Pontheolla T. Williams

Pontheolla T. Williams: On "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home"

In "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home" he treats the Afro-American's wish-fulfillment mechanism that reflects his discontent with America and his desire to return to Africa.

[. . . .]

Closely related to his Afro-American history poems but actually an Afro-American folk theme poem is "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home." It is the sole reprint from Hayden's prize-winning Hopwood Collection, and it is the poem that finally rewarded Hayden's efforts to have his work appear in Poetry. The poem is a skillful blend of Afro-American folk and classical subject matter. An epigraph included in the first two versions of the poem indicates that it is based on the "Legend of the Flying African," which Hughes and Bontemps state is a part of the folklore of the Georgia Sea Island blacks. This dramatic poem of six stanzas develops the speaker's invitation to a girl to dance with him. . . .

Enchanted by the night, the music, and the girl, the speaker reflects on his slave heritage and his African roots. He recalls that his "gran" was one of those slaves who escaped slavery by flying back to Africa: . . .

The classical Daedalus image compliments the "flying gran" image. The images together symbolize the blend of Western civilization with that of Africa, which the Afro-American actually represents.

African words and the names of African religious figures create a diction that promotes the voodoo theme so important in the lyric. The voodoo theme in "A Ballad of Remembrance" was a negative force that drew the observer into the charade of the Mardi Gras dance; in "Incense of a Lucky Virgin" it was treated as an unsuccessful potion that failed to bring her man home to a deserted mother. It is also used in "Witch Doctor"--a long character sketch included in A Ballad of Remembrance in which Hayden examines a modem avatar of a witch doctor who practices a mixture of voodooism and quasi-religious fundamentalism. In "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home," however, voodooism is pictured as a positive force that effects escape from a dehumanizing plight. In the original legend, according to Bontemps, on a certain plantation there was an old man to whom the slaves turned for help when their suffering became unbearable. He would whisper a magic formula to them that was inaudible to others, whereupon he transformed them into winged creatures who flew back to Africa. Thus the poem demonstrates the truth of Ralph Ellison's perceptive critique that Afro-Americans in their folklore "[back] away from the chaos of experience and from ourselves" in order to "depict the humor as well as the horror of our living."

Hayden's use of literary voodooism draws from the well of folklore that is an integral part of the Afro-American literary tradition. In this respect he joins a series of Afro-American writers from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Jean Toomer to Ralph Ellison. Hayden, furthermore, could not have been unmindful of the example set by W. B. Yeats in his artistic use of Irish folklore.

Pontheolla T. Williams: On "The Dogwood Trees"

"The Dogwood Trees" is faintly reminiscent of Whitman's Calamus poems in its use of phallic symbols, especially trees, and the male comradeship theme. The dramatic action in this poem is set against the backdrop of violence that took place in this country during the sixties. As the speaker and his companion drive to their rendezvous, they do so with "bitter knowledge" of the "odds against comradeship." Nonetheless determined, they "dared and were at one." The note of ambiguity introduced by the phrase "crooked crosses flared" cautions against a too-strict promotion of the Whitman-like theme. Given the violent backdrop and the tenor of black-white relations, the implication would be different.

Pontheolla T. Williams: On "Elegies for Paradise Valley"

"Elegies for Paradise Valley," is a poetic treatment of some slice-of -life ghetto characters he knew. The poem alludes to the taproot of his personality. The eight-part elegy sets forth his meditations upon his life in Detroit during the twenties and thirties. In it, he reflects upon the end of a place, a time, a people. It was a place where, as a boy, he saw a iunkie die in the maggot-infested alley beneath his "bedroom's window," and it was a place where he recognized the "hatred ... glistening like tears in the policemen's eyes." Instead of the planned and gentle introduction of children to the best in a cultural environment that is alluded to in the "Pestalozzi's fiorelli" phrase, the children in his ghetto were dependent upon "shelter" that the ordinarily unusual alliance of "Godfearing elders" and "Godless grifters" jointly provided.

Among these "protectors" was his Aunt Roxie's friend, "Uncle Crip, " who was a frequent visitor in the Hayden households.

Pontheolla T. Williams: On "Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves"

The idea of the "deformed" or monstrous reappears in "Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves." The central concern in the poem is protest against racial stereotypes--those directed especially against the black woman. However, in protesting the Aunt Jemima and black clown stereotypes, the speaker wonders about

 

                the logic that makes of them

(and me) confederates

of The Spider Girl, The Snake-skinned Man....

 

It is the refusal of the show's producer and the audience to accept the black entertainers except as one of a kind with the "Spider Girl" and the "Snake-skinned Man" that provokes the speaker's "wonder." Moreover, his wonderment is intensified by his realization that he, too, is regarded as a freak.

As the Zulu king and the Sambo stereotypes erroneously define the black man, so does the Aunt Jemima stereotype erroneously define the black woman, a characterization that reveals she is likewise an avatar of the black mammy stereotypes symbol of the antebellum surrogate mother whom Stephen Vincent Benét so accurately described in John Browm's Body. This character is the key persona in the poem in that she helps to develop the dramatic structure that rests on a dialogue that she holds with the speaker. She is the female half of an entertainment duo on Coney Island. After watching her and "Kokimo the Dixie Dancing Fool" do a "bally for the freak show," the speaker moves on to the beach, where he ponders their "psychic joke."

On the beach he encounters the unmasked Aunt Jemima. Without her kerchief and free of her clown role, she regales him with her life story because he reminds her so much of a former boyfriend. In an account that is reminiscent of Josephine Baker's life, she reveals that at the zenith of her career she, too, had danced before kings. Now suffering misfortunes that include loss of fame, fortune, and her lover, she has become "fake mammy to God's mistakes." These "mistakes" are, we have seen, "Spider Girl" and the

"Snake-skinned Man." Moreover, by extension, these "mistakes" also include the speaker, who, of course, is raceless in the poem and who believes he is their "confederate." Hence, we may well speculate on the nature of the speaker's aberration. Is this an aberration that defines him elsewhere in these poems as a "deformed homunculus"--deformed because he suffers a "psychic joke," a joke that we have learned he perceives his bisexuality to be? We can be certain that the decision to make the speaker a "confederate" of "Spider Girl" and the "Snake-skinned Man" is deliberate. The poem is a revised version of "from The Coney Island Suite," which first appeared in Figure of Time. In the early version the question is asked:

 

By what perverted logic they

are made confederates of the Snake-skinned man,

the boy with elephant face.

 

In "Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves" the speaker walks to the beach

 

pondering the logic that makes of them

(and me) confederates

of The Spider Girl, The Snake-skinned Man....

 

With "and that's the beauty part," a distinctly Afro-American folk retort in recognition of exquisite irony, Aunt Jemima reevaluates her "fake mammy to God's mistakes" role. What she means is that just as she is not really a "mammy," likewise, her charges are not "God's mistakes." He does not make mistakes.

Pontheolla T. Williams: On "Night, Death, Mississippi"

"Night, Death, Mississippi" is concerned with interracial male-female relations. Unlike the Sue Ellen poem, however, here the most rigid of the racial taboos has been broken--that is, the black man/white woman taboo. "Night, Death, Mississippi" is about the penalty imposed on the black man for breaking this taboo as well as the moral and psychological involvement of the victim's executioners. Hayden chooses to avoid the graphic treatment of the lynching victim that he gave in "Figure"; instead he frames the grisly episode in the imaginings and the physical and psychological responses of an old white man. The cry of a "screech owl" interwoven with what might be the victim's outcries introduces the problem of reality vis-à -vis appearance that is not resolved until the last stanza, when "Boy," whom the old man awaits, returns home from the lynching and "Maw" matter-of-factly says to the children:

 

You kids fetch Paw

some water now so's he

can wash that blood

off him.

 

What motivates Paw and his clan is indicated in Hayden's oblique but telling allusion to William Faulkner's "The Bear." However, whereas Old Ben is such an admired and loved symbol of the wilderness, of freedom and courage, and of the fruitful earth that Sam Fathers and the McCaslins sham-hunt him for years and destroy him only when he turns on the exploiters of the earth, Hayden's hunters kill their prey out of vengeance and the grisly thrill of blood-letting:

 

Christ, it was better

than hunting bear

which don't know why

you want him dead.

 

The old man, reminiscing about past lynchings that he has been a party to, recalls with pleasure an occasion when they "unbucked . . . one"--a graphic description of the physical emasculation of the victim--and plans a macabre celebration:

 

Have us a bottle,

Boy and me--

he's earned him a bottle--

when he gets home.

 

The poem is Hayden's most devastating attack on lynching as what was, even in the sixties, an integral part of southern society. The poem reveals how the neo-chivalric elements in southern society and the deep-seated theoretical and pragmatic aspects of lynching have become pervasive--a way of life--at the level of the common redneck who participates in a treasured spectacle that relieves the monotony of his dull and empty life.

Pontheolla T. Williams: On "Runagate Runagate"

"Runagate Runagate," an archaic expression for a runaway slave, opens with especially keen heights of dramatic tension that bring alive the sense of dangerous enterprise and desperate, breathless, and uneven flight that the runaway slaves must have experienced:

 

Runs falls rises stumbles on from darkness into darkness

and the darkness thicketed with shapes of terror

and the hunters pursuing and the hounds pursuing

and the night cold and the night long and the river

to cross and the jack-muh-lanterns beckoning beckoning

and blackness ahead and when shall I reach that somewhere

morning and keep on going and never turn back and keep on

    going

        Runagate

            Runagate

                Runagate

 

Verbs in the present tense, lack of punctuation, use of various feet from the prevailing trochaics in line 1, extra syllables in line 4, help evoke the sense of dramatic tension and create reader involvement in the situation. Throughout the remainder of parts 1 and 2 of the poem, changes in cadence, the techniques of fragmentation that he used so effectively in "Middle Passage"--lines from hymns, spirituals, antislavery songs, wanted posters, voices of the slaves and of Harriet Tubman--and typographical spacing that helps carry the sense of the passages while further demonstrating Hayden's debt to T, S. Eliot, reveal that the poem does, indeed, belong to the same creative period as "Middle Passage." "Runagate Runagate" however, must surely have been intended as a companion piece to "The Ballad of Nat Turner," for it treats the part of the female revolutionist in the antislavery war that blacks raised in their own fight to be free.

Hayden's revisions of "Runagate" for the 1966 version are characteristic: rearrangement of passages for better order, cadence, and emphasis; a stripping away of rhetoric to develop sharper images. These changes, slight in part 1, are marked in part 2, where he shifts the emphasis from a rhetorical and laudatory description of Harriet Tubman to a few lines that show her in action and vividly evoke her presence.

Pantheolla T. Williams: On Middle Passage

Pontheololla T. Williams In "Middle Passage" he treats the origin of the slave trade in Africa as it relates to the devlopment of the new ethnic group—the Afro-American. "Middle Passage" tries to achieve a two-fold purpose. Hayden says that he wanted to fulfill Benet's prophecy and to write a poem that would give the lie to bigots who had distorted the Afro-American's history. Though it was inspired by epic intentions and contains elements of the epic, it is not quite that. The traditional epic depicts the values and patterns of the life of an entire people or culture through the experience of a hero who represents in himself certain ideals of that culture. "Middle Passage" attempts through a hero to present the values, both positive and negative, of the slavery era and the Afro-American's historic condition, depicting his dislodgment and displacement from his mother country to an alien land. The hero of the poem is Cinquez, the captive prince who inspired and carried out the Amistad mutiny. This figure, however, blends with the poet-observer, who enunciates "the deep dark immortal human wish / the timeless will to be free" (lines 172-73). Another epic element in "Middle Passage" is the device of cataloging--the listing of the ships and the listing of the African tribes, all historically authenticated by Hayden's research. It begins in medias res with the depiction of ships under full sail carrying slaves in mid-Atlantic. Its tone is dignified. The ending is not without a note of triumph, though this term does not adequately describe the mystical exaltation of the concluding stanzas. Yet, the poem is not an epic. It is too short. Moreover, it is more lyrical than narrative; whenever a narrative section appears, it is telescoped or fragmented. The issue of religion is handled with great irony and for the purpose of condemnation. Intervention of the gods is lacking. The intervention of John Quincy Adams is the nearest approximation to this convention. And the hero does not engage in monologues; his words as well as his deeds are presented from the reportorial consciousness of the poet-observer. The poem is set in the classic framework of a journey--one that begins when the African principals leave their villages. The exodus is engineered as much by the African kings who sell their captives to satisfy their greed for "luxuries" as it is by the Spanish greed for gold. The first lap of the journey is to the "factories"--places where the captives are sorted out, processed, and subdued for their coming enslavement. The second lap, the horrific "Middle Passage," is the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to America and slavery. The third lap, only alluded to in the poem, is the journey from the barracoons in America to the plantations. Part 1 begins with a chilling description of the inhumane treatment slavers gave the Africans aboard various slave ships. Moving from the general to the particular, part 2 presents the reminiscences of a corrupt old slave-trader who is stopped from plying his trade only by the physical toll the tropics take on him--"fevers melting down [his] bones." Ironically his greed for gold is shown as being of a piece with that of the African kings' greed for luxuries. Part 3, the climactic section of the poem, is the poetic recreation of the Amistad mutiny, which occurred in 1839 and became a cause célèbre. The personae are the omniscient poet-observer, the African tribal chiefs and their subjects, the heroic Cinquez, the Spanish captain of the Amistad, common seamen, Celestino the mulatto, and the silent voice of John Quincy Adams, who argues the case for Cinquez and his people and who, in fact, argued the case for the Amistad rebels. It is a tribute to Hayden's poetic genius that in the poem, otherwise so brilliantly and uniquely his own, he stands in debt to two poets who demonstrated conflicting views of America. Evident in "Middle Passage" are the techniques T. S. Eliot used in "The Wasteland" and the influence of Hart Crane's vision of crucifixion and resurrection, horror and squalor out of which radiates hope and light. As Crane, in "The Bridge," attempted to forge the American identity, Hayden likewise forges in "Middle Passage" the American identity of the Afro-American. In part 1, Hayden introduces the technique of fragmentation which Eliot used with striking effect in "The Wasteland." It is a device that lends itself to a vivid portrayal of the disintegration of a society--in "Middle Passage," the historic disintegration of African society. Accordingly, the development of part 1 includes sequential presentation, without transition, of names of ships, a section of a ship's log, a sailor's prayer, a portion of a sailor's letter, and a legal deposition. The Eliot-like motifs that achieve unity are the refrain "Jesus Savior Pilot Me" (a hymn line which creates an ironic commentary), the biblically derived names of ships, and the poet-observer's chorus-like voice. From a vantage point that spans time and place, the poet condemns the horrors of the Middle Passage, describing it as a "voyage through death" (lines 3-7). He condemns American greed--that of the New England shipping interests as well as that of the southern plantation owners: Standing to America, bringing home black gold, black ivory, black seed. Deep in the festering hold thy father lies of his bones New England pews are made, those are altar lights that were his eyes. The "altar lights" motif establishes an ironic relationship with Shakespeare's theme of death and resurrection in The Tempest. The allusion is to Ariel's speech to Ferdinand that falsely reports the death of Ferdinand's father. Hayden explains that his intention was based on his feeling that there was some connection between the sea change Shakespeare describes and "the change from human beings into things--objects, suffered by the enslaved Africans--the idea that slavery was a kind of death." Hayden's immediate purpose in using the allusion, according to Charles Davis, is to mock "a less than spiritual transformational while reminding the reader of a supposed death by drowning, which in reality led to a regeneration through sea change, Ariel's song also portrays a metamorphosis from blindness to new vision. (The sailor writes that "Opthalmia has struck the Captain as well as the Africans aboard the ship.") The line "those are altar lights that were his eyes" may be seen as a scathing indictment of a Christian people with eyes blind to the enslavement of their fellowman. It is a blindness that prevails in the poem until John Quincy Adams, as the champion of human rights, speaks "with so much passion of the right of chattel slaves" (lines 164-65) and their will to be free. When the justice he represents proves not to be blind, it opens the way for the African "to life upon these shores." According to Elizabeth Drew, Eliot uses the Shakespeare line "Those are pearls that were his eyes" as the central symbol for the whole of Western tradition, which, as he saw it, was lifeless as a pearl. Eliot also used the symbol to suggest metamorphosis from blindness to vision. Drew further notes that Eliot's purpose in making the allusion was to symbolize the transmutation of life into art--a creative act the poet must find, not only through suffering but in suffering. Whether in response to the Eliot model or not, Hayden develops this dimension of the metaphor in the sailor's letter: "8 bells. I cannot sleep, for I am sick with fear, but writing eases fear a little since still my eyes can see these words take shape upon the page & so I write, as one would turn to exorcism. The passage speaks of the transformation from blindness to vision that can be effected through the arts. The blindness theme is continued in another variation of The Tempest motif which appears in part 3: Deep in the festering hold thy father lies, the corpse of mercy rots with him, rats eat love's rotten gelid eyes. In this passage the poet also decries the rotting bodies of his ancestors interred in the holds of slave ships. The contrast of "rotten" with what ought to be living thoughts--"mercy" an "love"--is reminiscent of yet another precedent set by Eliot in "The Wasteland," especially in "Burial of the Dead." Further reminiscent of "The Wasteland" is the use of several voices, some of them ghostly, including those of the poet-observer, of the praying sailor, of the old slaver, and of the attorneys who speak for the Spanish deponents. As in "The Wasteland," though to a lesser extent, Hayden shuffles history, past and present, in his depiction of the African's "coming to life upon these shores." Hart Crane's epic "The Bridge" also influenced the shaping of "Middle Passage." After announcing his vision of hope, which he contrasted to Eliot's negations, Crane attempted to create, through the use of history and folklore and of his key bridge symbol, the American identity, achievement, and future hopes. It is, certainly, a subject matter for a myth that could support an American epic. This is a vision similar to that of Hayden's poem--a vision that creates an Afro-American identity around the central metaphor of the "Middle Passage" and a vision that carries, indeed, a constructive note of hope. At the time he composed "Middle Passage," Hayden was a young man with certain identifiable ideas about Afro-American history, justice, and social change. He was, however, a poet who was making a search in himself for a new iconography that would inform his poetry along with the beliefs he had accepted. He was tossed up to rhetorical heights by his reckless faith in his poetic genius and scholarship; yet he was brought to a more even keel somewhat later by his stem sense of self-discipline and self-criticism. The true extent of these flights of optimism and the degree of his self-discipline and self-criticism cannot be known. Hayden said that the working sheets of "Middle Passage" are long since lost. Nonetheless, there are four published versions of the poem: version A, in Phylon (1941); version B, in Cross Section (1945); version C, in A Ballad of Remembrance (1962); and version D, in Selected Poems (1966). The painstaking revisions of "Middle Passage" from 1945 to 1966 produced a poem that won the acclaim of eminent critics and fellow-poets. A passage from the letter that Allen Tate wrote to him about the poem will indicate the measure of that approval: "I am especially moved by 'Middle Passage,' a beautifully written poem. The power is in the restraint and the purity of diction." More important is the fact that the poem was produced by a black poet speaking of black history and heritage in the most sophisticated traditions of twentieth-century western poetry.

Pontheolla T. Williams: On "A Letter from Phyllis Wheatley"

"A Letter from Phyllis Wheatley" is notable for the fresh insight it gives on what could have been the response of the colonial poet to her visit in England. It belies the beliefs of some that she was a docile and gratified participant in her own slavery. Her voyage from America to England prompts her recollections of the "horrors" of the "middle passage," the voyage to America, and slavery. In England she was gratified when "the Countess," her patron, praised her poetry, but she resented the segregated dining area where she was seated. She learned that what seemed like "Eden" also had its "serpent" when she was called a "Cannibal Mockingbird" at the same time she was being feted at teas. Nevertheless, she kept her sense of humor when a young "Chimney Sweep" asked her if she, too, were a sweep. Her forbearance, a saving grace, came from her deeply religious faith.

From Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry. Copyright © 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.