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Robert Hayden's "[American Journal]"

Updated on March 17, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Robert Hayden

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "[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]."

Note: The word processing system employed on this site will not permit unconventional spacing. 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.

[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

charming savages enlightened primitives brash
new comers lately sprung up in our galaxy how
describe them do they indeed know what or who
they are do not seem to yet no other beings
in the universe make more extravagant claims
for their importance and identity

like us they have created a veritable populace
of machines that serve and soothe and pamper
and entertain we have seen their flags and
foot prints on the moon also the intricate
rubbish left behind a wastefully ingenious
people many it appears worship the Unknowable
Essence the same for them as for us but are
more faithful to their machine made gods
technologists their shamans

oceans deserts mountains grain fields canyons
forests variousness of landscapes weathers
sun light moon light as at home much here is
beautiful dream like vistas reminding me of
home item have seen the rock place known
as garden of the gods and sacred to the first
indigenes red monoliths of home despite
the tensions i breath in i am attracted to
the vigorous americans disturbing sensuous
appeal of so many never to be admitted

something they call the american dream sure
we still believe in it i guess an earth man
in the tavern said irregardless of the some
times night mare facts we always try to double
talk our way around and its okay the dreams
okay and means whats good could be a damn sight
better means every body in the good old u s a
should have the chance to get ahead or at least
should have three squares a day as for myself
i do okay not crying hunger with a loaf of
bread tucked under my arm you understand i
fear one does not clearly follow i replied
notice you got a funny accent pal like where
you from he asked far from here i mumbled
he stared hard i left

must be more careful item learn to use okay
their pass word okay

crowds gathering in the streets today for some
reason obscure to me noise and violent motion
repulsive physical contact sentinels pigs
i heard them called with flailing clubs rage
and bleeding and frenzy and screaming machines
wailing unbearable decibels i fled lest
vibrations of the brutal scene do further harm
to my metabolism already over taxed

The Counselors would never permit such barbarous
confusion they know what is best for our sereni
ty we are an ancient race and have outgrown
illusions cherished here item their vaunted
liberty no body pushes me around i have heard
them say land of the free they sing what do
they fear mistrust betray more than the freedom
they boast of in their ignorant pride have seen
the squalid ghettoes in their violent cities
paradox on paradox how have the americans
managed to survive

parades fireworks displays video spectacles
much grandiloquence much buying and selling
they are celebrating their history earth men
in antique uniforms play at the carnage whereby
the americans achieved identity we too recall
that struggle as enterprise of suffering and
faith uniquely theirs blonde miss teen age
america waving from a red white and blue flower
float as the goddess of liberty a divided
people seeking reassurance from a past few under
stand and many scorn why should we sanction
old hypocrisies thus dissenters The Counse
lors would silence them
a decadent people The Counselors believe i
do not find them decadent a refutation not
permitted me but for all their knowledge
power and inventiveness not yet more than raw
crude neophytes like earthlings everywhere

though i have easily passed for an american in
bankers grey afro and dashiki long hair and jeans
hard hat yarmulka mini skirt describe in some
detail for the amusement of The Counselors and
though my skill in mimicry is impeccable as
indeed The Counselors are aware some thing
eludes me some constant amid the variables
defies analysis and imitation will i be judged
incompetent

america as much a problem in metaphysics as
it is a nation earthly entity an iota in our
galaxy an organism that changes even as i
examine it fact and fantasy never twice the
same so many variables

exert greater caution twice have aroused
suspicion returned to the ship until rumors
of humanoids from outer space so their scoff
ing media voices termed us had been laughed
away my crew and i laughed too of course

confess i am curiously drawn unmentionable to
the americans doubt i could exist among them for
long however psychic demands far too severe
much violence much that repels i am attracted
none the less their variousness their ingenuity
their elan vital and that some thing essence
quiddity i cannot penetrate or name

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

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

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"

charming savages enlightened primitives brash
new comers lately sprung up in our galaxy how
describe them do they indeed know what or who
they are do not seem to yet no other beings
in the universe make more extravagant claims
for their importance and identity

like us they have created a veritable populace
of machines that serve and soothe and pamper
and entertain we have seen their flags and
foot prints on the moon also the intricate
rubbish left behind a wastefully ingenious
people many it appears worship the Unknowable
Essence the same for them as for us but are
more faithful to their machine made gods
technologists their shamans

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

oceans deserts mountains grain fields canyons
forests variousness of landscapes weathers
sun light moon light as at home much here is
beautiful dream like vistas reminding me of
home item have seen the rock place known
as garden of the gods and sacred to the first
indigenes red monoliths of home despite
the tensions i breath in i am attracted to
the vigorous americans disturbing sensuous
appeal of so many never to be admitted

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

something they call the american dream sure
we still believe in it i guess an earth man
in the tavern said irregardless of the some
times night mare facts we always try to double
talk our way around and its okay the dreams
okay and means whats good could be a damn sight
better means every body in the good old u s a
should have the chance to get ahead or at least
should have three squares a day as for myself
i do okay not crying hunger with a loaf of
bread tucked under my arm you understand i
fear one does not clearly follow i replied
notice you got a funny accent pal like where
you from he asked far from here i mumbled
he stared hard i left

must be more careful item learn to use okay
their pass word okay

crowds gathering in the streets today for some
reason obscure to me noise and violent motion
repulsive physical contact sentinels pigs
i heard them called with flailing clubs rage
and bleeding and frenzy and screaming machines
wailing unbearable decibels i fled lest
vibrations of the brutal scene do further harm
to my metabolism already over taxed

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 Counselors would never permit such barbarous
confusion they know what is best for our sereni
ty we are an ancient race and have outgrown
illusions cherished here item their vaunted
liberty no body pushes me around i have heard
them say land of the free they sing what do
they fear mistrust betray more than the freedom
they boast of in their ignorant pride have seen
the squalid ghettoes in their violent cities
paradox on paradox how have the americans
managed to survive

parades fireworks displays video spectacles
much grandiloquence much buying and selling
they are celebrating their history earth men
in antique uniforms play at the carnage whereby
the americans achieved identity we too recall
that struggle as enterprise of suffering and
faith uniquely theirs blonde miss teen age
america waving from a red white and blue flower
float as the goddess of liberty a divided
people seeking reassurance from a past few under
stand and many scorn why should we sanction
old hypocrisies thus dissenters The Counse
lors would silence them
a decadent people The Counselors believe i
do not find them decadent a refutation not
permitted me but for all their knowledge
power and inventiveness not yet more than raw
crude neophytes like earthlings everywhere

though i have easily passed for an american in
bankers grey afro and dashiki long hair and jeans
hard hat yarmulka mini skirt describe in some
detail for the amusement of The Counselors and
though my skill in mimicry is impeccable as
indeed The Counselors are aware some thing
eludes me some constant amid the variables
defies analysis and imitation will i be judged
incompetent

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

america as much a problem in metaphysics as
it is a nation earthly entity an iota in our
galaxy an organism that changes even as i
examine it fact and fantasy never twice the
same so many variables

exert greater caution twice have aroused
suspicion returned to the ship until rumors
of humanoids from outer space so their scoff
ing media voices termed us had been laughed
away my crew and i laughed too of course

confess i am curiously drawn unmentionable to
the americans doubt i could exist among them for
long however psychic demands far too severe
much violence much that repels i am attracted
none the less their variousness their ingenuity
their elan vital and that some thing essence
quiddity i cannot penetrate or name

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.

Source

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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