Robert Hayden carefully intertwines the visual and sonic senses in his poetry, setting striking images to meticulously crafted poetic music.
On Seeing Sound
Much of great poetry’s power lies in how it stretches language beyond discursive meaning in order to stimulate the senses. Oftentimes, when a poem’s content is difficult to decipher or comprehend, it takes on a whole new dimension of meaning. A particular string of words may not have a specific literal meaning but may communicate rich, intense emotions just through the music of their sound. Similarly, poetry can communicate by appealing to vision, using concrete, descriptive images to draw the reader in and conjure a certain mood, even if the meaning of a particular picture is unclear. Robert Hayden is a poet with a masterful ability to blend senses together in his poetry, utilizing the visual and aural senses together in order to create poems that resonate deeply in the reader’s subconscious. In his poems “Homage to the Empress of the Blues” and “Monet’s Waterlilies,” Robert Hayden demonstrates how he carefully intertwines the visual and sonic senses in his poetry, setting striking images to meticulously crafted poetic music.
Though a poem dedicated to a singer, the iconic “empress of the blues,” Bessie Smith, “Homage to the Empress of the Blues” primarily centers around Hayden’s visual descriptions. The poem begins with the line “Because there was a man somewhere in a candystripe silk shirt.”1 This opening line establishes the poem’s focus on imagery in its depiction of music’s power, focusing in on a man’s colorful “candystripe silk shirt.” The poem then moves to another visual image in the second and third lines, as the speaker describes the man as being “gracile and dangerous as a jaguar and because a woman moaned/for him in sixty-watt gloom.”2 Through the juxtaposition of these two images, Hayden succinctly conjures Bessie Smith’s sadness, as through her “moan[ing]” she mourns a past world of “candystripe” color in the “sixty-watt gloom” of the present. While Hayden uses visual descriptions to conjure Smith’s emotion, he words them in a way that evokes the rhythms and repetition of the blues. Both lines repeat the word “because” and breathlessly connect different phrases together with the word “and,” forging a colloquially rhythmic music. The final portion of the poem’s first stanza emphasizes its bluesy musicality as the speaker exclaims “Faithless Love/ Twotiming Love Oh Love Oh Careless Aggravating Love.”3 When read aloud, this passage, with its constant, cadenced refrains of “love” and bellows of “Oh,” sounds like a passionate, emotive blues song, as the speaker seems to loudly cry about their heartbreak. The fact that every word in this passage is capitalized further emphasizes its musical intensity, as if it is meant to be roared and hollered aloud like blues lyrics are. The first stanza of the poem thus demonstrates Hayden’s mingling of the visual and sonic senses, as he focuses on describing images while crafting his language to sound like the music he is writing about.
The second stanza of “Homage to the Empress of the Blues” has a markedly distinct form from the first, containing two lines rather than four and being indented to accentuate its difference. The speaker states that “She came out on the stage in yards of pearls, emerging like/ a favorite scenic view, flashed her golden smile and sang.”4 Hayden describes Smith in almost purely visual terms. Initially, he describes her striking dress in “yards of pearls” and then compares her to “a favorite scenic view.” He then emphasizes her incandescent stage presence by writing that she “flashed her golden smile.” The images in this stanza highlight how Smith’s art and stage presence allows her to transcend the harshness of her reality, her “golden smile” lighting up the “sixty-watt gloom” described in the first stanza. While Hayden’s visual descriptions of Smith are rich and vivid, he barely attempts to describe what her music actually sounds like. After spending the lines using strong images to convey the uniqueness of her appearance and power of her stage presence, Hayden simply states that Smith “sang,” without any modifiers or extra description. By focusing on the visual to evoke Smith’s hold over the audience, Hayden implies that Smith’s music cannot be described. However, by embodying elements of her music, he also suggested that the sound of the poetry itself can evoke the force of Smith’s music, even if the discursive content of his language cannot. In this stanza, Hayden again meshes the visual and the sonic, describing Smith through vivid images while setting those pictures to an emotive, blues inspired music, emphasizing Smith’s power through both senses.
“Monet’s Waterlilies,” a poem in which Hayden meditates on the arts, demonstrates Hayden’s own blending of the visual and auditory senses. The poem, published in 1970, begins with a stanza in which the speaker thinks about then-current events, saying, “Today as the news from Selma and Saigon/ Poisons the air like fallout,/ I come again to see/ the serene great picture that I love.”5 The poem immediately establishes itself as being concerned with the visual sense. It is important that the first verb which the speaker themself engages in is “to see” and the subject of the stanza’s final line is the “serene great picture” of the poem’s title. However, this thematic focus on “see[ing]” and the power of visual art is married to a delicate music that mirrors the “serene” nature of the titular “picture.” The stanza is guided along by ‘S’ sounds, such as “Selma and Saigon” in the first line, “see” in the third line, and “serene” in the final. The soothing nature of Monet’s water lily paintings is conveyed through the soft sibilance of the stanza. The effect of a visual work of art is communicated not only through images, but also through Hayden’s poetic music.
The second stanza of “Monet’s Waterlilies,” begins with the sentence, “Here space and time exist in light/ the eye like the eye of faith believes.”6 The sentence highlights the power of vision as the “light” in the painting is so intense that it provides the speaker with a sensation of “space and time” in a simple, two-dimensional image. The experience of looking at the painting is then compared to a religious experience, as the speaker notes that when observing the painting, their eye becomes like “the eye of faith” and is able to “believe” in the sublime, restorative power of art, even in the face of the historical horrors depicted in the poem’s opening line. The speaker’s visual descriptions become more abstract, as they note, “The seen, the known/ dissolve in iridescence, become/ illusive flesh of light.”7 These lines are intently concerned with vision, given the emphasis on “the seen” and “light.” The lines visually describe Monet’s painting style in which familiar images are abstracted into murky swirls of color and “light,” as the speaker states that “the known/ dissolve[s] in iridescence” and is transformed into the mysterious “illusive flesh of light.” Hayden thus captures, in linguistic images, the manner in which Monet is able to mold an ordinary natural scene into something awe-inspiring and strange, cementing his status as a poet of amazing visual abilities.
Coupled with Hayden’s visual representation of Monet’s style, is his ability to evoke the feeling the painting creates through the musicality of his descriptions. Hayden’s lines in the stanza are tightly concise, with the third through fifth lines consisting of only four words each, creating a hushed, quiet atmosphere similar to the “seren[ity]” of Monet’s visual style. The stanza is threaded with gentle sonic repetitions, such as the use of hard I sounds in the first two lines with “light” and the almost back to back use of the phrase “the eye” linked with another hard-‘I’ word, “like.” The third line continues this musical smoothness by repeating the article “The,” in the phrase “The seen, the known.” The fourth and fifth lines of the stanza heavily use soft I sounds, mirroring the repetition of hard ‘I’ in the first two lines, with “dissolve,” “in,” “iridescence” and “illusive.” Hayden pays meticulous attention to the way sounds work in this stanza, creating a beautiful tapestry of subtle repetitions that sound fluid and peaceful when read aloud. In this manner, he is also able to use his language to approximate Monet’s visual effects. Just as Monet creates an ethereal, tranquil yet dazzling sensation through his use of color and abstraction of forms, Hayden elicits these feelings from readers through his sensuous and delicate treatment of linguistic sounds.
In his poems “Homage to the Empress of the Blues” and “Monet’s Waterlilies,” Robert Hayden demonstrates how he is both a visual and sonic poet, as he marries vivid visual imagery to precisely composed linguistic music. By appealing to both senses simultaneously, Hayden shows himself to be a virtuosic poet who can push language beyond its everyday functions to communicate irrational emotions and ideas. He is able to evoke the style of master painters with his words and to shape them to sound like a visceral blues song. His work exemplifies the sensory power of poetic language, how when patterned in a particular manner, what would be simple words on a page can magically startle the eye or tickle the ear.
- Robert Hayden, “Homage to the Empress of the Blues,” Collected Poems, Edited by Frederick Glaysher (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1997), 1.
- Hayden, “Homage to the Empress of the Blues,” 2-3.
- Hayden, “Homage to the Empress of the Blues, 3-4.
- Hayden, “Homage to the Empress of the Blues,” 5-6.
- Robert Hayden, “Monet’s Waterlilies,” Collected Poems, Edited by Frederick Glaysher, (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1997, 1-4.
- Hayden, “Monet’s Waterlilies,” 5-6.
- Hayden, “Monet’s Waterlilies,” 7-9.