Her sleeping head with its great gelid mass
of serpents torpidly astir
burned into the mirroring shield—
a scathing image dire
as hated truth the mind accepts at last
and festers on.
I struck. The shield flashed bare.
Yet even as I lifted up the head
and started from that place
of gazing silences and terrored stone,
I thirsted to destroy.
None could have passed me then—
no garland-bearing girl, no priest
or staring boy—and lived.
is an important American poet and should be read more widely than he is. Reasons
for his marginalization arise from the racial divide that plagued (continues to
plague) American literary politics. Hayden was such an adept poet that he could
not be denied by the “white literary establishment” of mid-twentieth century
America and that acceptance made him an outcast among the rising Black Nationalist
literati of the same era. One had thought him rescued with the posthumous
publication of his Collected
Poemsin 1985 and its reintroduction by the venerable
Arnold Rampersad in 1996. His prominence, however, is still lacking—though for
my generation of Black American poets he is the undisputed heavyweight. Like
they love posters of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in February, white readers of
Hayden love “Those Winter Sundays”; and they love the one about Bessie Smith
because, well, who does “the blues” better than Black folk? But there is so
much more to Hayden! As Goldstein points out: “For a great-souled author like Hayden there can be no
question of choosing one realm, one racial history, rather than another. The
Perseus myth belongs exclusively neither to whites nor to blacks, but to all
races, because it illuminates the tragic experience of all races.” Hayden
knew the path through the desolation of human action and his true contribution
to the world was a poetics of peace. Reading him is to show him gratitude.