Robert Hayden’s “The Whipping”

Today’s near-record heat gave me a chance to finally finish Robert Hayden’s Collected Poems, a book I started on my recent trip up the Columbia River. I wish I could remember which blogger featured Hayden’s poetry and inspired me to buy it so I could thank them, but I can’t so I’ll just thank all the poetry sites I visit regularly for constantly inspiring me to read poets I haven’t read before, even though I think I’ve encountered a few of Hayden’s poems in anthologies before. I quickly discovered that the poem I’m discussing today is widely distributed and discussed on the internet.

As Arnold Rampersand notes about Hayden’s poetry in the introduction, “Violence is everywhere, but Hayden’s sense of the uses of violence evolved over his lifetime.” As you might expect from a black poet, much of the violence centers on white society’s mistreatment of blacks. But the violence he portrays goes well beyond that, stretching from Aztecs to Nazis.

However, it seems to me that

The old woman across the way
     is whipping the boy again
and shouting to the neighborhood
     her goodness and his wrongs.

Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
     pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
     pursues and corners him.

She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
     boy till the stick breaks
in her hand. His tears are rainy weather
     to woundlike memories:

My head gripped in bony vise
     of knees, the writhing struggle
to wrench free, the blows, the fear
     worse than blows that hateful

Words could bring, the face that I
     no longer knew or loved . . .
Well, it is over now, it is over,
     and the boy sobs in his room,

And the woman leans muttering against
     a tree, exhausted, purged–
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
     she has had to bear.

succinctly captures the roots, the very essence, of violence as well as any poem I’ve ever read.

Today, the old woman would probably be turned into welfare authorities, but such incidents were not uncommon in my childhood neighborhood, though seldom as public as portrayed here. Even in these enlightened times, it’s not uncommon to hear parents bemoan their children’s transgressions despite the parent’s all-encompassing “goodness.”

The scene of the boy scurrying around the garden like a cornered animal while the huge woman pursues him, hitting and hitting until until the stick breaks is reminiscent of the pig scene in Lord of the Flies in its very savagery.

Still, the fourth stanza seems to me to be the most moving because the narrator, obviously remembering his own beatings, becomes the boy remembering “the fear/ worse than blows that hateful/
Words could bring, the face that I/ no longer knew or loved.” Strangely, it is this empathy and the sorrow it produces that offers the only real hope for the human race.

Otherwise we end up like the old woman, “avenged in part for lifelong hidings/ she has had to bear,” continuing the cycle of violence that threatens us all.