Autumn 2000



by Sandy McIntosh

(This essay was presented at Guild Hall on September 1, 2000, by Sandy McIntosh at an event, featuring the distinguished American poet, Galway Kinnell - the latest presentation in the twenty year history of the H.R. Hays Distinguished Poets Series, at Guild Hall.  This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of the writer for whom the series was named.)

Hoffman Reynolds Hays was a poet, translator, novelist and playwright, an historian of anthropology and zoology, and a teacher.  Some of his twenty-two books, reflecting the diversity of his interests, were the pioneering works in their fields. His The Dangerous Sex: the Myth of Feminine Evil, served as respected source material for Feminist writers.  Sir Julian Huxley regarded Hays’ popular history of zoology, Birds, Beasts and Men, as a classic of its genre. His translations of the poetry of Brecht, Vallejo, Borges, Neruda, and many others were among the first to bring these major twentieth century writers to the attention of the English-speaking world. His plays, such as The Ballad of Davy Crockett, with music by Kurt Weill, were performed on Broadway. More than twenty of his shorter works appeared on television during its early days.

When I first met Hoffman Hays, I knew nothing of his history.  The first time I saw him was on the Southampton College campus.  I was a student, and he was making his way from the parking lot to his office in the Fine Arts building.  It was a Friday afternoon in the fall of 1968.  The campus, as it was every Friday, was abandoned, students and professors having gone off to more populous areas.  This was at a time when the Hamptons’ tourist season ended abruptly at Labor Day, the streets were deserted, and you might find a coffee shop open on Main Street, but not after 8:00pm.  If you were marooned here in fall or winter, as I often was, you could walk the empty roads in near-darkness to the ocean, where the crashing of waves was truly primitive and frightening. Walking by himself that afternoon on campus, Hoffman Hays seemed a forlorn figure in lonely a landscape.

Although Hays was chairman of the Drama Department, his office was really nothing more than a closet hidden away in the Fine Arts building. My student friends and his faculty colleagues knew that he was active in directing student plays, and that he taught a full load of drama courses.  Yet, to many of us, Hays remained a mystery, an odd duck.  He was a man in his sixties, after all, rumored to have a distinguished history, trying to make his way among younger, less experienced professors.  Moreover, he was a man who seemed to hold definite, possibly subversive opinions, fighting his way through the chaos of a college that had only recently opened its doors and often didn’t seem to know where it was going. Fewpeople there knew who Hays was, nor how to deal with him. 

Had I not been assigned as his advisee, I probably would never have got to know him.  At first, our conferences were uncomfortable affairs. Hays would not, or could not abide small talk. In our discussions there were many caesuras, many bleak silences that made me squirm.  It was only when I mentioned my interest in writing poetry that Hays warmed to me.  He wrote poetry himself, he said, and he invited me to show him my work.  I did, and it must have passed muster with him because the next time we met he gave me some of his own poetry to read, and thereby opened a new world to me.

During the next two years I took several of his classes, including playwriting and public speaking.  In the latter, Hays successfully cured me of a persistent, life-long habit of interjecting the annoying phrase “you know” whenever I couldn’t think of any other way to end a sentence. But he also introduced me to the wonders of poetry when it is read aloud-performed, really-instead of mulled over in silence.  That was a revelation.  At home, before a captive audience of roommates or by myself, I’d recite “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” endlessly. I never wondered what that poem meant, so lovely was its language when uttered aloud.

But it was Hays’ own poetry that was a revelation. Reading it, I began to understand something of what went on inside him.  For instance, in poems such as “Protestant Burial,” on the occasion of his father’s death, I recognized the roots of his own diffidence:

There are not enough vases
For all these flowers.
The house is gay with
Stiff, bright petals
And the closed doors behind which
No comfort lies.

Believed in
A United States
That passed away
With Teddy Roosevelt.

We shall no longer hoist the flag
On holidays.
The shutters
Will be closed for a long time.

Authority to open
Grave No. 4, lot No. 6078,
Section 61, Lake Plot
For burial
Of the remains of...
And loved the honesty
Of animals.

"I am the resurrection
And the life . . ."
In which no one

Myths of our fathers,
What is reborn,

This sharp sunlight
Gilds our faces
With a new color
… And the green grass.

In two later poems, “The Academic Scene,” and “The Assassins” I confirmed the suspicions of some of his faculty colleagues: his thoughts were truly subversive.


Professor Aloysius Afzelius dreamed
That he died and came to life again
With gloves on and a bee's head.
He found he could understand
The speech of birds
(Mostly obscene epithets),
Levitate, create storms
And sour milk.
All at once he obtained fresh insights
Into his specialty--
Fossil forms of thought.
He described a new species of solecism,
Mounted the skeleton of a twenty-five foot
Extinct hypothesis,
And once and for all classified
The herbivorous non-sequiturs.
Offered the choice of
The gift of poetry,
The ability to breathe sunlight
Or publication in the Stamp Collectors' Annual,
He preferred to be made
Chairman of the Committee on Calibrated Alternatives
And (in perpetuity)
Associate Dean of windows and doors.


The assassins
Often appear quite normal.
The grey-haired man,
Getting his shoes shined,
Has trouble with his wife;
She drinks and locks him
Out of the house.
The blonde girl
With dilated eyes
Is writing a children's book;
The young man wearing a cowboy hat
And boots is deeply in love
With a motorcycle.

The assassins
Exchange secret signs,
Read newspapers,
Have lunch
And photograph the world
Through empty aluminous eyes.
They must be hunted out,
You cry!  There ought to
Be a law ...

No use.
You will only know them
By their cool, opaque indifference
To your death.


Hoffman and I spent afternoons together during which, at my insistence, he told me stories about his career. His luck was often quirky, it seemed. An early play of his, Medicine Show, opened on Broadway in 1940 on the night Germany invaded Norway, and the shock of the front-page headlines overshadowed the good notices. “History is not on my side,” he recalled saying dryly at the time.  On the other hand, his relationship with history did occasionally pay off. At the time of the McCarthy House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, an anthem he wrote for the American Socialist Party was defiantly performed in Madison Square Garden. However, Hays was never pulled in front of the Committee, since it disintegrated at that moment, along with its chairman.

As a mentor, Hays was a patient critic.  When he thought I was ready for it, he introduced me to his East Hampton friends, other writers, including David Ignatow, Louis Simpson, John Hall Wheelock, Harvey Shapiro, Armand Schwerner, Phil Appleman, Siv Cedering, Simon Perchik, Allen Planz, and eventually my friend Robert Long-among others in an ever-expanding group with whom I have associated for more than twenty years.  Hays was the center of this circle of respected writers.  He and his wife, Julie, often give parties and poetry readings in their home. As a host, he was genial and expansive-very much the opposite of his persona at the college. He also administered the early Poets-in-the-Schools programs in the Hamptons, which gave me my start as a teacher.

During his fifty-year career, H.R. Hays continued to write poetry.  He published his first book, Strange City, in the 1930’s.  (He never liked the book and made me promise never to show it to anyone.) However, it was during the 1960’s, when George Hitchcock edited the poetry magazine, kayak, that contemporary readers first became aware of Hays’ original poetic work.  Hitchcock published Hays’ Selected Poems, followed by new work in Inside My Own Skin, to enthusiastic critical response.  Later on, I published his last volume of poetry, Portraits in Mixed Media, under the Survivor’s Manual imprint. 

The quality of Hays’ poetry, surrealist, anti-government, anti-war (as much poetry was at the time), and, in general, anti-stupidity, owes a great deal to his work as a translator.  His use of magical imagery, of a certain odd reality just showing its face above the horizon, recalls the Latin American poets; his straightforward social protests recall Brecht.  However, Hays was not an imitator.  After all, it was he who rendered those Spanish and German poems into his original English.  If they suggest comparisons to his poetry, it is only because his was the voice articulating both.

The groundbreaking significance of Hays’ translations of Latin American poets is immense.  Today, most readers are familiar with Neruda, Borges, and Cesar Vallejo.  But in 1943, when his Twelve Spanish American Poets was published, the huge area embracing Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean islands was barely known to North Americans, except pejoratively, as “banana republics,” the home of bearded, gun-toting, cigar-smoking banditos, and illiterate peasants.  That such a seemingly primitive, under-developed region should also be the birthplace of a sophisticated literary culture, something the educated North Americans could be interested in and even respect, was a new idea to many English speakers.  Hays was one of the first to reveal this, and the effect of his translations on young poets was profound. 

The late American poet James Wright was much moved by Hays’ translations.  This is what he said:

I first came to Hays through the influence of Robert Bly….  When Bly showed me Hays' Twelve Spanish American Poets, I had never even heard of Vallejo and had scarcely seen anything by Neruda.  Since those days, both great poets have virtually become household words in the literary community of the United States, and yet you still rarely see even a reference to Hays himself…. I call Hays a pioneer, but my remark is misleading, seeming to imply that the significance of his translations is historical only, and to be supplanted by the more elegant or forceful work of the translators who followed him.  But what made Hays important in the first place, and what will keep him important, is the fact that he is himself a poet, an artist whose own deepest imaginative impulses have often been wakened by a power of intellect that is at once critical and poetic, the critical enabling him to perceive the greatness of the South American poets and the poetic, enabling him to create translations that are at once accurate renderings and also themselves original poems in the American language….

On this, the twentieth anniversary of H.R. Hays’ death, a new collection of his poems has been published, The Selected Poems of H.R. Hays, with Two Essays on Translation.  As I once again immersed myself in Hoffman’s poetry preparing the new book, the vividness and immediacy of his voice struck me.  Robert Long, who helped with the manuscript, confirmed this and added that he was amazed to see lines in Hays’s poems that he’d later unconsciously appropriated for his own, thinking the inspiration uniquely his.  Those of us who knew Hoffman and admired his work-as well as those who are only being introduced to him now, have the opportunity to experience the poetry of a unique literary imagination.

What better way to end these comments than to give the final word to Hays:


These are my shoes,
This is my shirt,
This is my telephone number.

 Waves of sky invade my eyes.

My tongue remembers the taste of lemon,
The-prickle of salt. 

My shadow caresses my feet.
Water licks my skin with its soft tongue.
I can sit or stand.
I can speak my own name.
When I sleep I become a part of darkness.

Are the images of memory printed on my skin?
My mother, caged in anxiety,
The bars never-gave way,
Time moving past my father,
Leaving him diminished, in perspectives
In summer- he drove a- horse and buggy
Into the sunset.
I sat between my parents' knees on a folding stool.
There was a singing in my throat;
An hour lasted a year
And disappointment traveled to the end of the world.

It takes years to become intimate
With five fingers,
Two legs will answer to the whistle of wonder;

The heart nestles in the chest,
An eternal stranger
And a boy's sex is a twin brother,
Hated and loved.

It is difficult to understand
Even a dandelion.
The eye of a child leaps no higher than a grasshopper;
His pulse vibrates like a tuningfork; .
His tomorrows are bright with bicycles and fire engines
But he has not yet seen the footprint in the sand.

There were too many flags in my lifetime,
There was too much marching.

Trees wore neckties, in cities
Tall buildings pursed their lips,
Even chimneys were wearing gloves
And schoolbooks were composed of bread and sawdust.
I saw birds flying past horizons
But always far away.
I made friends with small stones,
Shining brown and yellow in brooks.
A cow told me its name.
And in the roadways I wore sandals of dust
And carried a cloud in my hand. 

Home is like a lump of butter on the tongue.
I carried it with me for a long time,
Warm and sweet it contained the taste of bedrooms,
The shadow under the dining room table,
The clatter of pots in the kitchen,

A dog barking for joy, dew on the lawn,
A doorway full of light.
It melts year by year, washed away
By countless cups of coffee.

I pushed my head between trees.
I climbed steps of air.
I swam long roadways of cement.
I pressed a button to turn on the sun.
AR of a sudden I was tall as a house.
I was no longer afraid of policemen
And doors took off their hats
When I opened them.

The bodies of women are composed of music and flowers.
Their eyes are full of children.
They lacquer their hearts with nail polish
And wear them in their hair.
They wish to move in long slow dances.
They cling to their vines like fruit
And resist the changing seasons like a field full of statues.
I learned to read their language.

I found poems behind doors,
Some floated on the surface of the water
Some were embossed on the bark of a tree
And in the gutter they lay
Among burnt matches, orange peel and cigarette butts.

I said to my wife
The space between the leave
Is more important than the leaves.
Small miracles of darkness
Make faces and stick out their tongues.
Meanwhile time has climbed up the
Branch of the Oak tree
And the footsteps on the roof
Are moving toward the horizon.
This is the moment when summer
Has not decided
Whether to become autumn
Or to pasture its butterflies on your shoulders.
You have been running backward too long.
Put your hand into the mouth of the bon.
These glittering pebbles which fall from the sky
Will not harm you.
They are only the moon's tears.
Face the shadow in the corner of the room
And recite three of my poems'
Suddenly .a window will open,
A window onto the blue meadows of the sea.
Ghosts dressed in newspapers
Walked my world.
I heard the sour screams of the eagle.
I flung the alphabet against the courthouse
But when our dog died
My daughter wept in my arms;
The pain-wracked body, the feebly wagging tail
Was more real than earthquakes in the Andes.

Parents send out sons
Like doves from the ark,
Hoping for greener continents, new fields
Above the flood.

My children-what do they keep of me?
I think of my father and mother,
Failures (who can boast of success?)
My mother's voice, a tragic contralto-the song
Que faro senza Euiridice-
From Europe she brought back love,
A broken mirror, a heap of ashes
And died distracted fifteen years after her death,
Who knows what American monsters haunted her dreams?

I praise and rejoice in
Clouds, as if painted by Constable,
Grey shadows, bloated pods of down
Billowing across the sky,
The blue air behind them publishing
Its color in unlimited editions;
Voices that approach like headlights
Out of misty weather shedding a certain warmth;
Clarions of sunset trumpeting above ragged mountains,
The history of the world hidden behind them;
Wonderful sounds that emerge
From the sea, from deep green darkness
And the continual timeless pulsation of shells-
The movement of people, just walking
Past lighted shop windows, as lovers
Dip their hands into each other's eyes;
Wings beating at night, wet wings;
An old Indian woman patiently creating
A pyramid of red peppers in the marketplace,
Surrounded by the brown silence
Of an ancient race;
The smell of alpaca wool woven into blankets
And the small furry scuttling
Of rabbits and chipmunks in the dry leaves.

Poems of bronze horses, explosions and small fish
Nibbling in streams,
Poems of singing steel and fur-lined hallucination,
Poems of bitten fingernails and semen and the odor
Of salt marshland,
Poems full of trees spurting blood
And musical windowshades and zinnias six feet tall
And lacerated flesh, beaten till it howls
And four-dimensional typewriters
And the shadow beneath a woman's breasts
And the bellow of fantom bulls
Mourning the death of Apollo
Poems I should have written.

I shall leave behind me
Empty glasses,
A watch, busy as ants on a dead bird,
Some nail pairings, a landscape
With an elmtree and a fence in the foreground,
A telephone ringing in an empty room,
Pigeons making love on a ridgepole,
My electric razor,
A word here and there, a fly
Buzzing against the pane,
A mirror reflecting the space around objects.

This is my house.
When I get up in the morning
I look out of the window.
I walk on two feet,
Blood continues to beat in my wrist,
Toothpaste lies flat on the brush,
My hair grows,
I    lift spoons and forks.

I do not ask what sunrise means
Or what the silence says.
Sandy McIntosh is the author of several books of poetry and non-fiction. His essays have been published in the New York Times, Newsday, and elsewhere.
He is Managing Editor of Confrontation magazine.




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