(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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
are not enough vases
all these flowers.
house is gay with
And the closed doors behind which
shall no longer hoist the flag
be closed for a long time.
No. 4, lot No. 6078,
61, Lake Plot
the remains of...
loved the honesty
am the resurrection
the life . . ."
which no one
of our fathers,
a new color
And the green grass.
two later poems, “The Academic Scene,” and “The Assassins”
I confirmed the suspicions of some of his faculty colleagues: his
thoughts were truly subversive.
Aloysius Afzelius dreamed
he died and came to life again
gloves on and a bee's head.
found he could understand
speech of birds
at once he obtained fresh insights
forms of thought.
described a new species of solecism,
the skeleton of a twenty-five foot
once and for all classified
the choice of
gift of poetry,
ability to breathe sunlight
publication in the Stamp Collectors' Annual,
preferred to be made
of the Committee on Calibrated Alternatives
Dean of windows and doors.
appear quite normal.
The grey-haired man,
his shoes shined,
trouble with his wife;
drinks and locks him
of the house.
writing a children's book;
young man wearing a cowboy hat
boots is deeply in love
photograph the world
empty aluminous eyes.
must be hunted out,
cry! There ought to
a law ...
will only know them
their cool, opaque indifference
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
late American poet James Wright was much moved by Hays’
translations. This is
what he said:
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….
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.
better way to end these comments than to give the final word to
FOR AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY
FOR FUTURE REFERENCE
are my shoes,
is my shirt,
is my telephone number.
of sky invade my eyes.
tongue remembers the taste of lemon,
shadow caresses my feet.
licks my skin with its soft tongue.
can sit or stand.
can speak my own name.
I sleep I become a part of darkness.
the images of memory printed on my skin?
mother, caged in anxiety,
bars never-gave way,
moving past my father,
him diminished, in perspectives
summer- he drove a- horse and buggy
sat between my parents' knees on a folding stool.
was a singing in my throat;
hour lasted a year
disappointment traveled to the end of the world.
takes years to become intimate
legs will answer to the whistle of wonder;
heart nestles in the chest,
a boy's sex is a twin brother,
is difficult to understand
eye of a child leaps no higher than a grasshopper;
pulse vibrates like a tuningfork; .
tomorrows are bright with bicycles and fire engines
he has not yet seen the footprint in the sand.
were too many flags in my lifetime,
was too much marching.
wore neckties, in cities
buildings pursed their lips,
chimneys were wearing gloves
schoolbooks were composed of bread and sawdust.
saw birds flying past horizons
always far away.
made friends with small stones,
brown and yellow in brooks.
cow told me its name.
in the roadways I wore sandals of dust
carried a cloud in my hand.
is like a lump of butter on the tongue.
carried it with me for a long time,
and sweet it contained the taste of bedrooms,
shadow under the dining room table,
clatter of pots in the kitchen,
dog barking for joy, dew on the lawn,
doorway full of light.
melts year by year, washed away
countless cups of coffee.
pushed my head between trees.
climbed steps of air.
swam long roadways of cement.
pressed a button to turn on the sun.
of a sudden I was tall as a house.
was no longer afraid of policemen
doors took off their hats
I opened them.
bodies of women are composed of music and flowers.
eyes are full of children.
lacquer their hearts with nail polish
wear them in their hair.
wish to move in long slow dances.
cling to their vines like fruit
resist the changing seasons like a field full of statues.
learned to read their language.
found poems behind doors,
floated on the surface of the water
were embossed on the bark of a tree
in the gutter they lay
burnt matches, orange peel and cigarette butts.
said to my wife
space between the leave
more important than the leaves.
miracles of darkness
faces and stick out their tongues.
time has climbed up the
of the Oak tree
the footsteps on the roof
moving toward the horizon.
is the moment when summer
to become autumn
to pasture its butterflies on your shoulders.
have been running backward too long.
your hand into the mouth of the bon.
glittering pebbles which fall from the sky
not harm you.
are only the moon's tears.
the shadow in the corner of the room
recite three of my poems'
window will open,
window onto the blue meadows of the sea.
dressed in newspapers
heard the sour screams of the eagle.
flung the alphabet against the courthouse
when our dog died
daughter wept in my arms;
pain-wracked body, the feebly wagging tail
more real than earthquakes in the Andes.
send out sons
doves from the ark,
for greener continents, new fields
children-what do they keep of me?
think of my father and mother,
(who can boast of success?)
mother's voice, a tragic contralto-the song
faro senza Euiridice-
Europe she brought back love,
broken mirror, a heap of ashes
died distracted fifteen years after her death,
knows what American monsters haunted her dreams?
praise and rejoice in
as if painted by Constable,
shadows, bloated pods of down
across the sky,
blue air behind them publishing
color in unlimited editions;
that approach like headlights
of misty weather shedding a certain warmth;
of sunset trumpeting above ragged mountains,
history of the world hidden behind them;
sounds that emerge
the sea, from deep green darkness
the continual timeless pulsation of shells-
movement of people, just walking
lighted shop windows, as lovers
their hands into each other's eyes;
beating at night, wet wings;
old Indian woman patiently creating
pyramid of red peppers in the marketplace,
by the brown silence
an ancient race;
smell of alpaca wool woven into blankets
the small furry scuttling
rabbits and chipmunks in the dry leaves.
of bronze horses, explosions and small fish
of singing steel and fur-lined hallucination,
of bitten fingernails and semen and the odor
full of trees spurting blood
musical windowshades and zinnias six feet tall
lacerated flesh, beaten till it howls
the shadow beneath a woman's breasts
the bellow of fantom bulls
the death of Apollo
I should have written.
shall leave behind me
watch, busy as ants on a dead bird,
nail pairings, a landscape
an elmtree and a fence in the foreground,
telephone ringing in an empty room,
making love on a ridgepole,
word here and there, a fly
against the pane,
mirror reflecting the space around objects.
is my house.
I get up in the morning
look out of the window.
walk on two feet,
continues to beat in my wrist,
lies flat on the brush,
lift spoons and forks.
do not ask what sunrise means
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