus
of mourners; and if one reads the final lines to mean that the congregation
did suspect her of misbehaving, then the poem becomes a masterpiece
of wryness and irony.
Students are interested in questions like the following:
1. Is it possible to be both an ethnic and a universal (or liberal humanist)
writer? What constitutes universality? What constitutes successful treatment
of ethnic material?
2. Can a writer from a minority group write for a general educated audience
without giving up in resonance what is gained in breadth of audience and
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Major themes are tension between the imagination and the tragic nature
of life; the past in the present; the nurturing power of early life and
ethnically colored memories.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Precede discussion of form and style with a discussion of the function
of a particular type of poem. For example, Hayden wrote spirit-of-place
poems such as "Tour 5," which depend heavily on imagery; folk
character poems such as "Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday,"
which depend on economy of characterization and humor; and early neighborhood
poems such as "Summertime and the Living," which depend on realism
mixed with nostalgia, fancy, or psychological symbolism.
It is important to realize Hayden always wrote for a general literate
audience, not exclusively or even primarily for a black audience. The issue
of audience for him relates to the issue of the role of a poet.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Compare Yeats as an ethnic-universal poet to Hayden.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. "Tour 5"
(a) Discuss the human situation the poem describes. Consider its treatment
of both the external and internal aspects of the experience for the travelers.
(b) Discuss the allusive quality of the adjectives used in the first
stanza to convey a festive mood and in the last three lines to convey the
violence of the Civil War and the cruelty of slavery.
(c) Discuss what makes this a poem of the first order. Conciseness,
controlled intensity, human drama, eloquence, and powerful symbols are
some of the qualities you might touch on.
2. "Summertime and the Living"
(a) Discuss Hayden's use of a third-person retrospective point of view
to write about childhood. (It gives him the ability to be both inside and
outside the child's perspective.)
(b) Discuss the sound of words and their connection with sense. Hayden
is highly conscious of the aural dimension of language.
(c) What is the function of the title, which is taken from a song in
George and Ira Gershwin's opera Porgie and Bess?
3. "Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday"
(a) Discuss the viewpoint of the speakers about the murdered diva. Discuss
the final two lines. Are they at all ironic? Are the speakers totally surprised?
(b) Discuss the importance of tone throughout the poem.
(c) Discuss the poem's atmosphere and how elements other than tone contribute
to the black church feeling.
Greenberg, Robert M. "Robert Hayden." In American Writers:
A Collection of Literary Biographies, Supplement II, Part I, edited
by A. Walton Litz, 361-83. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981. Has
biographical, critical, and bibliographical material.
Hayden, Robert. Collected Prose: Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick
Glaysher. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. Has excellent
interview material with Hayden about particular poems.