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On Hayden's Early Work and Paul Laurence Dunbar

James Smethurst

In the end, the literary figure that most haunts Hayden's work is Dunbar. In many ways, despite its clear formal and thematic links to the body of Left African-American writing in the 1930s, Heart-Shape in the Dust is a return to the Dunbarian split of "high" and "low," or "literary" and "popular," that marked much of the new Negro Renaissance poetry.  There is no clear demarcation here between Hayden's "real" work and his "popular" work as there is in Dunbar's work. But, as when attempting to assess Dunbar's oeuvre, it is crucial to see the "high" poetry and "popular" poetry as a whole rather than simply accepting (or rejecting) the Dunbarian paradigm at face value. The "high" poetry forces the reader to reevaluate the "popular" and vice versa. Whether Hayden's work here is as realized as Dunbar's (it is not), Hayden did not try solve the problem of the Dunbarian spit in the "high" pre-modern modern manner of Cullen in the 1920s and early 1930s by essentially eschewing any attempt to recreate the folk voice, or in that of Brown in the 1930s by rooting representations of the folk by a semi--alienated, returning narratorial consciousness in authentic folk forms of the rural South and in verified reportage, or that of Hughes in the 1930s and 1940s by a similar use of folk documents and reportage combined with a use of urban popular culture to recreate a more broadly popular African-American voice. Instead, Hayden chose to use forms that are "high" in both "modern" and "pre-modern" ways, as well other forms that are broadly "low," popular, and vernacular, with the result that the narratorial consciousness-poet of the collection is revealed as deeply divided and deeply troubled as to his or her own relation to the African-American subject. This divide, and a recurring interest in communal memory, communal history, and communal voices of Africans and their descendants in the American diaspora that issues from the concerns and aesthetic imperatives of the1930s, marks Hayden's poetry for the rest of his career. This division between "high" and "low," "literary" and "popular" in Heart-Shape in the Dust obtains for the most part between individual poems rather than within poems--though, as seen in "Sunflowers: Beaubien Street," there are instances of the split in single poems. In Hayden's later, mature work, this divide occurs within individual poems where a highly polished neo-modernist style emphasizes the alienation of the African-American narratorial consciousness-poet from the African-American communities, experiences, heroes, and so on (often including a representation of the poet as a young man) that the narratorial consciousness obsessively recreates, recalls, and elegizes.

from James Edward Smethurst. The New Red Negro. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999: 193-194.

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