Rhetoric That Is Not Rhetoric: Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”

Douglass image

Poetry is not the same as mere eloquence or high language. That’s a truism. The stock modernist examples demonstrating it include William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say.” In a related way, Marianne Moore clearly enjoys saying, in the first line of her “Poetry,” “there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” Her double “are” in that sentence is a kind of exaggerated flatness, plainness to the point of parody.

Pre-modernist examples of plainness might include Ben Jonson’s “To Heaven,” which proceeds not by vivid images or resounding phrases but by an exquisitely boiled-down moral acuity, as in the opening questions:

Good and great God, can I not think of Thee
But it must, straight my melancholy be?
Is it interpreted in me disease,
That, weary of my sins, I wish for ease?

Jonson defines this considerable complexity in just two couplets: thirty-two words.

A post-modern example—I think written before the term “post-modern” emerged—might be John Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual,” which follows its title with a deadpan beginning;

As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal.

In another poem, his “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” Ashbery comically borrows the language of an earnest academic description: “This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.” The amused limpness of “on a very plain level” reminds me of Moore smiling as she borrows the language of a philistine impatient with “all this fiddle.”

These examples, to me, all suggest that the matter of being plain or fancy, direct or rhetorical, is complicated. It has a lot to do with expectation. For example, the unforgettable conclusion of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” (I once took part in a television segment—revived for my MOOC—on this poem, in various voices):

What did I know, what did I know
Of love’s austere and lonely offices?

The word “offices” is cold, but is it plain? Is the repeated “What did I know” rhetorical, like a phrase in a speech, or direct, like a phrase one might mutter to oneself? I think it is a matter of degree, as irony in these phrases I’ve quoted from Moore and Ashbery is (in quite different ways for each poet) a matter of degree and of expectation.

Here is another poem by Hayden, his tribute to Frederick Douglass. Here, Hayden quite explicitly presents the terms “rhetoric” and “gaudy mumbo jumbo.” At the same time, he takes a kind of almost-conventional approach to his subject, with a kind of paradoxical daring. (Another poem that has this kind of audacious directness, in my view, is Czeslaw Milosz’s “Incantation,” in which different readers hear different degrees and kinds of ironic reservation . . . . depending maybe, upon what they expect.) As Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass” is almost a formal sonnet, it is also almost a speech or sermon, a quality that makes it all the more thrilling as a poem:

FREDERICK DOUGLASS

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly Instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

LISTEN TO ROBERT PINSKY READ ROBERT HAYDEN’S “FREDERICK DOUGLASS.”