Robert Hayden’s Angle of Ascent. Presented at Wayne State University, ROBERT HAYDEN/DUDLEY RANDALL CENTENNIAL SYMPOSIUM, April 2, 2014, where I also read on April 3, the canto, from my epic poem, The Parliament of Poets, “The Flight to the Moon of the persona, with his guide, the poet Robert Hayden.”
Emphasizing the continuing influence of Robert Hayden, Phillip M. Richards of Colgate University, educated at Yale University and the University of Chicago, writes, in his 2006 book, Black Heart: The Moral Life of Recent African American Letters, “In the long view of African-American poetry, Hayden’s symbolist poetry has proved more influential than the Black Arts movement…. Hayden, years after his death, remains our most influential black poet, and his followers the most productive and distinguished school of artist intellectuals” (178). Similarly, Charles Henry Rowell, editor of the journal Callaloo, in his book published last year, Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, writes, “The title of this anthology . . . pays tribute to Hayden, a master artist who left behind an extraordinary gift in the pantheon of North American poetry.”
I want to emphasize what Charles Henry Rowell is implying by his carefully choosing the words “North American Poetry.” Rowell understands the literary, social, and aesthetic values that Hayden stood for and realized he couldn’t narrow them down. I myself read Robert Hayden’s poetry for years before I became one of Hayden’s students in 1979. While fully recognizing and relishing Hayden’s poetry, then and now, as I believe the foremost engagement with African-American experience in poetry, I’ve always had the sense, too, which Rowell suggests, that Hayden’s poetry speaks to the human experience of all North Americans, with the universal aspirations of the greatest poets, such as a Whitman. As the author of an epic poem in which Robert Hayden is a character, that has been reviewed in Poetry Cornwall in England as “a masterpiece that will stand the test of time,” and reviewed by Dr. Hans-George Ruprecht of Carleton University in Ottawa as “a great epic poem of startling originality and universal significance,” I gratefully acknowledge that I could never have written my epic poem, The Parliament of Poets, without the example of the art and tutelage of Robert Hayden. Today, we honor Robert Hayden’s striving for the universal, his ability to help us see and understand that about ourselves and our nation, our national experience, one of the perennial goals of great art. At a time when the goals and scope of the literary art were becoming smaller and smaller, turning inward on the small experience of the confessional postmodern self, all the cliches of the personal, the deriding of so-called meta-narratives, Robert Hayden unabashedly saw the personal against the backdrop of a wider social canvas, ever increasingly global in his reach, leading to his poem “[American Journal],” the cosmic vision of his persona from an alien civilization, more human than we are, pondering the nature of life in the United States and on the entire planet…..
The full essay, with an additional biographical paragraph, is now available in
The Myth of the Enlightenment: Essays
Forthcoming, September, 2014.