Photo by Jay Semple
Robert Hayden: Audio recorded from the Detroit PBS TV Station, February 27, 1980. Ron Scott. 31 minutes, MP3. This production had been produced, and, I believe, broadcast earlier in Detroit, but after Hayden's death on February 24, 1980, was supplemented with, in effect, a brief obituary and interview of Erma Hayden. I don't recall ever seeing this production on a bibliography about Hayden and am making it available here in hope that the original video can be recovered and preserved. Hayden mentions this TV interview in "From The Life. Some Remembrances," in my edition of his Collected Prose. Apparently now perhaps preserved in 2011 at [851831-I-46-12] "Poets Talking Original: 2-inch video, color, sound, 00:28:58, 1975. Robert Hayden., Hayden discusses how the sounds and sights of the black ghetto contribute to his poetic works." Note also "[851831-AF-400] Hopwood Awards Original: 16mm film, pos, color, sil, 00:01:18,Brief footage of Robert Hayden and a woman leafing through a book, and a shot of a Hopwood Awards poster."
Preface to Robert Hayden's Collected Prose. University of Michigan Press, 1984.
A man of formidable intellectual integrity, Robert Hayden loathed fundamentalist Baha’is. Sharing his assessment, moving beyond the youthful piece below, I discuss Hayden’s actual views on the Baha’i Faith at length in "Robert Hayden in the Morning Time," in The Grove of the Eumenides: Essays on Literature, Criticism, and Culture, 2007.
I also discuss him in Letters from the American Desert: Signposts of a Journey, A Vision, 2008.
Robert Hayden appears as a character in my epic poem The Parliament of Poets. About a third of the canto is excerpted in the following reading at the Austin International Poetry Festival, September 28, 2012, in Austin, Texas, at BookWoman, a feminist bookstore. Copyright (c) 2012 Frederick Glaysher.
Re-Centering: The Turning of the Tide and Robert Hayden
This is the dead Land
This is cactus Land
Here the stone images
Are raised. . . .
T. S. Eliot
The most characteristic feature of our age is anomie. Whether one looks in the domain of
society or of the individual, the lack of a normative standard is abundantly manifest. This is
apparent in the work of Jacques Derrida, who asserts that an unparalleled "event" or "rupture"
has occurred—specifically, the loss of the center. More tellingly, he says, "This affirmation then
determines the non-center otherwise than as a loss of the center." The non-center is "thought" or
"discourse." The center has not been lost because it never really existed; it was only a fallacious
structuring principle. At last, mankind has passed beyond the dream of "full presence."1 Such
thinking, perhaps it should be called postnihilistic, is typical of a great deal of contemporary
philosophy and critical theory and is shared, in some form or another, by many writers.2 In
effect, many people conclude that humanism is dead and that it never had a legitimate
philosophical base. And they do so with better logic, as Gerald Graff maintains, than did the New
Critics and modernists who sought to preserve humanism as a necessary, "supreme fiction."3
The only solution to the predicament is an obvious one; but as in all ages that are
indoctrinated with specious, epicyclical systems of thought, it is difficult to perceive because it
is so deceptively simple. We are habituated to the aberrant and abstruse. We have confused the
meaning of the word simple with simplistic. Anomie vitiates perception. Hence we are unable to
recognize that we do not live in a Ptolemaic universe—that is to say, a solipsistic one. Rather, our
psychic solar system, despite appearances and assertions to the contrary, is, and always was, and
always will be, centered around the sun. The center has never been lost, merely our ability to
The realization that a "rupture" has occurred in our relationship with the center is not
restricted to our century. Derrida himself does not claim that such a realization is confined to our
time or that the "rupture" began with a specific individual. Instead, he states it is the
consequence of the "spirit of an age, our own" in the broadest sense.4 During the last century
many people were aware that an anomalous change was taking place. For example, Matthew
Arnold, in his preface to Poems in 1853, wrote that "the calm . . . the disinterested objectivity
have disappeared: the dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced." Although Arnold
himself was often tainted by what he deplored, he was still perceptive enough to recognize and
lament the beginning of a new, virulent self-consciousness. In "Dover Beach" he considers the
"rupture." The speaker hears the sound of pebbles grating against the shore as they are tossed
about by the waves and observes that
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
It is precisely the sea of faith that has disappeared from modern life. Its "Retreating, to
the breath / Of the night-wind" has culminated in the horrifying dehumanization of modernity.
One outcome of the "rupture" has been that writers and scholars have redefined anomie
as a virtue. Some of them elevate solipsism and absurdity into the great truths of existence.
Wallace Stevens exemplifies this attitude to an extraordinary degree. For example, in his poem
"Of Modern Poetry," he writes:
The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find; the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.
This quotation is characteristic of much of modern literature. The dialogue of the mind with
itself has not only commenced but has triumphed over and obliterated objective, historical
reality. Literature’s raison d’etre has indeed become "something else." T. S. Eliot and W. H.
Auden were virtually the only poets who pondered and lamented the significance of the
"rupture"; all others, W. B. Yeats preeminently, sought substitutes, "What will suffice." This
strange phenomenon has worsened in so-called postmodern literature. It is unfortunate that
writers fail to realize substitution is possible only for a relatively short time.
The belief that literature is the "supreme fiction," however, is one beyond which, as has
already been noted, some present day writers claim to have gone. They discard humanism, and
rightly so, as a fiction based solely on the mind’s propensity for security, the dream for "full
presence." It is fitting to cast off humanism because it was and is a mere parasite living upon the
desiccated carcass of religion. The last two centuries have witnessed a devolution of man’s
perception of life. First, the centrality of revealed religion, whether Christianity, Judaism, or
Islam, was diminished by the secularizing influence of materialistic capitalism and communism.
Next, humanism and several forms of aestheticism tried to salvage in one way or another (and
the authors who attempted this are legion) the fundamentally humane values that have their
highest validation only in religion.5 Finally, the dominant religion of modern civilization,
materialism, has thoroughly repudiated the truth of life’s basic spiritual reality. There remains no
real challenge to this new dogmatism. Vague, embattled nostalgia for love and morality is not
enough; John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction boils down to little else.6 It is astounding that the loss
of the center has often been misinterpreted as the great postmodern "break-through," instead of
the spiritual and intellectual failure that it is. Since the values of the so-called avant-garde have
come to be identical with the values of today’s complacent society, the only solution to the
predicament is a restoration of the center.7 For it is the center that historically has been the only
effective challenge to such banality.
But how can the center be restored? Esoteric, individualistic systems and existentialism’s
negating of any coherent world view invariably result in solipsism because there is no external
authority behind the artists; there is no reality to their "visions." Certainly, Yeats’
"communicators" cannot be taken seriously; even he did not believe in them.8 Reference to other
men—system builders—as authorities can only go so far before deteriorating into futile and
muddled "discourse." The intellectual cannibalizing of structuralism and poststructuralism
clearly demonstrates this point. Eliot perceived correctly the plight of modern literature and
perhaps would have viewed postmodernism as simply more of the same:
When one man’s "view of life" is as good as another’s, all the more enterprising
spirits will naturally evolve their own; and where there is no custom to determine
what the task of literature is, every writer will determine for himself, and the
more enterprising will range as far a field as possible.9
Ultimately the center, "custom," has been lost in literature because it has been lost in life.
Therefore, we need to restore the center to life before it can be restored to literature.
But how can the center be restored? The religions, which professed a humane, spiritual
conception of man, are antiquated. They are only regional; only relatively limited areas of the
globe have ever found any one of them palatable, perhaps largely because they became bound
with local mores. Moreover, they do not meet the requirements of the present age, and all have
frequently become more of a hindrance to life in this century than a confirmation and
enrichment of it. Surely, a man-made syncretic religion is not the way to restore the center—that
is, to restore man’s belief in God, life, and himself. The patent answer to our question is that only
God can restore the center; the truly remarkable fact is that He has.10
The promised day is come. . . .
Without discussing the history of the Reform Bahai Faith, I shall briefly outline its major tenets. The
central claim can be found in the following passage by its Prophet-Founder, Baha’u’llah:
The Revelation which, from time immemorial, hath been acclaimed as the
Purpose and Promise of all the Prophets of God, and the most cherished Desire of
His Messengers, hath now, by virtue of the pervasive Will of the Almighty and at
His irresistible bidding, been revealed unto men. The advent of such a Revelation
hath been heralded in all the sacred Scriptures.11
Note the assertion that the advent of His revelation has been foretold "in all the sacred
Scriptures." Whether in the Bible, the Quran, or the various writings of Buddhism and
Hinduism, and other faiths, the prophecy of a future world teacher or prophet is an omnipresent
theme. If the claims of Baha’u’llah are true, they have tremendous and unprecedented significance
for mankind, for He professes to be not just another prophet in a long line of many but the
One Who shall usher in a truly global civilization beyond the confines of nationalistic regionalism.
Baha’u’llah succinctly expresses His most important precept in the following sentence:
"The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens."12 He asserts that past dispensations
resulted in the successive establishment of the unity of the family, the tribe, the nation, and that
through the power of His own Revelation mankind shall attain worldwide unity, universal and
lasting peace, the time when swords shall be beaten into plowshares. Our age is dominated so
thoroughly by anomie, ennui, and cynicism that the claims of Baha'u'llah cannot avoid
sounding preposterous. However, they sound much more sane and credible than the
"supreme fictions" advanced by such writers as Nietzsche, Stevens, Camus, Derrida, and
Yeats. Moreover, the urgent need today for the unity of mankind ought to be glaringly obvious to
any open-minded, thinking person.
What distinguishes the Bahai Dispensation from other religions is its association with an
elected, democratic institution, paradoxically an unorganized institution, an association, not a
theocracy. This institution, the Universal House of Justice, was given its authority by Baha’u’llah
Himself before His death in 1892, and reaffirmed by his son Abdul-Baha as destined to be elected
in the fullness of time. No other prophet has so clearly stipulated the fundamental laws and
administrative institutions of His faith, while emphazing the freedom and independence of the
individual in controlling his or her own spiritual growth. The dispensation of Baha’u’llah is
worldwide in scope: it favors neither the Orient nor the Occident; and it contains many precepts
that make sense only in a context larger than the nation, precepts that are indeed calling into
being a globally minded civilization.
Appointed in his father's Covenant as the Center of the Covenant, Abdul-Baha taught that the
Bahai Movement was a way for people of all persuasions to come together in neutral territory
and worship the Divine Being in a mutually respectful atmosphere of peace and harmony.
Speaking in Europe and North America from 1911 to 1913, Abdul-Baha stated on a number
of occasions that he was a man just like anyone else and that the Bahai Faith could not be
organized, yet often spoke paradoxically of the growth of the Bahai community throughout
the world, grounded in democratic pluralism. Known during Abdul-Baha's time as the Bahai
Movement or Cause, the Reform Bahai Faith is not an organization, but a way of life. In
England he said, "You can be a Bahai-Christian, a Bahai-Freemason, a Bahai-Jew, a
Bahai-Muhammadan." Reform Bahais believe Abdul-Baha's Interpretation of Baha’u’llah’s
Teachings for the modern world is much more profound than the prevailing conception of religion.
It must be observed that the Bahai Movement does not claim to be a new religion. If it is
to be correctly understood, what Baha’u’llah revealed must be given due recognition: "This is the
changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future." The Reform Bahai Faith affirms
the universal spiritual and moral principles taught in all of the great religious traditions. As Abdul-Baha
often suggested, far from having the exclusive truth and the fanaticism to which that notion has so
often led, Reform Bahais look to what is universal and non-creedal in the world's religious
experience, and include prayers and meditations from other religions in their private and
community worship, listen to and learn from God's other religions—all of which is to say the
Reform Bahai Faith has moved on from its historical and cultural roots, reforming Islam and Sufism,
as well as all of the great religions, with its global vision of human oneness. Reform Bahais believe
that Baha'u'llah taught that the separation of church and state is the Will of God and distance
themselves from any interpretation of an eventual Bahai theocracy, following Abdul-Baha's vision
of a global, pluralistic, spiritual democracy. All of which is why Baha'u'llah emphasized that he had
transformed the understanding of what religion is at the most basic level:
Oh ye people of the world! The virtue of this Most Great Manifestation is that We have
removed from the Book whatever was the cause of difference, corruption and discord,
and recorded therein that which leads to unity, harmony and agreement.
Within the rock the undiscovered suns
release their light.
Robert Hayden wrote matchless poetry that has justly won international acclaim. Two of his
poems in particular reveal how deeply aware he was, to invert Nietzsche, of the "tremendous
event . . . [that] has not yet reached the ears of man." The first of these poems, "The
Night-Blooming Cereus," is perhaps his most beautifully metaphoric treatment of the turning of
the tide. The title itself tersely presents the basic image—the cereus cactus that opens its striking
blossom only in the season of darkness:
And so for nights
we waited, hoping to see
the heavy bud
break into flower.17
The description of the bud as "heavy," pregnant with potential flower, creates a sense of
anticipation. It is further described as packed with its miracle and swaying in the air, "as though
impelled / by stirrings within itself." Later in the poem the plant is again partially personified as
possessing a "focused energy of will."
The speaker then states something that may be the reaction of many modern observers:
It repelled as much
as it fascinated me sometimes. . . .
After the speaker attributes to it grotesque, bestial qualities, he addresses someone he refers to as
"dear," undoubtedly a loved one:
But you, my dear,
conceded less to the bizarre
than to the imminence
of bloom. Yet we agreed
to celebrate the blossom,
paint ourselves, dance
in honor of
when it appeared.
The implication is unmistakable that the speaker himself has been struck by the "bizarre" much
more than his companion; she has been touched by the "imminence of bloom." Yet they concur
that they "ought to celebrate the blossom." The references to dancing and the painting of
themselves have a joyous, primitive connotation. This sense of primordial joy is centered in the
fact that they are honoring "archaic mysteries," mysteries that are being restored before their
intellectual eyes.18 Their reaction is the only appropriate one:
beheld at last the achieved
While one recalls that the speaker is repelled as much as fascinated—"sometimes"—that time is
now in the past.
The poem ends with the following stanzas:
foredoomed, already dying,
it charged the room
older than human
cries, ancient as prayers
invoking Osiris, Krishna,
in whispers when
at all . . .
"Foredoomed, already dying" emphasizes the cyclical nature of the flower and implies that it,
too, is and shall continue to wane since it is a "Lunar presence." Yet the unequivocal suggestion is that
the newly opened flower is the one worth celebrating, the one worthy of their "marvelling," their
primordial human awe and adoration.
The poem "and all the atoms cry aloud" is the last one in Hayden’s superb sequence of
poems "Words in the Mourning Time." This sequence irrefutably demonstrates that he was
sensible of the madness and evil around him. In an interview Hayden once discussed these
poems and specifically referred to the last one:
The final poem is the culmination, the climax of the sequence. For me, it contains
the answers to the questions the preceding poems have stated or implied. If I
seem to come to any conclusion about injustice, suffering, violence at all, it’s in . .
. the last poem, written originally for a Bahai occasion. Baha’u’llah urged the
absolute, inescapable necessity for human unity, the recognition of the
fundamental oneness of mankind. He also prophesied that we’d go through sheer
hell before we achieved anything like world unity—partly owing to our inability to
Hayden did not find in the Bahai teachings a vague utopian dream. He was deeply conscious, as the
religion is, of human suffering and evil. Yet he believed that the only true theodicy for today was
to be found in the Bahai dispensation. Even a cursory acquaintance with his poetry must leave
us with this realization.
The Bahai writings frequently conceive of the new dispensation as releasing re-vitalizing
spiritual energy. Often this energy is described as influencing the rocks,the dust, every atom of
existence—hence the title of the poem, wherein all the atoms of creation proclaim the new
dispensation. The words "cry aloud" in themselves connote a more emphatic attitude than can be
found in "The Night-Blooming Cereus." This same increased emphasis exists in the repeated line
"I bear Him witness now."20 The adverb "now" especially intensifies the line. The sentence may
be an allusion to the Bahai prayer that begins "I bear witness, 0 my God, that Thou hast created
me to know Thee and to worship Thee."21 This repeated assertion announces with uncommon
certainty, as the entire poem does, the long-awaited turning of the tide.
The poem contains several other allusions to the Bahai writings. The words a "shrill pen,"
"wronged, exiled One", "surgeon, architect / of our hope of peace"; the acclaiming by the
"stones," "seas," and "stars"; the quotation "I was but a man / like others, asleep upon / My
couch"’ (from Baha’u’llah’s Most Holy Book, the Kitab-i-Aqdas)—all have their origin, as do
many subtleties in Hayden’s poetry, in Bahai scripture.
The tone of "and all the atoms cry aloud" is much more elevated than that of "The
Night-Blooming Cereus" and is free of the somewhat veiled disclosure of that poem. The
atmosphere of quiet awe has changed to urgent certainty. Awareness of the "imminence of
bloom" pervades the poem. Furthermore, it firmly places Baha’u’llah in history: "renewal of / the
covenant of timelessness with time." Once again, the reality of the existence of the center has
been restored for man. The closing triplet reads:
I bear Him witness now:
toward Him our history in its disastrous quest
for meaning is impelled.
The use of "impelled" is an outstanding example of Hayden’s choosing the perfect word. It
forcibly asserts the speaker’s conviction that only the new rain can cause the wasteland to bloom
once again; that only the turning of the tide can replenish the sea of faith and respiritualize and
unite mankind; that only the new dispensation can decisively challenge bourgeois materialism.
Life is fundamentally a spiritual phenomenon, and though man-made ideologies may be briefly
substituted, they soon prove to be hollow and barren; by their very nature they increase anomie;
they merely raise another stone image in the desert.
Copyright (c) 1983 Frederick Glaysher.
First published in World Order, 17 (Summer 1983), 9-17. [Revised September, 2010]
1.Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human
Sciences," in The Structuralist Controversy, ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato
Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press, 1972), p.249: "the determination of Being as presence in
all senses of this word. It would be possible to show that all the names related to fundamentals,
to principles, or to the center have always designated the constant of a presence—eidos, arche’,
telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) aletheia, transcendentality,
consciousness, or conscience, God, man, and so forth."
2.That such thinking, without splitting hairs over definition, suffuses other areas of
endeavor is indisputable. Hans Kung, in Art and the Question of Meaning (trans. Edward Querin
[ New York: Crossroads, 1981]), examines the ubiquity of nihilism in modern art. One of his
observations, on page 29, is that "Art is seen then no longer against a pantheistic but against a
nihilistic background. I say this as diagnosing, not as moralizing" (his italics). It is basically the
same impulse of modern society that Udo Schaefer indicts in The Light Shineth in Darkness
(Oxford: George Ronald, 1977), p.13: "Our contemporary way of thinking is characterised by the
loss of belief in God and the loss of values which are universally acknowledged. Atheism is a
world-wide phenomenon. The 'absence' of God is the stigma of our time." Especially relevant
here is Schaefer’s quotation of Hans-Joachim Schoeps on page 123 (see footnote 442) because
Schoeps indicates the pervasiveness and smug self-righteousness of present-day nihilism: "’Jews
and Christians are today in much the same situation: one of non-belief. The great break of the
ages, the real change in the times which, as is well known, took place in the last 150 years... has
brought about an entirely new state of affairs in the last few decades: that of non-belief which
refuses all discussion—even a polemic one—with the witnesses and bearers of faith, which adopts
towards the history of the salvation of man witnessed throughout the centuries, an attitude no
longer of incredulity and doubt but much more one of disbelief and indifference.... This is a
catastrophic process which has not remained unnoticed either, but which today is becoming
increasingly clear and more threatening.... This age is no longer one of Jewish-Christian belief;
as regards its qualitative nature, it is already something quite different.’ To return largely to
literature, J. Hillis Miller is quite aware of the difference though he does not concentrate on the
concomitant nihilism: "Poetry was meaningful [throughout Western civilization] in the same
way as nature itself—by a communion of the verbal symbols with the reality they named. The
history of modern literature is in part the history of the splitting apart of this communion. This
splitting apart has been matched by a similar dispersal of the cultural unity of man, God, nature,
and language." The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers (Cambridge, Mass.:
The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1975), p.3
3. Gerald Graff, Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society (Chicago:
Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), p.52. My paper owes Graff a general debt.
4. Derrida, "Structure, Sign, and Play."
5. Leszek Kolakowski, Religion: if there is no God... On God, the Devil, Sin and other
Worries of the so-called Philosophy of Religion (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 186-
6. John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (New York: Basic Books, 1978).
7. Graff, Literature Against Itself, pp.2-3. Professor Graff notes only the identical
philosophical nature of the "entrenched ideologies" and the "revisionary formulas." His book is
an excellent analysis of the problem.
8. W. B. Yeats, A Vision (1937; rpt. New York: Collier Books, 1966), pp.8-9.
9. T. S. Eliot, After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (New York: Harcourt,
10. Schaefer’s comment on the earlier cited passage by Schoeps is on target: "This
condition, noted by many thinkers of our age . . . cannot be altered by human means—by a
reformation—but only by God, i.e., through a new revelation. All human attempts to breathe new
life into the old religions will fail....’ (Schaefer, Light Shineth in Darkness, p. 123n.) Similarly,
Hawthorne, for all his "blackness," reached the same conclusion: "I find that my respect for
clerical people, as such, and my faith in the utility of their office, decreases daily. We certainly
do need a new revelation—a new system—for there seems to be no life in the old one." (Quoted
by F. 0. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and
Whitman. [New York: Oxford Univ Press, 1941; reprinted 1977], p.361.)
11. Baha’u’lla’h, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’lla’h, trans., Shoghi Effendi, 2d
ed. (Wilmette, In.: Bahai Publishing Trust, 1976), p.5.
12. Ibid., p.250.
13. Shoghi Effendi, Call to the Nations: Extracts from the Writings of Shoghi Effendi
[comp. The Universal House of Justice] (Haifa: Bahai World Center, 1977), pp. 30-31.
14. Ibid., p.56.
15.Baha’u’lla’h, The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, trans. Ali-Kuli Khan and
Marzieh Gail, 3d ed. (Wilmette, ill.: Bahai Publishing Trust, 1978), p. xii.
16.From "The Gay Science" in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans., Walter Kaufmann
(1954, Viking Press; rpt. New York: Penguin Books, 1980), p.96. Cf. Thus Spoke Zarathustra,
page 124, same edition. For commentary see Kaufmann’s "The Death of God and the
Revaluation" in Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays,ed. Robert C. Solomon (Notre Dame,
Indiana: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1980).
17. Robert Hayden, Angle of Ascent (New York: Liveright, 1975), p.24. All of the
following extracts from Hayden’s poems are from this book.
18. Wilburn Williams, Jr., "Covenant of Timelessness & Time: Symbolism & History in
Robert Hayden’s Angle of Ascent, (Massachusetts Review, 18 Winter 1977), 745.
19. John O’Brien, Interviews with Black Writers (New York: Liveright, 1973), p.119.
20. Williams H. Hansell, "The Spiritual Unity of Robert Hayden’s Angle of
Ascent," Black American Literature Forum, 13, no. 1 (Spring 1979), 26. Hansell is one of the few
critics who appreciates the importance of the Bahai Faith to Hayden. Unfortunately, his
understanding of it is poor and results in several inaccurate statements. His reading of this poem
is a case in point. For a more reliable and general reading of Hayden’s poetry see the earlier cited
essay by Wilburn Williams, Jr.; or see Constance j. Post, ’Image and Idea in the Poetry of Robert
Hayden," College Language Association Journal 20 (1976), pp.164-75.
21. 15.Baha’u’lla’h, Prayers and Meditations, trans. Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette, III.: Bahai
Publishing Trust, 1938), p. 314.