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On Hayden's Early Work and Cultural Context

Alan M. Wald

In the context of the 1930s, when drama was far more central an art form than today, and when galvanizing the exploited into resistance through public readings was regarded as a legitimate artistic objective, much of Hayden's poetry was successful in accomplishing his goals in striking and stirring ways. But such an achievement can only constitute "literary value" if one regards Hayden's poems of the 1930s from the perspective of the literary objectives held by the poet at the time. In particular, one must accept that his literary models were figures such as Sol Funaroff (now-forgotten leader of the Dynamo school of poets), Lola Ridge, and the young Langston Hughes. Of course, one's assessment of the early Hayden will be dramatically different if one evaluates his 1930s poems in light of his later literary objectives, in the context of his post-1930s models, such as Yeats.

To invert the situation: Would a critic be able to convince us that a much-admired later poem such as "The Diver" achieved its aims effectively if our model of literary value were, say, the poetic devices of Sol Funaroff's "To the Dead of the International Brigade," or if our literary objective were to motivate striking auto workers to persist in their struggles despite the guns and clubs of the police? Of course, one may hold the categorical view that the kinds of language and strategies promoted by a Funaroff are themselves less worthy than those of a Yeats or Eliot; but here one runs the risk of legislating the "proper" duties for a poet to carry out, a dubious theme in Western culture from Plato to Stalin.

from Alan M. Wald. Writing from the Left. New York: Verso, 1994: p. 196.

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