The historical basis for much of Hayden's poetry stemmed from his extensive study of American and black history. Beginning in the 1930s, when he researched black history for the Federal Writers' Project in his native Detroit, Hayden studied the story of his people from their roots in Africa to their present condition in the United States. "History," Charles T. Davis wrote in Black is the Color of the Cosmos: Essays on Afro-American Literature and Culture, 1942-1981, "has haunted Robert Hayden from the beginning of his career as a poet." As he once explained to Glenford E. Mitchell of World Order, Hayden saw history "as a long, tortuous, and often bloody process of becoming, of psychic evolution."
Other early influences on Hayden's development as a poet were W. H. Auden, under whom Hayden studied at the University of Michigan, and Stephen Vincent Benet, particularly Benet's poem "John Brown's Body." That poem describes the black reaction to General Sherman's march through Georgia during the Civil War and inspired Hayden to also write of that period of history, creating a series of poems on black slavery and the Civil War that won him a Hopwood Award in 1942.
After graduating from college in 1944, Hayden embarked on an academic career. He spent some twenty-three years at Fisk University, where he rose to become a professor of English, and ended his career with an eleven-year stint at the University of Michigan. Hayden told Mitchell that he considered himself to be "a poet who teaches in order to earn a living so that he can write a poem or two now and then."
Although history played a large role in Hayden's poetry, many of his works were also inspired by the poet's adherence to the Baha'i faith, an Eastern religion that believes in a coming world civilization. Hayden served for many years as the poetry editor of the group's World Order magazine. The universal outlook of the Baha'is also moved Hayden to reject any narrow racial classification for his work.
James Mann of the Dictionary of Literary Biography claimed that Hayden "stands out among poets of his race for his staunch avowal that the work of black writers must be judged wholly in the context of the literary tradition in English, rather than within the confines of the ethnocentrism that is common in contemporary literature written by blacks." As Lewis Turco explained in the Michigan Quarterly Review, "Hayden has always wished to be judged as a poet among poets, not one to whom special rules of criticism ought to be applied in order to make his work acceptable in more than a sociological sense."
This stance earned Hayden harsh criticism from other blacks during the polarized 1960s. He was accused of abandoning his racial heritage to conform to the standards of a white, European literary establishment. "In the 1960s," William Meredith wrote in his foreword to Collected Prose, "Hayden declared himself, at considerable cost in popularity, an American poet rather than a black poet, when for a time there was posited an unreconcilable difference between the two roles. . . . He would not relinquish the title of American writer for any narrower identity."
Ironically, much of Hayden's best poetry is concerned with black history and the black experience. "The gift of Robert Hayden's poetry," Vilma Raskin Potter remarked in MELUS, "is his coherent vision of the black experience in this country as a continuing journey both communal and private." Hayden wrote of such black historical figures as Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and Cinquez. He also wrote of the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and the American slave trade. Edward Hirsch, writing in the Nation, called Hayden "an American poet, deeply engaged by the topography of American myth in his efforts to illuminate the American black experience."
Though Hayden wrote in formal poetic forms, his range of voices and techniques gave his work a rich variety. "Hayden," Robert G. O'Meally wrote in the Washington Post Book World, "is a poet of many voices, using varieties of ironic black folk speech, and a spare, ebullient poetic diction, to grip and chill his readers. He draws characters of stark vividness as he transmutes cardinal points and commonplaces of history into dramatic action and symbol." "His work," Turco wrote, "is unfettered in many ways, not the least of which is in the range of techniques available to him. It gives his imagination wings, allows him to travel throughout human nature."
Speaking of Hayden's use of formal verse forms, Mann explained that Hayden's poems were "formal in a nontraditional, original way, strict but not straight-jacketed" and found that they also possessed "a hard-edged precision of line that molds what the imagination wants to release in visually fine-chiseled fragmental stanzas that fit flush together with the rightness of a picture puzzle."
It wasn't until 1966, with the publication of Selected Poems, that Hayden first enjoyed widespread attention from the nation's literary critics. As the Choice critic remarked at the time, Selected Poems showed Hayden to be "the surest poetic talent of any Negro poet in America; more importantly, it demonstrated a major talent and poetic coming-of-age without regard to race or creed." With each succeeding volume of poems his reputation was further enhanced until, in 1976 and his appointment as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, Hayden was generally recognized as one of the country's leading black poets. Critics often point to Hayden's unique ability to combine the historical and the personal when speaking of his own life and the lives of his people. Writing in Obsidian: Black Literature in Review, Gary Zebrun argued that "the voice of the speaker in Hayden's best work twists and squirms its way out of anguish in order to tell, or sing, stories of American history—in particular the courageous and plaintive record of Afro-American history—and to chart the thoughts and feelings of the poet's own private space. . . . Hayden is ceaselessly trying to achieve . . . transcendence, which must not be an escape from the horror of history or from the loneliness of individual mortality, but an ascent that somehow transforms the horror and creates a blessed permanence."
- 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, Paul Breman (London), 1962.
- Selected Poems, October House, 1966.
- Words in the Mourning Time, October House, 1970.
- The Night-Blooming Cereus, Paul Breman, 1972.
- Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems, Liveright, 1975.
- American Journal, limited edition, Effendi Press, 1978, enlarged edition, Liveright, 1982.
- Robert Hayden: Collected Poems, edited by Frederick Glaysher, Liveright, 1985, with an introduction by Arnold Rampersad, Liveright, 1996.
- (Editor and author of introduction) Kaleidoscope: Poems by American Negro Poets (juvenile), Harcourt, 1967.
- (With others) Today's Poets (recording), Folkways, 1967.
- (Author of preface) Alain LeRoy Locke, editor, The New Negro, Atheneum, 1968.
- (Editor with David J. Burrows and Frederick R. Lapides) Afro-American Literature: An Introduction, Harcourt, 1971.
- (Editor with James Edwin Miller and Robert O'Neal) The United States in Literature, Scott, Foresman, 1973, abridged edition published as The American Literary Tradition, 1607-1899, 1973.
- (Contributor) The Legend of John Brown, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1978.
- Collected Prose, edited by Glaysher, University of Michigan Press, 1984.
- Concise Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 1: The New Consciousness, 1941-1968, Gale, 1987.
- Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Volume 2, Gale, 1986.
- Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 9, 1978, Volume 14, 1980, Volume 37, 1986.
- Conversations with Writers, Volume 1, Gale, 1977.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, 1980, Volume 76: Afro-American Writers, 1940-1955, 1988.
- Fetrow, Fred M., Robert Hayden, Twayne, 1984.
- Gibson, Donald B., editor, Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1973.
- Hatcher, John, From the Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden, George Ronald, 1984.
- Hayden, Robert E., Collected Prose, edited by Frederick Glaysher, University of Michigan Press, 1984.
- O'Brien, John, Interviews with Black Writers, Liveright, 1973.
- AB Bookman's Weekly, April 21, 1980.
- Black Scholar, March/April, 1980.
- Chicago Tribune, February 27, 1980.
- Choice, May, 1967, December, 1984.
- Encore, April, 1980.
- Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1980.
- MELUS, spring, 1980, spring, 1982.
- Michigan Quarterly Review, spring, 1977; winter, 1982; fall, 1983.
- Nation, December 21, 1985.
- New York Times, February 27, 1980.
- New York Times Book Review, January 17, 1971; February 22, 1976; October 21, 1979.
- Obsidian: Black Literature in Review, spring, 1981.
- Time, March 10, 1980.
- Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1982.
- Washington Post, February 27, 1980.
- Washington Post Book World, June 25, 1978.
- World Order, spring, 1971; summer, 1975; winter, 1976, fall, 1981.
Poems By ROBERT HAYDEN
Audio & PodcastsPoem of the Day Poem of the Day Poetry Off the Shelf
Honor Thy Father's Day
Robert Hayden and Terrance Hayes take the Hallmark out of the holiday.
Robert Hayden: Essential American Poets
Archival recordings of the poet Robert Hayden, with an introduction to his life and work. Recorded 1968 and 1977, Library of Congress, Washington DC.
LIFE SPAN 1913–1980