John Hatcher: On "Elegies for Paradise Valley"

'Elegies for Paradise Valley’ is a sequence of eight childhood scenes that imply both an attitude and a story. The most lavishly praised of any poems in the volume, the sequence begins with the poet's first intimations that he is himself an alien:

[. . . . ]

In part two the speaker describes the 'Godfearing elders, even Godless grifters' as 'Rats fighting in their walls'. The ambiguous 'their' could refer here to the ghetto landlords, more often White than Black, thus implying that the persona and his people must struggle to survive in dwellings not their own, or, more inclusively, that the Black populace is viewed by the rest of the citizenry as an unwanted nuisance in the wafts of the city edifice.

The child's awareness of himself as alien and of the human mechanism of prejudice which creates such a status develops further in part seven as the persona recalls his parent's lore about Gypsies. They 'kidnap you', they had said, and he 'must never play/ with Gypsy children' who 'all got lice in their hair'. But the as yet unconditioned psyche of the child suggests the ironic process at work when his own people ascribe to the Gypsies the same alien status they have themselves: . . .

In a more general sense the poem catalogues the rich assortment of characters who populated the child's world and filled his imagination with a pageantry of human possibilities. In part five Hayden resorts to a delightful list of baroque characters succinctly captured by one-line epithets in the traditional mode of an ubi sunt elegy: . . .

Uniting these elegies throughout the eight sections is the elliptically told story of Uncle Crip who is murdered by Uncle Henry. It is Uncle Crip's laughter we hear enjoying Bert Williams on the victrola; it is his voice that wisely points out to the boy that the Gypsies grieve as 'bad as Colored Folks', and 'Die like us too'. It is Uncle Crip who dances with the boy to 'Jellyroll/ Morton's brimstone/ piano on the phonograph'. Ultimately, however, the poem focuses on the sense of 'guilt/ and secret pain' evolving in the psyche of the young boy who, in spite of his rigorous Baptist training, is charmed and enchanted by Uncle Crip's boisterous ways.


Title John Hatcher: On "Elegies for Paradise Valley" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John Hatcher Criticism Target Robert Hayden
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication From the Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden
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