vocalisms is a regular feature that presents selected tracks from voca, the Poetry Center's online audio video library of more than 800 recorded readings, spanning from 1963 to today.
In this track, Patrick Rosal gives an unforgettable performance of Robert Hayden’s sonnet on Frederick Douglass and the freedom and dignity for Black, enslaved Americans for which Douglass powerfully stood. I am writing this in the week after George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis, and Hayden’s vision of “a world / where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,” a world where dignity is more than a “gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians” hits especially hard—this vision eludes us still in the 21st century as it did during Hayden’s lifetime in the 20th century and Douglass’ lifetime in the 19th century. Rosal recites Hayden’s sonnet masterfully, highlighting its powerful use of both forceful and reflective language. He gives the words space and weight, his voice rising in a crescendo before driving home the final lines with quiet strength. Hayden’s poem and Rosal’s performance remind me of the relationship between private reflection and public action, reflection creating the capacity we need to go out into the world and steadfastly work for change. Memorizing poetry enacts this cycle too: We run our minds over the words of the poem like a worry stone, building their contours into our memory until we are able to stand up and speak them from out of the very core of ourselves. Hayden’s words and Rosal’s voice are lingering with me as I write this, asking me to see again that vision of reality in which Black Americans can live with real liberty, with the fully enabled dignity and freedom that are “needful to man as air, / usable as earth.”