Robert Hayden, following a generation after the Harlem Renaissance poets, produced a body of work that came to address two issues. First, can African-American poetry take its form and inspiration from mainstream Modernism? And second, should it? Hayden’s poetry gave a resounding yes to both questions, though not without resistance. He ultimately came to be known as one of the most skilled craftsmen in American poetry, and one of most important poetic chroniclers of African-American history and culture.
Hayden was born 4 August 1913 in Detroit, Michigan, to Asa and Gladys Sheffey. At birth, he was named after his father, but his parents separated shortly thereafter, and his mother gave him up to foster parents, William and Sue Ellen Hayden, though she remained an influence in his life. His foster parents changed his name—but not legally, as he was to discover many years later when he applied for a passport and found that no such person as Robert Hayden existed. He was then forced to make the legal name change himself. As a child, his physical activities were limited because of impaired vision, but he could read, and threw himself into that pursuit. He enrolled in Detroit City College (which became Wayne State University) in 1932, and left in 1936 to work as a researcher for the Federal Writers' Project, which became his first significant immersion in black history. He married composer/pianist Erma Morris in 1940. He enrolled in the Masters’ program at the University of Michigan in 1941, where he studied with W. H. Auden. He received his degree in 1942, and taught at Michigan until 1946, when he accepted a position at Fisk University in Nashville, TN. He remained at Fisk until 1969, then returned to Michigan, where he remained on the faculty until his death in 1980.
Hayden was a member of the Baha’i faith, which teaches that humanity is one single race, and that all previous religions have laid the groundwork for the dramatic change to come, that of the unification of all races and nationalities in one global society. This, in addition to his attitude toward the craft of poetry, led him to insist that he was first and foremost a poet, not a black poet. The conflict between this nonracialism on the one hand, and the racial themes of so much of his poetry—he wrote in his Collected Prose that “to be a poet… is to care passionately about justice and one's fellow human beings” (11)—led to a creative tension which is a great part of his work’s power. His first poetry collection, Heart-Shape in the Dust, was published in 1940 to little notice. A chapbook, The Lion and the Archer (with Myron O’Higgins) came out in 1948. Subsequent works were Figure of Time (1948), A Ballad of Remembrance (1962), Selected Poems (1966), Words in the Mourning Time (1970), The Night-Blooming Cereus (1972); Angle of Ascent (1975) and American Journal (1978). A posthumous edition of Collected Poems came out in 1985. In 1967, he edited Kaleidoscope: Poems by American Negro Poets.
He won the Julius and Avery Hopwood Award for poetry at the University of Michigan in 1938 and 1942 (the latter competition judged by W. H. Auden), the World Festival of Negro Arts grand prize in 1966, and the Michigan Arts Foundation Award (1977). He received National Book Award nominations in 1971 and 1979. He was a member of the Michigan Arts Council (1975-76), the American Academy of Arts and Letters, PEN, and the American Poetry Society. He was Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (the position which later was designated Poet Laureate) from 1976-78. He was a Julius Rosenwald fellow (1947), a Ford Foundation fellow (1954-55), and an Academy of American Poets fellow (1977).
Hayden’s most significant poetic accomplishment was one that he never finished, but which influenced all of his poetry, and provided, in fragments, some of his best-known work. He had been deeply influenced by Stephen Vincent Benet’s Civil War epic John Brown’s Body, particularly a passage in which Benet admits that he is not the man who can write the “black-skinned epic,” and says that some day a black poet will rise who can write that “epic with the long black spear.” Hayden, recalling that inspiration in an essay later published in his Collected Prose, said “I dared to hope that I might be that poet.“
He planned his own Civil War epic, The Black Spear, but never finished it, at least not in the form of a book-length long poem, although an early draft of it was selected by Auden for Michigan’s 1942 Hopwood Prize. Several parts of the manuscript, as separate poems, would later appear in Selected Poems, and the concerns of The Black Spear—a poetry that would tell the truth about black history and the black experience—were concerns that never left him.
Heart-Shape in the Dust had shown strong influences of the Harlem Renaissance authors, and it was a direction he was not to pursue, especially after his period of study with Auden. Although the work was, and remains, highly thought of in the black community, Hayden came to see it as too “nationalist,” and felt it was best left behind. He was set on his own course, one that would blend a lapidary focus on craftsmanship with an African-American that was at once personal and collective, a vision and new awareness that would show up in poets as different as Rita Dove and Curtis Mayfield. This was probably the same reason he never finished The Black Spear—he had outgrown the influence, if not the inspiration, of Benet.
His next collection, a tiny chapbook, scarcely more than a pamphlet, shared with the more conventional black poet Myron O’Higgins, won notice from critic Selden Rodman in the New York Times for its experimental vigor and its ability to bring the weight of modern poetry to bear on the black experience.
For a poet as accomplished, and as recognized for his accomplishments as Robert Hayden, he spent much of his life in obscurity. During his tenure at Fisk, even though he published three books, he was little regarded as more than an obscure English professor on his own campus, teaching a full load of freshman composition and basic literature courses. Galway Kinnell, during the “freedom rider” period of the civil rights struggle, came to Fisk and sat in on one of Hayden’s classes, not realizing that this was Hayden the poet.
His first real acclaim came in 1966 for Selected Poems. In that volume, he included revised versions of several poems originally written for The Black Spear, and one, “The Middle Passage,” which drew its inspiration from the “Black Spear” story, but had not been in the original manuscript. “The Middle Passage,” a story of the slave trade, has come to be considered Hayden’s epic. Although fewer than 200 lines, the poem’s emotional and historic scope is immense. “The Middle Passage” could not have been part of the original Black Spear—all influence of Benet is gone from it; its godfather, instead, is T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
In “The Middle Passage,” three of Hayden’s most powerful motivators come together: his awareness of the centrality of Eliot; the lessons he learned from Auden about the necessity of reshaping the canon to the demands of a new time and one’s own awareness; and finally, his sense of himself as the carrier of that black spear of historical and cultural truth. The poet Michael S. Harper has described “The Middle Passage” as an answer to Eliot. Hayden moved the concerns of modernism beyond Eliot’s examination of the barrenness of society to an exploration of the roots of a rich and powerful culture. The poem, in three parts, tells the story of the slave trade. Part 1 takes us on board a slave ship, and shows us the chilling inhumanity of a world with no borders or laws but itself. Part 2, in the terrifying voice of an unrepentant slave trader, presents a brotherhood of greed (which is no brotherhood at all) between the slavers and the African tribal kings with whom they traded in human flesh. Part 3 describes the slave revolt on the Amistad, led by Cinquez, who became a symbol both of freedom and of the awful violence that must sometimes be its path. Hayden drew on a nonfiction book by Muriel Rukeyser for much of his information about the Amistad.
In 1966, as Hayden traveled to Senegal to receive the grand prize from the World Festival of Negro Arts, organized by Senegal’s poet-president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, he was at the same time the subject of attack at home. At Fisk University’s First Black Writers' Conference, Hayden was assailed as an “Uncle Tom” for his public refusal to allow himself to be called a “Negro poet.” Leading the criticism was Hayden’s contemporary Melvin Tolson. The participants at the conference endorsed the credo of activist Ron Karenga that the first duty of a black artist is to promote revolution, and that any art which does not recognize this is “invalid.” Hayden’s former student, the author and educator Julius Lester, at the time a radical activist himself, recalls visiting Hayden and finding him explosively unrepentant about his refusal to be labeled. Lester, sympathetic to both sides in the dispute, wrote that blacks are seen by, and forced to see themselves by the dominant white culture in reference to “the cause,” and that both groups will stigmatize a black writer who refuses to be categorized.
In retrospect, it is hard to see how the centrality of the black experience to Hayden’s work could have been discounted. In addition to his treatment of black history in “The Middle Passage” and the other Black Spear poems, he has written about ghetto life in Detroit, and about such iconic figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner, Malcolm X, Jack Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Miles Davis and Billie Holiday.
After leaving Fisk for the University of Michigan, Hayden’s output increased. Notable poems in his next volume, Words in the Mourning Time, include “The Dream” and "'Mystery Boy' Looks for Kin in Nashville." The former, another poem growing out of The Black Spear, contrasts the experiences of an aged slave fearful of her own dream of the future, and a young black soldier in the Union Army. The latter, concerned with identity (including but not limited to black identity), ends with these haunting lines: “We'll go and find them. We'll go/ and ask them for your name again.” Also in this collection, “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz” eulogizes Malcolm X, using the Muslim name that the black leader had taken near the end of his life. The poem describes Malcolm as “the scourger of his people,” who would “drive them from/ the lush ice gardens of their servitude.” The image is as lush as it is icily precise; in its metaphoric brilliance, its immersion in and separateness from the black struggle, it becomes itself a metaphor for Robert Hayden.
In Angle of Ascent, Hayden continues to find new insights into historical figures like Frederick Douglass, and he finds the same powerful cultural resonance in his own background, growing up in the misnamed “Paradise Valley” section of Detroit.
During the 1970s, Hayden continued to gain respect, and to be virtually ignored at the same time. He received two National Book Award nominations (for Words in the Mourning Time and American Journal, but never won the award. He was selected as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1976 and again in 1977, before the position had been renamed Poet Laureate, with the added prestige that went with the title. In fact, when Rita Dove was named Laureate in 1993, an article in the New York Times identified her as the first poet to hold that position. And shortly after his Library of Congress appointment, critic Phillip M. Richards recalls attending a reading by Hayden at the University of Chicago, among a tiny audience of a few faculty members and graduate students, and a group of black elementary school students. It appeared to Richards that he was the only one there who actually had brought along one of Hayden’s books. None of this appeared to surprise Hayden: Richards recounts an observation by the poet that “he had been an outsider so long that he did not know how to behave as an insider did” (Massachusetts Review 40.4: 599).
Hayden’s final volume, American Journal, returns powerfully to his childhood, in the “Elegies for Paradise Valley,” and also includes two prose selections which could not be more different, yet are still quintessential Hayden: a “Letter from Phyllis Wheatley” and the log of a visitor from another planet.
In 1980, Hayden participated in a poetry reading at the White House, where Amy Carter pronounced him her favorite. He died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, not long after. No major American newspapers gave him more than a cursory obituary, if that.