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“Threnody is My Name”

ISSUE:  Spring 1994
Clock of Clay. Robert Hazel. Louisiana. $14, 95.

Robert Hazel’s death at 72, on July 19, 1993, went unnoticed by the literary world, except for the tributes recorded by Art Jester, book editor of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. In the Sunday, August 8th edition, Jester quoted two well-known authors who had studied creative writing under Hazel. Bobbie Ann Mason recalled, “He talked in such a way that he made the process of writing seem possible. One of my discoveries was how to observe details in life and use them in fiction.” Wendell Berry added, “Time after time, he didn’t hesitate to say that your writing wasn’t good enough. He would go to great lengths to tell you why it wasn’t good enough.” Mason and Berry were not the only talents Hazel nurtured at the University of Kentucky between 1955 and 1961; for James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan, and Gurney Norman also profited from him, as would Charles Simic and Rita Mae Brown at New York University, where he was an associate professor from 1963 to 1971.Later, after serving as poetry editor of The Nation (1972) and Virginia Polytechnical Institute’s Writer-in-Residence (1974—1979), Hazel retired to Eustis, Florida.

He published three novels—The Lost Year (1953), A Field Full of People (1954), Early Spring (1971)—and a few stories— notably “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” (The Hudson Review, Winter 1967); but the author’s finest work appears in his five volumes of poetry: Poems/1951—1961 (1961), American Elegies (1969), Who Touches This: Selected Poems 1951—1979 (1981), Soft Coal (1985), and Clock of Clay: New and Selected Poems By Robert Hazel (1992). These oeuvres were launched auspiciously through the introduction Allen Tate contributed to Poems/1951—1961, which concluded: “Mr. Hazel is his own kind of poet. He ought to be one of the best of the second half of the century. There is no poet of his generation to whom more has been given.” Tate praised the language of Poems—”I do not know any younger American poet who has access to an associative imagery as rich and unpredictable as Mr. Hazel’s”—and thus anticipated Alien Planz ten years later in his splendid review of American Elegies, “A Poet Come in Glory,” that appeared in The Nation. Planz observed: “It is a language akin to the mystery of the commonplace, sensuous almost to the point of mysticism.” Toward American Elegies, Gerald Burns also reacted enthusiastically, commenting in the Southwest Review, “How was I to hear of Robert Hazel, who is what James Dickey would be if he could? American Elegies is gusty but not gushy. . . the first adult white writing about blacks. Lines distinguished, tone controlled and audible, eye and mind one thing, about three hundred times better than Paul Blackburn, of whom one hears.” Burns’ question, “How was I to hear of Robert Hazel [?]” was prophetic, since, despite blurbs from such distinguished peers as Walter Allen, Wendell Berry, Robert Ely, David Ignatow, Howard Nemerov, and Barry Spacks, none of the remaining three volumes received a major review, except Francis Wyatt’s brillant assessment of Who Touches This (The American Book Review, 1981).

That the poet was born in Bloomington, Indiana on June 27, 1921; received a B.A.from George Washington University and an M.A.from Johns Hopkins; taught at Kentucky, Oregon State, N.Y.U.and Virginia Tech; lived in North Carolina and died in Florida are reflected by Hazel’s poetry, where titles like “NYC,” “Indiana,” “Health Education & Welfare Social Security & Disability Office, Leesburg, Florida” and “Letter to the Kentuckian” appear. Thus, Spacks declared: “So large and pure and new voice so suddenly there. . . Crane pouring back into the language, and behind him Whitman, the main current flowing, but gracefully; the natural, special, endlessly ambitious American poetics; the true inheritance.”

Throughout his canon, Hazel cites Whitman and Crane, even borrowing such phrases as “who touches this” and “the seal’s wide spin-drift gaze.” Whitman provided him with free verse, elaborate stanzaic patterns, repetition, incantation, while Crane supplied the “logic of metaphor” (associational rather than literal meaning) that characterizes Hazel’s work. An equally pervasive influence was the focus of both Whitman and Crane on America, though they are far more sanguine about this subject than their successor. His motifs also resemble those of fellow North Carolinian Thomas Wolfe, whose name is used in the title of Soft Coal, Part I: “Waiting for Thomas Wolfe.”

Like Wolfe, Hazel draws on autobiography, but unlike him, he rarely conceals personal references. Not surprisingly, in Clock of Clay, which contains six new poems and 16 old ones taken almost entirely from the other four volumes, many private allusions occur. “Woman with Guitar” focuses on dedicatee Jan T.Randolph, an ex-wife, and “Cow Salt” focuses on dedicatee Henry Birnbaum, an intimate friend. Hazel’s family, particularly the father, often obtrude, as during the bitter “Who Touches This,” where the poet writes, “I meet my boyhood on a gravel road / and see how beautiful I was then / honey Robert me.” Such reflexive statements recur, constituting a major difference between the poetry of Robert Hazel and that of James Dickey, whose “I-figure” speakers embody fictionalized selves or “agents.” They differ too in their structural strategies, since Dickey employs what he terms “the narrative-dramatic mode” and Hazel is given to emotion recollected (and experienced) in anything but tranquillity. However, despite these differences, Dickey has remarked, “His principal characteristic is fearlessness; he will say anything that comes into his head, or any other part of him.”

Frequently, the latter’s subjectivity takes the form of social protest, related to the fact Hazel was a self-styled “poor white” during the Great Depression, a U.S.Marine during World War II, and a university professor during the Vietnam era. His compassion for those he considers victimized by The Establishment—blacks, Jews, women, and other “outsiders”—is omnipresent. In Clock of Clay, “The First Day of Christmas” angrily recounts the rape of several N.Y.U.coeds, while “Black Leather” poignantly recaptures the “gasoline death” of James Dean. But “Health Education & Welfare Social Security & Disability Office, Leesburg, Florida,” reprinted from Soft Coal, represents the last collection’s most vivid protest poem. A rare instance of “the narrative-dramatic mode,” conveyed partly through broken lines, it brings the white male Robert and the black female Wilhelmina together at the title location, where he learns that this demented 20-year-old girl has been let out of Sumter Asylum to find work; that her first child was killed by “a forced abortion”; and that she and her “3 months old baby” are starving. The conclusion seems flat—”I did not say, Blue Lady, let loose & die / for justice & mercy never were meant for you”—yet preceding lines like “These other Crackers avoided me, but how could I quit? / Shit, / I’ve been hungry & will never get full” pack raw power. Such admissions may remind us of another Hoosier, Theodore Dreiser, whose name dots Hazel’s work.

The poet views himself as both “a poor white” and “a romantic,” the epithet applied to his surrogate “Richard,” protagonist of “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” and Early Spring. These dual roles lay behind the anti-urban/industrial attitude evident throughout Clock of Clay. “NYC” (from American Elegies) projects this passionately. Looking out “across the East River” at midnight, the speaker envisions “the boneyard of Queens” burning. There follows a litany of city-scape horrors that includes “A woman is murdered in 38 windows,” “Everybody is nobody’s keeper,” “professional liars in glass canyons,” “young whore cursing,” “The smiling girl who committed suicide,” “a coatless man fishes for lost coins,” “Banks whisper money,” “Aluminum trucks bleat like lambs.” Then, “[n]ear dawn,” we see him walking “among fishnets and boatloads of coffins.” He refers to a “ferry,” as he had to “bridged boroughs,” ironically invoking Whitman (“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”) and Crane (The Bridge), who perceived unity where Hazel perceives chaos. That the Whitman-Crane vision no longer pertains is implicit in the reference, “Crane’s forgotten bones,” before the line from “At Melville’s Tomb,” And wrecks passed without sound of bells,” which echoes the Melvillian epigraph on “your insular city.”

As a concomitant of his anti-urban/industrial attitude, Hazel, like other romantic poets, rejoices over nature, one example being “Celebration Above Summer,” the early piece Tate extolled for its “associative imagery.” Here, we are commanded to “hear,” to “stop,” and to “see” what transpires among the speaker’s “thin acres” during “sweet August.” He cites his “priestly insects,” “kind weeds,” “knotted chickens,” “crony leaves,” and even man-made things: “hammer,” “rusted axes,” “fruit jars,” “slat gates.” This brilliant paean closes with “everywhere green, green,” yet death is ubiquitous too, since the speaker discovers “curled in the quiet speculation of clods, my black calf, / sweet and voluminous, hooves maggoty in stiff air, columns high, / the buzzards sailing.” Even “under green flies” the animal remains “beautiful,” so that its “magnificence sickens [him] with love.” Robert Hazel, having inherited the romantic ethos, continued to juxtapose life and death, as “Consider the Lillies,” one of the new selections in Clock of Clay illustrates when the speaker states, “The more death I enclose within me / The more alive I become.”

“Consider the Lillies” opens this final collection, and the long title poem, “Clock of Clay,” closes it, providing a current framework for the middle 20 selections. Hazel, again the autobiographical speaker, wrote his last and perhaps greatest “threnody” “all of a sudden.” Suicidal, alcoholic, infirm, and alone— “schizophrenic by night / in the handcuff’s of language by day”—he waits near “the seacost of Bohemia,” where “Silurian stones dream of eyeless peace.” The poet’s disillusionment begins with himself: “My mother was a virgin bride / & I’m her first son, her prince / But I’m the stupidest man ever / in my veins running carousals / On the human train I’m the caboose / Even God could not set a dove on my head.” Previously he “sarig while milking cows & flooded cats’ pink mouths / with white comets from lavish teats,” yet soon “Delicate willings will die on my fruitful hands.” Despite this disillusionment, which encompasses God and our world too, he urges, “Love, Thou, excessively.” “Clock of Clay,” Robert Hazel’s ultimate poetic utterance, consequently stands as a synechdoche for his entire achievement:

Once I circled with my arms
  orchards, groves & vineyards
I was rich with pure lust
  for all clods, shoots & sprouts
Now I am only a grain of dust   I have been to a strange land
& met the dark man


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