Hayden, Robert 1913-1980
Robert Hayden 1913-1980
Robert Hayden preferred to think of himself not as a black poet, but rather as an American poet whose work spoke to the universal in the human condition. Although many of his best-known works explore the African American experience, Hayden avoided politics and polemic, opting instead for an artistic body of work in the grand tradition of English literature. He labored in near obscurity for much of his life, only becoming recognized as a preeminent poet in the 1960s and 1970s. Only now is his work being given the critical evaluation it deserves by a new generation of scholars.
Hayden believed that literature written by blacks should be judged by the same critical standards used to judge any work in English. This stance proved distinctly unpopular with younger black poets, who sought to create and define a wholly black literature. While serving as a professor of English at Fisk University in the late 1960s, Hayden came under attack by some of these younger poets, but he never wavered in his defense of critical standards and the aims of great art. As his own relatively slender body of work attracted more attention, he found support from other poets of all races and creeds who shared his views. In 1976 he was named Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress—an honor equivalent to England’s Poet Laureate.
Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey in 1913. His young, poverty-stricken parents separated soon after he was born, and he was adopted by William and Sue Ellen Hayden, who were also poor but who worked hard and held their children to high standards. The family lived in a Detroit ghetto with the ironic nickname Paradise Valley. Life was hard there, and Hayden’s parents often quarreled. Nevertheless, both of them were deeply interested in their adopted son’s achievements.
A severe case of myopia hampered Hayden’s ability to play active games. His mother fought for his right to attend classes for the partially sighted, and he learned to read by holding the book six inches from his face—a practice he had to continue throughout his life. He also learned how to play the violin, but as the music became more complicated he had more and more trouble seeing
At a Glance…
Full name Robert Earl Hayden; born Asa Bundy Sheffey, August 4, 1913, in Detroit, MI; died of heart failure February 25, 1980, in Ann Arbor, MI; son of Asa and Gladys Ruth (Finn) Sheffey; foster son of William and Sue Ellen (Westerfield) Hayden; married Erma I. Morris (a pianist and composer), June 15, 1940; children: Mala. Education: Detroit City College (now Wayne State University), B.A., 1936; University of Michigan, M.A., 1944. Religion: Baha’i.
Federal Writers’ Project, Detroit, MI, researcher, 1936-40; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, teaching fellow, 1944-46; Fisk University, Nashville, TN, 1946-69, began as assistant professor, became professor of English; University of Michigan, professor of English, 1969-80. Consultant in Poetry, library of Congress, 1976-78. Visiting poet and lecturer at numerous American universities.
Member: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Academy of American Poets, PEN, American Poetry Society, Phi Kappa Phi.
Selected awards: Jules and Avery Hopwood Poetry Award from University of Michigan, 1942 and 1944; Julius Rosenwald fellow, 1947; Ford Foundation fellow in Mexico, 1954-55; World Festival of Negro Arts grand prize, 1966, for A Ballad of Remembrance; Russell Loines Award, National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1970; National Book Award nomination, 1971, for Words in Mourning Time; Academy of American Poets fellow, 1977; Michigan Arts Foundation Award, 1977; National Book Award nomination, 1979, for American Journal.
Hayden began writing poems, stories, and plays while still in elementary school. By the time he reached high school he was sure he wanted to be a poet. He spent much of his spare time reading novels and poetry, drawing solace from literature in the face of his troubled family life. When Hayden was a teenager, his natural mother returned to Detroit and sought a relationship with him. He welcomed contact with her, but her presence only increased the tensions in his adoptive household. Relief came in the form of the books he read and pondered, including George Eliot’s Romola, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, and Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Hayden is quoted as saying: “I loved those books, partly because they took me completely out of the environment I lived in, and they were full of strange and wonderful things that I’d had no direct experience with.”
In 1932 Hayden earned a scholarship to attend Detroit City College (now Wayne State University). There he majored in Spanish and minored in English, assuming that he would teach school when he graduated. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1936 he found a Depression-era job as a folklore researcher with the Federal Writers’ Project in Detroit. He supplemented the meager federal income by serving as a theater, movie, and music critic for the Michigan Chronicle, a black weekly newspaper. In his spare time he continued to produce poetry, and his first volume, Heart-Shape in the Dust, was published by Detroit’s Falcon Press in 1940. That same year he married pianist Erma Morris.
In 1941 Robert and Erma Hayden spent a brief period in New York City, where Mrs. Hayden studied music at Juilliard. While there the Haydens were invited to dinner by renowned Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, who had read Hayden’s first book and liked it. The opportunity to meet and talk to one of his favorite poets had a profound effect on Hayden. He was inspired to pursue his own literary ambitions quite seriously. When the couple returned to Michigan, Hayden enrolled in graduate courses at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. By 1942 he was a full-time student, taking courses in playwrighting, poetry, and literature.
One of Hayden’s teachers in Ann Arbor was the renowned American poet W. H. Auden. Hayden later described his professor as “awe-inspiring” and “absolutely brilliant,” the perfect mentor for an apprentice artist struggling to learn both the craft of writing and the necessary self-awareness that poetry demands. Some critics feel that it was Auden who most strongly influenced the critical and creative principles that would form the basis for Hayden’s poetry. Whatever the case, Hayden began to get recognition for his work while at the University of Michigan. He twice won the prestigious Jules and Avery Hopwood Award for poetry while at the school, and after earning his bachelor’s degree he became the first black teaching fellow in the university’s English department.
During his student days at Michigan Hayden also embarked upon a lifelong affiliation with the Baha’i faith, a Middle Eastern religion that emphasizes racial harmony, unity of religious faiths, and a coming world peace. The Baha’i world view informed many of Hayden’s mature works and influenced his personal philosophy of poetry, as James Mann noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Mann wrote that Baha’i “teaches that the work of the artist is considered a form of worship, a service to mankind that has spiritual significance. Hayden was sustained in his life as a poet by the assurance of his faith that his work is of spiritual value.”
By 1946 Hayden had published two of his best-known poems, “Middle Passage” and “Frederick Douglass.” The 177-line “Middle Passage” is a modernist poem treating upon various aspects of the slave trade to colonial America, including the thoughts of slave traders and a narrative of a slave rebellion aboard a Cuban vessel. The poet also includes passages on the names of slave ships, the yarns of old sailors, and even bits of hymns the slave traders sang. “Frederick Douglass” is a shorter, unrhymed sonnet about the famous black orator who began his life as an abused and runaway slave. The first draft of “Middle Passage” appeared in the 1946 edition of Cross Section, an annual poetry anthology. “Frederick Douglass” was published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine.
On the strength of his scholarship and his published poetry, Hayden was offered an assistant professorship at Fisk University, a predominantly black school in Nashville, Tennessee. Not surprisingly, he had a great deal of difficulty adjusting to life in the South, where institutionalized segregation affected everything from seating on buses to use of restrooms, restaurants, and movie houses. Mann wrote: “By necessity the Haydens taught themselves to live with segregation, though never to adjust to it, and they formed relationships with unprejudiced people of goodwill who had similar interests in the arts. Hayden’s concern for the art of poetry prevented him from writing in a polemic way about his experiences during these two decades, although he did employ it as subject matter.”
Hayden stayed at Fisk from 1946 until 1969, often teaching as many as five college courses per semester. He also served as an advisor to the student newspaper. The responsibilities left little time for creative writing, and in the 1950s he produced only 11 new published poems, all of which appeared in the slender volume Figure of Time.
The 1960s brought new recognition and new challenges to the poet. In 1962 Hayden published A Ballad of Remembrance (published to a wider American audience as Selected Poems in 1966). The poems in this volume cover a variety of experiences and themes, including the quest for meaning in life, racism, the poet’s past, and spiritual redemption through suffering. A Ballad of Remembrance put Hayden on the international literary map when it won the first-ever World Festival of Negro Arts grand prize for poetry in 1966. American critics responded favorably to Selected Poems as well.
Just as Hayden’s work was beginning to receive the critical recognition that had long eluded him, he drew the fire of a new generation of black poets who were working from an entirely different perspective. At a black writers’ conference held at Fisk in 1966, some of the younger poets attacked Hayden for his refusal to be categorized as a “black poet” and his insistence that his work be judged by all the critical and historical standards brought to bear upon any other English-language poetry. The young militant poets were seeking to create a “black aesthetic” based on the notion that black literature owed no debt to “white” standards and should serve a political purpose as part of a black revolution. As both an artist and a Baha’i Hayden objected to these views, and he did not back down even though the criticism leveled at him stung him deeply. His response, as quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, was simple and succinct: “There is no such thing as black literature. There’s good literature and there’s bad. And that’s all!”
Mann wrote: “Nothing impresses one about Hayden so much as his qualities as a man, the nobility with which he confronted his life as it came to him: the terrible pain of racial discrimination; the long period of virtually total obscurity as a writer; the excessively burdensome long hours of teaching; thoughtless and unfair criticism by members of his own race; and finally, the years of honors and fame, borne with humility and grace. Having experienced extremes of fortune, he endured with dignity and with the highest principles.”
In 1969 Hayden returned home to the University of Michigan as a professor of English. While there he published three volumes of verse, two of which— Words in the Mourning Time and American Journal —were nominated for the National Book Award. In 1976 Hayden was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, an honored position that brought him to the nation’s capital for two years. He also undertook a greater number of poetry readings and visiting professorships at numerous American colleges and universities. One of his students, Michael R. Brown, recalled a Hayden reading in a Commentary essay: “At his reading he took a back seat to the young poets and his friends. His reading was shorter, but balanced ... art, people, and the iron lessons of history. Without teaching, he put the young poets to school, and they noticed.”
Hayden’s health began to fail as the 1970s progressed. He died of heart failure in the University of Michigan’s hospital early in 1980. Two volumes of his work were published posthumously: a prose collection from the University of Michigan Press, and Robert Hayden: Collected Poems by Liveright. Some observers have claimed that Hayden might have published more poetry had he been less burdened by his duties as a teacher, but in fact the poet was a perfectionist who spent long hours revising and re-working poems, even those that had already been published.
Hayden once described himself as “a romantic who has been forced to be realistic, “and indeed his work never shied from the realities of racism and cruelty. Nevertheless, his Baha’i faith provided him with an essentially optimistic outlook. According to Norma R. Jones in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the writer’s work “deals with the awful realities of American history; yet, because he sees the future of the nation as a passage from death to life, he is more a poet of hope than of despair. His chosen role as an American poet, yet aware of the injustices perpetuated against his race, gives him a unique perspective in American letters.” Jones concludes that Robert Hayden “has demonstrated that in one man the black poet and the American poet can be the same.”
Heart-Shape in the Dust, Falcon Press (Detroit), 1940.
(With Myron O’Higgins) The Lion and the Archer, Hemphill Press (Nashville), 1948.
Figure of Time: Poems, Hemphill Press, 1955.
A Ballad of Remembrance, Breman (London), 1962, revised as Selected Poems, October House (New York), 1966.
Words in Mourning Time, October House, 1970.
The Night-Blooming Cereus, Breman, 1972.
Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems, Liveright, 1975.
American Journal, Effendi Press (Taunton, MA), 1978,
revised and enlarged edition, Liveright, 1982.
Collected Prose: Robert Hayden, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor), 1984.
Robert Hayden: Collected Poems, Liveright, 1985.
Also editor of volumes such as Afro-American Literature: An Introduction, 1971; The Human Condition: Literature Written in the English Language, 1974; and The United States in Literature, 1979. Contributor of poetry to magazines and anthologies.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale, 1980, pp. 310-18.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 76: Afro-American Writers, 1940-1955, Gale, 1988, pp.75-88.
Fetrow, Fred M., Robert Hayden, Twayne, 1984.
Greenbert, Robert M., American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, Scribner, 1981.
Hatcher, John, From the Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden, George Ronald,1984.
Miller, R. Baxter, editor, Black American Poets Between Wrolds, 1940-1960, University of Tennessee Press, 1986, pp. 43-76.
Williams, Pontheolla Taylor, Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry, University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Commentary, September 1980, pp. 66-69.
Negro Digest, June 1966, pp. 164-75.
New York Times, February 27, 1980, p. B5.
Obsidian, spring 1981, special issue on Hayden.
World Order, fall 1981, special issue on Hayden.
—Anne Janette Johnson