Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry

By Lisa Russ SpaarApril 14, 2014

Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry

Darktown Follies by Amaud Jamaul Johnson
Figure of Time by Robert Hayden

EVER SINCE Robert Hayden’s Collected Poems (edited by Frederick Glaysher) appeared in 1985 (the book was subsequently reissued with a new introduction by Arnold Rampersad in 1997), I have been taken with what Yusef Komunyakaa calls Hayden’s “penetrating, indecorous eloquence.” After nearly 30 years of turning and returning to his work for sustenance, I continue to be inspired by the density and surprise of his closely worked diction, and his tensile float not only among rhetorical and dramatic modes, but also through a host of traditions and influences — European, American, Afro-American, folk, literary, and extra-literary. Hayden’s quirky elegance and keen feel for irony yield poem after poem of rich imagination and diverse subject matter, poems often poly-vocal and lit, acoustically, by the angel of history, but pieces at the same time shot through with piercing emotion, human clarity and compassion, even or perhaps especially regarding the most difficult subject matter — war, murder, racism, poverty. I’m speaking here not only of his most often anthologized pieces — “Those Winter Sundays,” of course, and “Middle Passage” or “Night, Death, Mississippi” — but of the dark night of the soul expressed in lines like these from the lesser known “The Broken Dark” (from Words in the Mourning Time, 1970):

Sleepless, I stare
from the dark hospital room
at shadows of a flower and its leaves
the nightlight fixes like a blotto
on the corridor wall. Shadow-plays
of Bali — demons move to the left,
gods, in their frangipani crowns
and gold, to the right.
Ah and my life
in the shadow of God’s laser light —
shadow of deformed homunculus?

I do think that Hayden, who jokingly referred to himself as the “best unknown American poet in the country,” is enjoying what Stephen Yenser calls a “belated discovery” by new generations of poets benefiting from both access to the most recent collected edition of his poems and to fresh perspectives on the reasons (political, racial, personal, cultural) why his work was slow to be widely known and appreciated. Hayden wrote, and published, steadily over many decades, often repeatedly revising old work. Yet despite his having held two university professorships (one at Fisk and a later one at the University of Michigan, where he taught until his death in 1980), having been appointed as Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress, and being honored by the Academy of American Poets, the Institute of Arts and Letters, and President Jimmy Carter, it took a while for Hayden to garner a wider, less polarized readership. That he has done so is thanks in no small part to the appreciation of Hayden’s work over the years by younger poets and scholars such as Laurence Goldstein, Robert Chrisman, Michael Harper, Pontheolla T. Williams, Yusef Komunyakaa, Kyle Dargan, Harryette Mullen, and others.

Luckily, then, readers interested in Hayden now have access to a host of critical and biographical studies, articles, essays, and interviews examining his life and work. What I’d like to focus on here, however, is of course Hayden’s early work, and in particular his “second” book — though I’ve learned from the pleasures of working on this Second Acts column that sussing out what actually constitutes a poet’s second book can be a complicated undertaking.

Hayden published his first book, Heart-Shape in the Dust, in 1940, when he was only 27 and still a student at the University of Michigan. Many of these poems reflect Hayden’s experience of urban violence and social and racial injustice as a child and young adult growing up in the troubled Detroit of the early decades of the past century, and represent work that Hayden would later call “youthful angst.” His first book was, he has said, a “trial flight.” Two years later, while still matriculating, he won Michigan’s Hopwood Award for a manuscript he called The Black Spear, which was never published (though one poem from it, “O Daedalus, Fly Away Home,” did appear in A Ballad of Remembrance). In 1948, by which time he was an assistant professor in English at Fisk University in Nashville, he contributed six poems to a volume (Myron O’Higgins contributed the other six pieces) called The Lion and the Archer, published in a letterpress edition by the Counterpoise Series. Seven years later, in 1955, after a stint as a Ford Foundation Fellow in Mexico, and while still on faculty at Fisk, Hayden published a new short collection as part of the Counterpoise Series, Figure of Time: Poems, under the auspices of The Hemphill Press.

Whether or not this collection of 14 poems — perhaps at first glance more a brochure or pamphlet than a book — can be considered Hayden’s full-fledged second book is open to debate (though if one is wondering whether such a brief collection can be considered a “book,” it is worth remembering that Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III only contained 10 poems). I think that Figure of Time may be treated as Hayden’s second book for a couple of reasons. One, it is the first solo and substantial gathering of Hayden’s published poems to come between his first volume and A Ballad of Remembrance, published in 1962. Two, Hayden had a hand in shaping his own canon over the years, sometimes restoring and sometimes removing work from what he perceived as his legacy — he did this with his Selected Poems (1966) and later in the “definitive” Collected edition. The Collected Poems commences, in fact, with A Ballad of Remembrance, and does not include, at least as distinct volumes, any of the previous books and pamphlets (much of which Hayden called, in one interview, his “’prentice work”). Glaysher’s editorial note to the Collected Poems — “This text reflects, through restraint, Hayden’s evaluation regarding his “’prentice pieces’” — piqued my interest, especially since one reason I’m intrigued by poets’ second books is that they often signal, in a single poem or as a whole, a shift from apprentice to more mature, complex material. What might Figure of Time reveal, if anything, in this regard?

Notably, half of the six poems in the pamphlet The Lion and the Archer (including “A Ballad of Remembrance”) and 11 of the 14 poems in Figure comprise about half of the poems that Hayden would later collect as the book A Ballad of Remembrance, which may be one reason he chose not to list these earlier gatherings of poems as separate volumes in the contents of his Collected Poems. Many of these earlier poems are revised significantly for the later book. (As I indicated earlier, working and reworking his poems was a lifetime practice for Hayden.) While Hayden may have considered his first book and these other “transition” poems as apprentice efforts, he also thought enough of at least parts of some of them to revise and acknowledge them as worthy of republication.

A central poem to Figure of Time that does not appear in the Collected Poems, however, is its title poem, “Figure”:

He would slump to his knees, now that his agonies
are accomplished, would fall but for the chain that binds
him to the tall columnar tree.

His head hangs heavily away to one side; we
cannot see his face. The dead weight of
the quelled head has pulled

The haltering chain tight. A clothesline nooses
both wrists, forcing his arms in an arrowing angle
out behind him. Stripes

Of blood like tribal markings run from naked
shoulder to naked waist. We observe how his jeans are
torn at the groin;

How the lower links of the chain cut deeply into
the small of his back and counter the sag, the downthrust.
and the chain, we observe the chain —

The kind a farmer might have had use for or a man with
a vicious dog. We have seen its like in hardware
stores; it is cheap but strong

And it serves and except for the doubled length of it lashing
him to the torture tree, he would slump to his knees, in
total subsidence fall.

He is a scythe in daylight’s clutch. Is gnomon.
Is metaphor of a place, a time. Is our
time geometrized.

Hayden had written with more open outrage about lynchings and other injustices in Heart-Shape, but this poem — with its restrained diction, careful enjambments and repetitions, mix of Christian and quotidian imagery, and subtle, almost mathematical detachment in the poem’s final metaphorical move — reveals a poet less reliant on the excesses of baroque diction and transparent social proselytizing and more on the ways in which lapidary control — “He is a scythe in daylight’s clutch” and the shift from the image  of a cutting, harvesting blade to the shadow-casting, temporal gnosis of a sundial — wields its own striking power. As the human of “Figure” diminishes from soma to line, to scythed lash, to trope, he also dilates into a symbol indicting the damaging, dangerous racial and social triangulations and strangulations of “our time.” He is the “Figure of Time.”

Although Hayden chooses not to put forward “Figure” for “posterity,” he does keep one of its most intense symbols, the chain, using it again in “Night, Death, Mississippi” (“Then we beat them, he said, / beat them till our arms was tired / and the big old chains / messy and red”). As Robert Chrisman puts it in an essay, “Robert Hayden: The Transition Years, 1946-1948,” “‘Figure’ is the expression of Hayden’s mature style and vision. He has reined in some of the excesses of his baroque style but has retained the keen imagery, tight rhythm, precise diction, and sense of the defining symbol that characterize his best poetry.” And while Figure of Time is not easy to find (my university library was able to borrow a copy from Youngstown University Library), one pleasure of holding this book in hand is the sheer beauty of its materiality — oversized, archival paper, letterpress inks, striking illustrations by Aaron Douglas and Yvonne Cole. Chrisman points out, and I find moving as well, the way that “Figure” faces a page on which the poem “In light half nightmare and half vision” (in subsequent volumes titled “From the Corpse Woodpile, from the Ashes”) appears. Juxtaposing a poem of American racial violence with a poem about those “chained in criminal darkness” in the holocausts of Germany, Johannesburg, and Seoul shows the evolving breadth and depth of Hayden’s poetic engagement with human struggle and its horizons. The “our / time geometrized” of “Figure” resonates with “an era’s suffering” in its recto poem, and it is in a devotion to “transilluminat[ing]” that realm that Hayden’s poems continue to vitally and relevantly shine.


In a March 2011 response to Beyoncé Knowles’s appearance in blackface for French fashion magazine L’Officiel Paris, professor and scholar W. Fitzhugh Brundage (author of Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930) gave the controversial photo shoot some historical context by citing the ways in which, as black artists began “to gain a toehold as stage performers” after the Civil War, they found that “the conventions of minstrelsy were so foundational to popular culture that black performers had to adapt them.” Brundage goes on to make the point that this “mask,” in the right hands, allowed certain black performers like Bert Williams to achieve “a feat of remarkable and subversive artistry” — not to “simply replicate the white conventions of minstrelsy” but to rather “humanize blackface by transforming his blackface characters into surrogates for anyone who was down on his luck, who never caught a break, or who shuffled from one mishap to the next […] a forlorn everyman that audiences, white and black, empathized with.” Williams certainly had his critics, and who can guess what Beyoncé’s intentions may have been, if she thought about the ironies of appearing in blackface at all? But clearly the struggle of black vaudeville artists, in particular, to succeed in a time of white-dominated and dictated entertainment, while at the same time finding ways of representing themselves and their talents with integrity, is a complex one, and this struggle is just one of the issues dramatized in Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s second book, Darktown Follies.

Darktown Follies, which Matthew Shenoda calls “a confluence of Robert Hayden, Frederick Douglass, and Dave Chappelle,” follows Johnson’s first book, Red Summer (Tupelo, 2006), chosen by Carl Phillips as winner of the Dorset Prize. Red Summer made a powerful debut, and many of its poems engage with personae and incidents related to the horrible racial violence, especially lynching, that swept through the country with such force and viciousness in 1919 that James Weldon Johnson called it “the red summer.” For their mix of high and low diction, lyric and narrative impulses, intricate image systems, (com)passion for historical events, and moving, multivocal personae work and dramatizations, the poems in Johnson’s first book resonated for me immediately with Hayden’s work, and the last poem in Red Summer, “Hayden,” is in fact a cento of homage, inheritance, and hope constructed from lines from Hayden’s Collected Poems. The last lines of Johnson’s “Hayden” are:

Years and years

I gaze through layered light
Within the rock of the undiscovered suns

I see, I walk with you among
The landscape, lush, metallic, flayed

Behind us, beyond us now
The very sunlight here seems flammable

If the overall feeling of Red Summer, as Vince Gotera says in the North American Review, “is of waiting, of speakers about to act but frozen in the moment before action […] [a]nd in that moment is beauty, unspoken yet actual, brought to terrible fruition by speaking in/of the poem,” Darktown Follies (“Darktown Follies” was the name of a black vaudeville musical) shows human beings, particularly in the poems about black vaudeville artists, in the act of moving (often quite literally), claiming a place, identity, and future for themselves in American art and culture.

Johnson’s book is divided into two parts, “The Walk Around” (titled after a dance from the blackface minstrel shows of the 19th century) and “Olio” (also a vaudeville number, often involving a short dance and presented as an encore). The poems in “The Walk Around” depict an array of characters (many historical — actors, performers, singers, as well as writers LeRoi Jones and Ralph Ellison), voices, and perspectives (from theater, film, music, dance, even the porn industry). The poems’ speakers and subjects step, joke, cakewalk, shuffle, stutter-step, and steady themselves toward sometimes subversive and sometimes overt agency, as in this riff from the prose/word cloud “Cork” (burnt cork was often used to blacken the faces of minstrel artists): “Heel Toe Heel Toe Toe Heel Hell He’ll Heal Tow Heal Tow Heal Tow Heal Tow Toe He’ll Heal Too.”

The poems in part two, “Olio,” are, on the whole, less historical than those in part one, often referring instead to the speakers’ family and travels. It is exciting to see Johnson exploring this more intimate territory through the complexly freighted lens of historical struggle, irony, and courage he provides in part one. Here is “Fifteenth Street is Burning,” which certainly talks back to Hayden’s “The Whipping”:

The beating I took from my father
came the same year a storm tore
down half the palm trees at the park;

rained so, until the water reached
the third step, and all the perennials
mother planted, bunched basket-of-gold,

the asters, the blood-red geranium,
their roots caught and discolored
like fingers clutching the fence.

I don’t remember the first thing I burned
but I still see how the color claimed it;
pear-shaped for a moment, almost small

enough to hold, until the flame opened
its mouth, cut loose a sound, and slipped
free from its slender yoke. Gone, the time

for remembering when mama said never
let a stranger in the house. So when daddy
came through the door, and the fire was out,

it was all he could think to do.

The layers here — the natural forces of weather, the domestic crucible, the speaker’s hint of pyromania, the conflation of fire with language/voice/violence, and perhaps especially the specular moment when the father and son become both strangers to each other and to themselves — are not only intrinsically charged, but are made all the more powerful because we encounter them in the context of the rest of the book. The personal is made historic, the historic personal, a connection that we saw glimmers of in Red Summer, but which is made even more strikingly apparent in this second volume.

In an epistolary conversation about Robert Hayden with Stephen Yenser, Harryette Mullen positions Hayden’s attempts to “forge a literary language of disparate cultural materials” in “a history of arguments and experiments of black poets, from Dunbar to James Weldon Johnson, from Cullen to Hughes and Sterling Brown, from Toomer and Tolson to Kaufman and Baraka.” If Hayden was, as Mullen suggests, and I agree, enabled by his predecessors in his efforts to reclaim African-American vernacular and remake it into “a literary language with attention to its particular expressive potential [while at the same time] claiming and ‘mastering’ the language of the dominant literary tradition,” surely the brilliant new work of Amaud Jamaul Johnson descends from and furthers this legacy in ways that deserve our close, abiding attention and admiration, as well.


Lisa Russ Spaar’s “Second Acts” series for LARB.

LARB Contributor

Lisa Russ Spaar is a contemporary American poet, professor, and essayist. She is currently a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia and the director of the Area Program in Poetry Writing. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Vanitas, Rough: Poems, and Satin Cash: Poems. Her most recent book is Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems (Persea, 2021), and her debut novel, Paradise Close, was published by Persea in May 2022. Her poem “Temple Gaudete,” published in IMAGE Journal, won a 2016 Pushcart Prize.


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