Born Asa Bundy Sheffey
4 August 1913
Detroit, Michigan, USA
Died 25 February 1980 (aged 66)
Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
Occupation Poet, essayist
Nationality United States
Alma mater Wayne State University (1936)
University of Michigan (1944)
Notable works Heart Shape in the Dust, A Ballad of Remembrance
Notable awards Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (US Poet Laureate), 1976-78
Spouse Erma Inez Morris
Robert Hayden (4 August 1913 – 25 February 1980) was an American poet, essayist, educator. He served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1976–78, a role today known as US Poet Laureate. He was the first African-American writer to hold the office.
Robert Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit, Michigan, to Ruth and Asa Sheffey, who separated before his birth. He was taken in by a foster family next door, Sue Ellen Westerfield and William Hayden, and grew up in a Detroit ghetto nicknamed "Paradise Valley". The Haydens' perpetually contentious marriage, coupled with Ruth Sheffey’s competition for her son's affections, made for a traumatic childhood. Witnessing fights and suffering beatings, Hayden lived in a house fraught with chronic anger, whose effects would stay with him throughout his life. On top of that, his severe visual problems prevented him from participating in activities such as sports in which nearly everyone else was involved. His childhood traumas resulted in debilitating bouts of depression that he later called "my dark nights of the soul."
Because he was nearsighted and slight of stature, he was often ostracized by his peers. In response, Hayden read voraciously, developing both an ear and an eye for transformative qualities in literature. He attended Detroit City College later called Wayne State University with a major in Spanish and minor in English, and left in 1936 during the Great Depression, one credit short of finishing his degree, to go to work for the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers' Project, where he researched black history and folk culture.
Leaving the Federal Writers' Project in 1938, Hayden married Erma Morris in 1940 and published his first volume, Heart-Shape in the Dust (1940). He enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1941 and won a Hopwood Award there. Raised as a Baptist, he followed his wife into the Bahá'í Faith during the early 1940s, and raised a daughter, Maia, in the religion. Hayden became one of the best-known Bahá'í poets. Erma Hayden was a pianist and composer and served as supervisor of music for Nashville public schools.
In pursuit of a master's degree, Hayden studied under W. H. Auden, who directed his attention to issues of poetic form, technique, and artistic discipline. Auden's influence may be seen in the "technical pith of Hayden's verse." After finishing his degree in 1942, then teaching several years at Michigan, Hayden went to Fisk University in 1946, where he remained for twenty-three years, returning to Michigan in 1969 to complete his teaching career.
As a supporter of his religion's teaching of the unity of humanity, Hayden could never embrace Black separatism. Thus the title poem of Words in the Mourning Time ends in a stirring plea in the name of all humanity:
Reclaim now, now renew the vision of
a human world where godliness
is possible and man
is neither gook nigger honkey wop or kike
permitted to be man.
He died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1980, age 66.
In 2012 the U.S. Postal Service issued a pane of stamps featuring ten great Twentieth Century American Poets, including Hayden.
By the 1960s and the rise of the Black Arts Movement, when a more youthful era of African American artists composed politically and emotionally charged protest poetry overwhelmingly coordinated to a black audience, Hayden's philosophy about the function of poetry and the way he characterized himself as an author were settled. His refusal to revamp himself as indicated by the pictures of the 1960s earned him feedback from a few scholars and analysts. Hayden stayed consistent with his idea of poetry as an artistic frame instead of a polemical demonstration and to his conviction that poetry ought to, in addition to other things, address the qualities shared by mankind, including social injustice. Hayden's beliefs about the relationship of the artist to his poems likewise had impact in his refusal to compose emotionally determined protest sonnets. Hayden's practice was to make separation between the speaker and the movement of the poem.
The impact of Euro-American innovation on Hayden's poetry and also his continuous assertions that he needed to be viewed as an "American poet" as opposed to a "black poet" prompted much feedback of him as an abstract "Uncle Tom" by African American critics during the 1960s. Unexpectedly, African American history, contemporary black figures, for example, Malcolm X, and African American communities, especially Hayden's native Paradise Valley, were the subjects of a significant number of his poems.
On 7 April 1966, Hayden's A Ballad of Remembrance was awarded, by unanimous vote, the Grand Prize for Poetry at the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. The festival had over ten thousand people from thirty-seven nations in attendance. However, on 22 April 1966 Hayden was denounced at a Fisk University conference of black writers by a group of young protest poets led by Melvin Tolson for refusing to identify himself as a black poet.
Hayden was elected to the American Academy of Poets in 1975. His most famous poem is Those Winter Sundays, which deals with the memory of fatherly love and loneliness. It ranks among the most anthologized American poems of the 20th century. He declined the position later called United States Poet Laureate previously, accepted the appointment for 1976–1977 during America's Bicentennial, and again in 1977–1978 though his health was failing then. He was awarded successive honorary degrees by Brown University (1976) and Fisk, (1978). In 1977 he was interviewed for television in Los Angeles on At One With by Keith Berwick. In January 1980 Hayden was among those gathered to be honored by President Jimmy Carter and his wife at a White House reception celebrating American poetry. He served for a decade as an editor of the Bahá'í journal World Order.
Robert Hayden has consistently been praised for his polished crafting of poems, the unique perspectives in his work, his exact language, and his absolute command of traditional poetic techniques and structures.
Other famed poems include "The Whipping" (which is about a small boy being severely punished for some undetermined offense), "Middle Passage" (inspired by the events surrounding the United States v. The Amistad affair), "Runagate, Runagate", and "Frederick Douglass".
Hayden’s influences included Wylie, Cullen, Dunbar, Hughes, Bontemps, Keats, Auden and Yeats. Hayden’s work often addressed the plight of African Americans, usually using his former home of Paradise Valley slum as a backdrop, as he does in the poem "Heart-Shape in the Dust". Hayden’s work made ready use of black vernacular and folk speech. Hayden wrote political poetry as well, including a sequence on the Vietnam War.
On the first poem of the sequence, he said: “I was trying to convey the idea that the horrors of the war became a kind of presence, and they were with you in the most personal and intimate activity, having your meals and so on. Everything was touched by the horror and the brutality and criminality of war. I feel that's one of the best of the poems.”