The following is a guest post by Wes Matthews, a summer intern in Literary Initiatives.
This post is part of our “Literary Treasures” series, which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”
Growing up in Detroit, I grew accustomed to weaving around the living vestiges of the city, bearing witness to strips of abandoned buildings, neighborhoods with lacerated front porches and sidewalks, wide fields of vacant land that I could only imagine was once occupied by rows of family houses. To live in Detroit is to be surrounded by a long-forgotten history, a landscape of crushed dreams and overrun glory. I always understood that there were parts of the city that have been buried in both a figurative and literal sense, buried by the endless litany of redevelopment projects that has left the city’s collective memory hazy. But I also felt disconnected from them; as the time rages on, the younger generations feel increasingly disconnected from the places that our elders called home.
I recently came across Robert Hayden’s 1976 reading in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, part of the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. Though Hayden has always been one of my favorite poets by virtue of his Detroit origins, I had never heard his actual voice before. To hear him read his own work for the first time, his voice lilting with passion and conviction, was a true joy that I’ll remember for a long time. One little-known poem of his caught my attention in particular during my listening: “Elegies for Paradise Valley.” This poem reflects on Hayden’s childhood memories in a tone that is both solemn and compassionate.
Robert Hayden grew up in Paradise Valley, a once predominantly Black Detroit neighborhood that no longer exists. Home to one of the most prosperous Black-owned business districts in the nation at the time, most of its inhabitants actually lived in abject poverty and destitution. Housing structures were wildly overpopulated and the citizens were neglected by their own government, subject to the common practices of housing and employment discrimination against Black people. Infamous for the irony of its name, city officials were not only indifferent to the issues of Paradise Valley—they actively looked down on the folks that lived there. In the slum clearance efforts of the post-WWII era, the urban planners elected to designate the Paradise Valley area as the site for its new interstate highway construction project. Today, the space that was once known as Paradise Valley is absorbed by I-375 and private residential communities.
With “Elegies for Paradise Valley,” Hayden situates himself squarely in the business of historical storytelling. Like an archivist of memory, Hayden seeks to catalog the untold stories of Paradise Valley, the stories of the people whose lives were severely undervalued and overlooked. In the time that he was writing, Paradise Valley and the neighboring Black Bottom area had been virtually destroyed, and as white flight escalated in the post-riot era, Detroit became marked with a social stigma and people grew uninterested in the underground history of the city. Seeing that his home is in danger of complete erasure, he brings Paradise Valley to life by tenderly evoking the names of several notable characters that he remembers from his childhood along with a little description of their passions: Iola the dancer, Les the huntsman, Nora the comedian. He provides brief accounts of who they were, what they did, what they were best known for. His words are filled with both humor and heartbreak, recognizing the tragic nature of their lives while staying faithful to the beauty of their bare souls. Hayden then poses the striking rhetorical question that, knowing the full context, breaks my heart: “Where are they now?” Where are the dynamic people and places that he once felt connected to, and why have they been displaced from their origins? He takes it upon himself to honor and broaden the scope of their life’s stories, seeing that no one else will.
By highlighting the everyday humanity of the city’s low-down district, Hayden asserts that his neighborhood is not merely some pawn in the shallow political game of city branding, not some roadblock in the overturning of infrastructure, but a vibrant enclave of people carrying on with their lives in spite of the violent and voyeuristic gazes of outsiders. His decision to call the eight parts of this poem “elegies” signals the destruction of the Valley and the demise of everyone mentioned in the poem. The sad reality sets in: Typically, humans expect that the places that we come to love and cherish will outlast us, so as to preserve some remnants of our lives long after we are gone. So it is truly tragic when these locales disappear within our lifetimes and we are left to remember them by plumbing the depths of our imaginations, and then hoping that someone will listen when we tell the story. But if we don’t speak up, then who will? “Let vanished rooms, let dead streets tell.”
Hayden’s poem can be read as a meditation on the connection between one’s place and memory, but it also seeks to reaffirm a sense of dignity for the people who had been all around him growing up. Sometimes we get so caught up in studying the high-reaching arcs of history that we even forget to acknowledge and honor the mundane dignity of all humans, especially those who are scorned and condescended to by society, who live in shacks and alleyways and overcrowded two-family flats—“God-fearing elders, even Godless grifters” with “rats gnawing in their walls,” in Hayden’s own words. That’s the truly miraculous thing about poetry: Sometimes, it takes a community to write a poem because we are ceaselessly tied together in the world. It takes imagination and grace to grant our loved ones a new life in the world long after they are gone, and so we write.