Skip to main content
Updated date:

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

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. Please visit Robert Hayden's "[American Journal]" to read the entire poem and to experience the shape of the poem as originally placed on the page by the poet.

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.

Read More From Owlcation

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.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles