Robert Hayden was an American poet who rose from humble beginnings to the very pinnacle of his craft when, in 1976, he was appointed to the position of consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. This appointment was later called Poet Laureate and, of particular note, Hayden was the first black American to achieve this honour. It was richly deserved though and was his reward for half a century of excellence in poetry and was the latest in a long string of honours and awards that came his way.
How different things were back in 1913 though when he was born Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4th. It was a poor Detroit neighbourhood called Paradise Valley and he spent his early years either in his parent’s home or next door with what became his foster family. His schooling was slightly handicapped in that his short sightedness precluded his participation in organised games but he more than made up for that by being an avid reader. He completed high school and won a scholarship to what was, at the time, Detroit City College. This establishment was upgraded to university status later on.
By the age of 27 Hayden was writing a lot of poetry and he had his first collection published in 1940, called Heart-Shape in the Dust. This encouraged him to join a graduate English literature program at the University of Michigan. Here he was fortunate to come across the famous poet W H Auden who mentored Hayden and gave him valuable critical guidance. Another collection was published in 1948 called The Lion and the Archer. He remained at Michigan in a teaching role and later taught at Fisk University before returning for a second spell at Michigan in 1969.
He was becoming more and more influenced by the Harlem Renaissance poetry being penned by the likes of Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes and he greatly admired other black American writers such as Edna St Vincent Millay and Hart Crane. Like others before him he was very much aware of and interested in African-American history and took a deep and passionate interest in racial problems, often exploring these in his writing.
By the 1960s the name of Robert Hayden attracted global attention and he won a prize for his poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. This was held in 1966 and the prize recognised his book Ballad of Remembrance. He did not try to compartmentalise himself though in the same way that some black American writers and artists did. He declared himself first and foremost an “American” poet; his roots were undeniable and his writing was very much about the struggles of his contemporaries, but he fought hard to avoid being seen as just another angry and embittered black American poet. He was much admired by literary critics with his work being described by one as:
Another describes Hayden’s work thus:
If any of his poems illustrate the deprivations and desperation of where he grew up then the following poem, The Whipping, is surely a prime candidate. It’s a story of the never ending circle of violence:
Robert Hayden died on 25th February 1980 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was 66 years old. An anthology of his poetry – Collected Poems – was published five years after his death.