Essentials: Robert Hayden’s ‘A Ballad of Remembrance’

A Ballad of Remembrance by Robert Hayden

Paul Bremen London 1966

“…one farewell image / burns and fades and burns”

A Ballad of Remembrance is about power and corruption, religion and need, family and identity, racism and murder. The iconic “Those Winter Sundays” and similar poems provide a remote, mournful melancholy, exploring the poet’s complicated upbringing and “greatest discouragement.” But mostly, Hayden explores the human need to presume, to value, to maintain faith at the expense of human rights or even basic logic.

A dense and lyrical vocabulary abounds. In chiseled cinema, Hayden draws up the actions of bejewelled, remorseless preachers and kings. He displays the “outrageous flair” of a superstar false prophet with “hypnotic no-words planned (and never failing) / to enmesh his flock in theopathic tension” (“Witch Doctor”); the compliance of an emperor’s petrified foot soldier performing “useless errand[s]” and living life to “curse the moon and fear the rising of the sun”  (“The Wheel”); the horrific pride of an an aging Klansman regretful that he can’t participate in a lynching with his Boy, who has “earned him a bottle– / when he gets home” (“Night Death, Mississippi”). “Middle Passage,” one of the most severe poems of the 20th century, chronicles the bloody voyage of the slave ship Amsitad. The long poem births America’s most central contradictions (“voyage through death / to life upon these shores”) and might be the best thing of its kind ever written.

The title poem is a tribute to the influential poet and critic Mark Van Doren, a noted influence on Hayden, the Beat Generation poets, John Berryman and others; Van Doren “arrived, meditative, ironic, / richly human,” stealing the poet away from magic and “hoodoo.” The book concludes with an elegy for Frederick Douglass, who was “superb in love and logic” and worked for “a world / where none is lonely, none hunted, alien.” A Ballad of Remembrance is a book about how everyone is an alien in their own skin; it is a book of great sympathy, but also an uncompromising indictment of human ignorance.

–John Deming

Find A Ballad of Remembrance here and in The Collected Poems of Robert Hayden.

See all essentials.

John Deming, a poet and musician, has recently released Eight Poems (Eye For an Iris Press 2011) and Tugboat EP (BozFonk Moosick 2011). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, FENCE, Verse Daily, POOL, The Best American Poetry Blog, Augury, Tarpaulin Sky and elsewhere. He lives in New York City and teaches at Baruch College and LIM College. He is Editor-in-Chief of Coldfront.