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Robert Hayden's "[American Journal]"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Robert Hayden

Introduction and Excerpt from "[American Journal]"

The form of Robert Hayden's innovative poem, "[American Journal]," is unique; it features phrasings and clauses separated by multiple spaces within the lines. Many poets have since structured their poems this way, but Hayden's is done for a definite purpose—not just for shock value as so many postmodernists have been prone to do.

The poem features fourteen sections of journal notes written by the alien visitor. Apparently, the alien researcher is visiting other places as well, but this one happens to be his "[American Journal]."

Excerpt from “[American Journal]”

here among them the americans this baffling
multi people extremes and variegations their
noise restlessness their almost frightening
energy how best describe these aliens in my
reports to The Counselors

disguise myself in order to study them unobserved
adapting their varied pigmentations white black
red brown yellow the imprecise and strangering
distinctions by which they live by which they
justify their cruelties to one another . . .

Note: The word processing system employed on this site will not permit unconventional spacing. To read the entire poem and to experience the shape of the poem as originally place on the page by the poet, you may want to visit [American Journal] at the Academy of American Poets.

Commentary

Robert Hayden's other-worldly speaker is an alien being who has come to Earth, particularly to the United States of America, to study the inhabitants.

First Movement: Notes for a Report

The speaker notes that "the americans" are varied and extreme; they are noisy and restless and have an "almost frightening energy." These are simply notes that the speaker is making before he writes his final report to "The Counselors," who are his superiors back on his home planet. He reveals that he disguises himself to look like an ordinary American so he can study them "unobserved." The alien-speaker is able to change his disguise as needed; thus he may blend in among the members of any race with which he wishes to observe and interact. He finds it curious "the imprecise and strangering / distinctions by which they live," and that "they / justify their cruelties to one another."

Second Movement: Worshiping the "Unknowable / Essence"

Still musing about "how / to describe them," he labels them "charming savages / enlightened primitives / brash / new comers lately sprung up in our galaxy." Thus the reader understands that the alien's home-planet is like Earth, a planet in the Milky Way. The speaker describes the "americans" as seemingly lacking in self-knowledge and claims, "yet no other beings / in the universe make more extravagant claims / for their importance and identity," a rather stereotypically biased reference to the concept of American Exceptionalism.

The speaker says that the "americans" resemble the alien culture in their creation of "machines that serve and soothe and pamper / and entertain." He reports having seen the American flag and the footprints of Americans on the moon. He calls "americans" "a wastefully ingenious / people" who have "intricate rubbish." The speaker observes that "many it appears worship the Unknowable / Essence the same for them as for us" but also finds that they "are / more faithful to their machine made gods / technologists their shamans."

Third Movement: Historical Earthography

The speaker describes the landscape and mentions the specific location in Colorado called "Garden of the Gods," which he avers was sacred to the "first indigenes."

Fourth Movement: Password

The speaker discusses the concept of "The American dream" with "an earth man / in the tavern." The earth man opines that the American Dream idea is still alive, and it stipulates that anyone who wants to succeed is able to do so in America. They should at least be able to eke out a living of "three squares a day." The earth man figures he does all right. Then the speaker does not quite understand and says, "i / fear one does not clearly follow." The earth man notices that the alien speaker has a strange accent, asks the alien where he is from, and because the earth man "stared hard" at him, the alien left, noting that from now on, he "must be more careful." He notes that he should use the term "okay," as it seems to be a "password."

Fifth Movement: Condescension Over Liberty

The speaker notes that his work among the alien Americans has become a strain on his metabolism. He says, "The Counselors would never permit such barbarous / confusion." He reports obsequiously that "they know what is best for our serenity." The speaker contrasts his own civilization: "we are an ancient race and have outgrown / illusions cherished here item their vaunted / liberty." The alien being demonstrates that his society is based on blind obedience to authority, and he cannot even imagine how Americans with all their freedom have managed "to survive."

Sixth Movement: The Quiddity of It All

The speaker finally must admit that he is unable to understand "the americans." He asserts that America is a "problem in metaphysics," a claim clearly used as an excuse for his lack of understanding. He notes that it is a nation that "changes even as i / examine it." The speaker says, "fact and fantasy never twice the / same." But he "aroused / suspicion" only twice. Each time he returned to his ship, and he and his crew laughed as the "media voices termed us" "humanoids from outer space." The speaker finds that he is "curiously drawn" "to / the americans," but he does not think he "could exist among them for / long."

The speaker gives reasons for this inability, placing all of the blame on the Americans: "psychic demands far too severe / much violence much that repels." Still, he is "attracted / none the less." He likes "their variousness their ingenuity / their elan vital." And there is another quality that he cannot name; he calls it "essence / quiddity." But he is sure those terms do not quite describe the actual quality that he finds most alluring.

Robert Hayden Commemorative Stamp - U.S.A.

Life Sketch of Robert Hayden

Born Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4, 1913, in Detroit, Michigan, to Ruth and Asa Sheffey, Robert Hayden spent his tumultuous childhood with a foster family headed by Sue Ellen Westerfield and William Hayden, in the lower class neighborhood called ironically, Paradise Valley. Hayden's parents had separated before his birth.

Hayden was physically small and had poor vision; thus being precluded from sports, he spent his time reading and pursuing literary studies. His social isolation thus led to his career as a poet and professor. He attended Detroit City College (later renamed Wayne State University), and after spending two years with the Federal Writers' Project, he returned to higher education at the University of Michigan to finish his Masters Degree. At Michigan, he studied with W. H. Auden, whose influence can be seen in Hayden's use of poetic form and technique.

After graduation with the M.A. degree, Hayden began teaching at the University of Michigan, later taking a teaching position at Fist University in Nashville, where he stayed for twenty-three years. He returned to the University of Michigan and taught for the last eleven years of his life. He once quipped that he considered himself, "a poet who teaches in order to earn a living so that he can write a poem or two now and then."

In 1940, Hayden published his first book of poems. The same year he married Erma Inez Morris. He converted from his Baptist religion to her Baha’i faith. His new faith influenced his writing, and his publications helped publicize the Baha'i faith.

A Career in Poetry

For the remainder of his life, Hayden continued to write and publish poetry and essays. He disdained the political correctness that isolated "black poets" to give them a special critical treatment. Instead Hayden wanted to be considered just a poet, an American poet, and criticized only for the merits of his works.

According to James Mann in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Hayden "stands out among poets of his race for his staunch avowal that the work of black writers must be judged wholly in the context of the literary tradition in English, rather than within the confines of the ethnocentrism that is common in contemporary literature written by blacks." And Lewis Turco has explained, "Hayden has always wished to be judged as a poet among poets, not one to whom special rules of criticism ought to be applied in order to make his work acceptable in more than a sociological sense."

Other blacks who had bought into the false comfort of a segregated criticism for them harshly criticized Hayden's perfectly logical stance. According to William Meredith, "In the 1960s, Hayden declared himself, at considerable cost in popularity, an American poet rather than a black poet, when for a time there was posited an unreconcilable difference between the two roles. . . . He would not relinquish the title of American writer for any narrower identity."

While serving as professor, Hayden continued to write. His published collections include the following:

  • Heart-Shape in the Dust: Poems (Falcon Press 1940)
  • The Lion and the Archer (Hemphill Press 1948) Figures of Time: Poems (Hemphill Press 1955)
  • A Ballad of Remembrance (P. Breman 1962) Selected Poems (October House 1966)
  • Words in the Mourning Time (October House 1970) Night-Blooming Cereus (P. Breman 1972)
  • Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (Liveright 1975)
  • American Journal (Liveright 1982)
  • Collected Poems (Liveright 1985).
  • Collected Prose (University of Michigan Press 1984).

Robert Hayden was awarded the Hopwood Award for poetry on two separate occasions. He also earned the Grand Prize for Poetry at the World Festival of Negro Arts for A Ballad of Remembrance. The National Institute of Arts and Letters bestowed on him the Russell Loines Award.

Hayden's reputation became well established in the poetry world, and in 1976, he was nominated to serve as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the position later designated Poet Laureate of the United States of America. He held that position for two years.

Robert Hayden died at age 66 on February 25, 1980, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is buried in Fairview Cemetery.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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