Biography of Robert Hayden
Born Asa Bundey Sheffey, Robert Hayden spent his childhood in a Detroit ghetto nicknamed 'Paradise Valley,' shuffled between his parents home and that of a foster family living next door. Childhood events would result in times of depression he would call 'my dark nights of the soul'. A nearsighted boy, he was often ostracised by his peers and was excluded from many physical pursuits. Reading -however- occupied a great deal of his time.
Hayden finished high school in 1932 and through a scholarship attended Detroit City College. Post graduation, he worked for the Federal Writer's Project, researching black history and folk culture. In 1941, he enrolled in a master's English Literature program at the University of Michigan, where he studied under W.H.Auden - who would become a guide in the development of his writing. After finishing the degree in 1942, he taught for several years at Michigan before transferring to Fisk University; in 1969, he would return to Michigan to complete his teaching career.
Hayden's work has been called 'technically gifted and conceptually expansive.' His first book of poems, Heart-Shape in the Dust was published in 1940. It was followed by an unpublished second collection, then by The Lion and the Archer (1948), and The Lion and the Archer, Figures of Time: Poems (1955). His work was internationally recognised in the 60s and A Ballad of Remembrance won the grand prize for poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Daker, 1966. Selected Poems was published in 1966, and followed by Words in the Mourning Time (1970), Night-Blooming Cereus (1972), and Angle of Ascent (1975). In 1976, he became the first black American to be appointed 'Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress'; this position was later called the Poet Laureate.
American Journal was published in 1978 and 1982, and Collected Poems in 1985.
Michael S. Harper refers to Hayden's work as 'a real testament to craft, to vision, to complexity and historical consciousness, and to love and transcendence.'
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Robert Hayden Poems
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early And put his clothes on in the blueback cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made
The old woman across the way is whipping the boy again and shouting to the neighborhood her goodness and his wrongs.
I Jesús, Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy:
El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X)
O masks and metamorphoses of Ahab, Native Son I
Steel doors – guillotine gates – of the doorless house closed massively. We were locked in with loss.
Runs falls rises stumbles on from darkness into darkness and the darkness thicketed with shapes of terror and the hunters pursuing and the hounds pursuing and the night cold and the night long and the river
Today as the news from Selma and Saigon poisons the air like fallout, I come again to see the serene, great picture that I love.
No longer throne of a goddess to whom we pray, no longer the bubble house of childhood's tumbling Mother Goose man,
When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air, usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all, when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
(And I, I am no longer of that world) Naked, he lies in the blinded room chainsmoking, cradled by drugs, by jazz
Her sleeping head with its great gelid mass of serpents torpidly astir burned into the mirroring shield-- a scathing image dire
O Daedalus, Fly Away Home
For Maia and Julie) Drifting night in the Georgia pines, coonskin drum and jubilee banjo.
I He dines alone surrounded by reflections of himself. Then after sleep and benzedrine descends the Cinquecento stair his magic
The Ballad Of Nat Turner
Then fled, O brethren, the wicked juba and wandered wandered far from curfew joys in the Dismal’s night. Fool of St. Elmo’s fire
Her sleeping head with its great gelid mass
of serpents torpidly astir
burned into the mirroring shield--
a scathing image dire
as hated truth the mind accepts at last
and festers on.
I struck. The shield flashed bare.
Yet even as I lifted up the head