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Robert Hayden’s poem “Runagate Runagate” reveals the desperate yet dedicated journey of the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves get safely to the North. By specific use of repetition, word choice, allusions, poetic and irony, Hayden draws readers into his poem to create an experience for the reader that is deeper and more meaningful than a cursory reading. Poetry provides deeper levels of understanding as one looks beyond the words on the page. Hayden’s poem is a plea for readers to become involved in the ongoing struggle of enslaved peoples by involving them in a sensory experience of the desperate drive for freedom.
Hayden involves his readers in many ways. The physical structure of the poem is designed to resemble a desperate flight through the darkness. Compactness of certain sections such as the first seven lines contrasts with the loose structure of the following three. One can almost feel the compact bodies hiding in the underbrush, then leaping out to run more steps and then hiding again. The use of present verb tense in the first seven lines suggests to the reader that this frantic journey is taking place NOW. Falls, rises, stumbles are verbs that put the reader into the action. The slaves are running and stumbling before our eyes. Present participles such as pursuing and beckoning create the sense of the ongoing of the struggle. The contrast of pursuing and beckoning as action words show the desperation of running from one thing towards another more elusive thing, possibly a safe haven, but possibly not.
The lack of punctuation is deliberate because as readers read the poem, it is not clear where to stop or pause or take a breath. Just like the slaves running and stumbling, they don’t know where to stop or where it will be safe and they may fear even to breathe at times out of fear of being caught by the pursuing hounds and men. Punctuation is a structure of normality. Nothing about the Underground Railroad was normal for the slaves. Formalities didn’t matter and they don’t matter in the poem because the poem transcends the page and becomes the very experience itself. The use of the word and in place of punctuation keeps the readers running along with the slaves, and when not running, we are all remembering and hoping and sometimes giving up hope.