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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Robert Hayden

Born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit, Michigan, Hayden grew up in a poor, racially mixed neighborhood. Because his parents were divorced when he was quite young, his mother left him with neighbors, William and Sue Ellen Hayden, who gave him their name and raised him. His mother’s periodic reappearances coupled with the jealousy of his foster mother made him “a divided person,” and his art includes images of warring forces within the self.

Nearsighted and introverted, Hayden spent many hours reading and writing, and published his first poem at eighteen. Between 1932 and 1936, he attended Detroit City College (now Wayne State University); between 1936 and 1938, he worked for the Federal Writers Project of the WPA, and in 1944 completed an M.A. in English at the University of Michigan. (In 1940 he had married Erma Morris, a musician and teacher.) In 1946 he began teaching at Fisk University and in 1969 joined the English Department of the University of Michigan, where he taught until his death.

Much of his life Hayden wrote good poetry with little recognition. He was sustained by some awards and by friendships with other poets: a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1947, a Ford Foundation grant to write and travel in Mexico in 1954-1955, and the Grand Prize for Poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in 1966. During the 1970s he was published by Liveright (Angle of Ascent, 1975), elected a fellow of the American Academy of Poets, and in 1976 chosen as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the first African American ever to hold that post.

Hayden’s philosophy of art remained constant throughout his life. Opposed to ethnocentrism, he refused to allow race to define subject matter. He also refused to believe that black social and political frustrations demanded poetry aimed exclusively at a black readership. Two criteria pertained for all artists: expert craft and universal subject matter. Universality, moreover, did not mean denial of racial material; it meant building out of personal and ethnic experience to human insights that could reach across group lines. Hayden’s Baha’i faith, which he adopted in the 1940s, helped him believe in the unity of people and in the spiritual importance of art.

Some of the major themes of Hayden’s poetry are the tensions between the imagination and the tragic nature of life, the past in the present, art as a form of spiritual redemption, and the nurturing power of early life and history. Most of his work falls into categories of “spirit of place” poems, folk character poems, Detroit neighborhood poems, and historical poems. This latter group, best known by the long poem “Middle Passage,” is aimed at “correcting the misconceptions and destroying some of the stereotypes and clichés which surround Negro history.” In the context of the racial militance of the 1960s and 1970s, Hayden’s work has sometimes been found wanting by younger poets. His output for over forty years, however, suggests the deepest of commitments both to his own race and to humanity as a whole.

Robert M. Greenberg
Temple University

In the Heath Anthology
Summertime and the Living . . . (1962)
Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday (1962)
Those Winter Sundays (1962)
Tour 5 (1962)

Other Works

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Modern American Poetry
Provides several analytical essays on Hayden's work, a biography, and information about his cultural and historical context.

Robert Hayden's Epic of Community
An analytical essay by Benjamin Friedlander, originally published in MELUS, Fall 1998.

The Academy of American Poets
Brief hypertext biography and several poems.

Secondary Sources