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About Hayden's Life and Career

Mark A. Sanders

Robert Hayden looms as one of the most technically gifted and conceptually expansive poets in American and African American letters. Attending to the specificities of race and culture, Hayden's poetry takes up the sobering concerns of African American social and political plight; yet his poetry posits race as a means through which one contemplates the expansive possibilities of language, and the transformational power of art. An award-winning poet of voice, symbol, and lyricism, Hayden's poetry celebrates human essence.

Born to a struggling couple, Ruth and Asa Sheffey (they separated soon after his birth), Hayden was taken in by a foster family, 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 young Hayden's affections, made for a traumatic childhood. Witnessing fights and suffering beatings, Hayden lived in a house fraught with 'chronic angers' whose effects would stay with the poet throughout his adulthood. His childhood traumas resulted in debilitating bouts of depression which be later called "my dark nights of the soul." Because he was nearsighted and slight of stature, he was often ostracized by his peer group. As a response both to his household and peers, Hayden read voraciously, developing both ear and eye for transformative qualities in literature. He attended Detroit City College (Wayne State University), and left in 1936 to work, for the Federal Writers' Project, where he researched black history and folk culture. As this work proved enriching for Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and many other black writers, Hayden's research provided him with essential material and reading skills that would fuel much of his artistry. So too, his work in the theater at Detroit City College and later at the University of Michigan, helped to develop his sense of dramatic voicing, evident in the polyvocality of "Middle Passage," one of his best-known works.

After leaving the Federal Writers' Project in 1938, marrying Erma Morris in 1940, and publishing his first volume, Heart-Shape in the Dust (1940), Hayden enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1941. In pursuit of a master's degree, Hayden studied under W. H. Auden, who directed Hayden's attention to issues of poetic form, technique, and artistic discipline. 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.

Hayden's poetry reflects dramatic growth from imitation to a fully realized and independent artistic vision. Heart-Shape in the Dust, largely apprenticeship work, takes many of its cues from Harlem Renaissance poetry, particularly that of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Though largely derivative in concept and style, its attention to social criticism and its use of racially and culturally specific materials would mark much of Hayden's ensuing work. In 1942 Hayden assembled a second collection (it remains unpublished as such, but many of the poems appear in Selected Poems, 1966), "The Black Spear," using much of the material unearthed during his work for the Federal Writers' Project. Responding to Stephen Vincent Benét's invitation in John Brown’s Body (1928) for a black writer to pen the seminal "black epic," Hayden explores the complexities of an African American presence in American history. Revealing Hayden's technical development, the collection effectively uses dramatic voices, juxtaposition, irony, and montage for heightened poetic effect.

Hayden's third collection, The Lion and the Archer (1948), launches the career of a mature, self-possessed artist. The Lion and the Archer, Figures of Time: Poems (1955), A Ballad of Remembrance (1962), Selected Poems (1966), Words in the Mourning Time (1970), Night-Blooming Cereus (1972), Angle of Ascent (1975), American Journal (1978 and 1982), and Collected Poems (1985) establish Hayden as a major influence in American poetry, effectively bridging modernist and postmodernist eras.

An artist passionately committed to the discipline and craft of poetry, Hayden's symbolic density emerges from his manipulation of technical detail. Much of his poetry is highly economical, relying upon compression, understatement, juxtaposition, and montage, which often create highly textured and nuanced irony. Poems such as "Snow," "Approximations," "The Diver," "The Night-Blooming Cereus," and "For a Young Artist"demonstrate the pressure Hayden applies to specific words or concise phrases in order to release a range of suggestions and symbolic possibilities.

Hayden's command of technique makes possible his innovations both within and against the symbolist tradition. Hayden's thematic movement from racial or experiential specificity to fundamental commonalities relies heavily upon a symbolic system. The sordid and oppressive nature of black political life (often represented through the slave trade or the Vietnam War) finds synthesis and resolution in the symbolic realm. Thus Cinquez in "Middle Passage," or the cereus in "Night-Blooming Cereus," or Bahauallah in "Words in the Mourning Time" offer spiritual emancipation and renewal in a realm over and above the physical and limited. Here Hayden's faith as a Baha'i is central as it reinforced his belief in "transcendent humanity," a spiritual or psychic unity of mankind capable of overcoming divisiveness.

Michael S. Harper refers to Hayden's poetry as "a real testament to craft, to vision, to complexity and historical consciousness, and to love and transcendence." Readers find Hayden’s poetry sustaining and compelling largely because of its struggle with epistemology and language; its celebration of African American oral tradition; its engagement of history; and finally its aesthetics and form. With emotional intensity achieved through technical mastery, Hayden's poetry renders a world fraught with anguish, yet one gesturing toward liberating possibility.

See also: Michael S. Harper, "Remembering Robert Hayden," Michigan Quarterly Review 21 (Winter 1982): 182-186. Fred M. Fetrow, Robert Hayden, 1984. Pontheolla T. Williams, Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry, 1987. Norma R. Jones, "Robert Hayden," in DLB, vol. 76, African-American Writers, 1940-1955, eds. Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis, 1988, pp.75-88.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.

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