About this poet

Born Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4, 1913, Robert Hayden was raised in the poor neighborhood in Detroit called Paradise Valley. He had an emotionally tumultuous childhood and was shuttled between the home of his parents and that of a foster family, who lived next door. Because of impaired vision, he was unable to participate in sports, but was able to spend his time reading. In 1932, he graduated from high school and, with the help of a scholarship, attended Detroit City College (later Wayne State University).

Hayden published his first book of poems, Heart-Shape in the Dust, in 1940, at the age of 27. He enrolled in a graduate English literature program at the University of Michigan, where he studied with W. H. Auden. Auden became an influential critical guide in the development of Hayden's writing. Hayden admired the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elinor Wiley, Carl Sandburg, and Hart Crane, as well as the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer. He had an interest in African-American history and explored his concerns about race in his writing.

Hayden's poetry gained international recognition in the 1960s and he was awarded the grand prize for poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966 for his book Ballad of Remembrance.

Explaining the trajectory of Hayden's career, the poet William Meredith wrote: "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. There is scarcely a line of his which is not identifiable as an experience of black America, but he would not relinquish the title of American writer for any narrower identity."

In 1975, Hayden received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and in 1976, he became the first black American to be appointed as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (later called the poet laureate). He died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on February 25, 1980.


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[American Journal]

Robert Hayden, 1913 - 1980
here among them     the americans     this baffling 
multi people     extremes and variegations     their 
noise     restlessness     their almost frightening 
energy     how best describe these aliens in my 
reports to The Counselors 
 
disguise myself in order to study them unobserved 
adapting their varied pigmentations     white black 
red brown yellow     the imprecise and strangering 
distinctions by which they live     by which they 
justify their cruelties to one another 

charming savages     enlightened primitives     brash 
new comers lately sprung up in our galaxy     how 
describe them     do they indeed know what or who 
they are     do not seem to     yet no other beings 
in the universe make more extravagant claims
for their importance and identity
 
like us they have created a veritable populace 
of machines that serve and soothe and pamper 
and entertain     we have seen their flags and 
foot prints on the moon     also the intricate
rubbish left behind     a wastefully ingenious
people     many it appears worship the Unknowable 
Essence     the same for them as for us     but are 
more faithful to their machine made gods
technologists their shamans 

oceans deserts mountains grain fields canyons 
forests     variousness of landscapes weathers 
sun light moon light as at home     much here is 
beautiful     dream like vistas reminding me of  
home     item     have seen the rock place known 
as garden of the gods and sacred to the first 
indigenes     red monoliths of home     despite 
the tensions i breath in i am attracted to 
the vigorous americans     disturbing sensuous 
appeal of so many     never to be admitted 

something they call the american dream     sure 
we still believe in it i guess     an earth man 
in the tavern said     irregardless of the some 
times night mare facts we always try to double 
talk our way around     and its okay the dreams 
okay and means whats good could be a damn sight 
better     means every body in the good old u s a 
should have the chance to get ahead or at least 
should have three squares a day     as for myself 
i do okay     not crying hunger with a loaf of 
bread tucked under my arm you understand     i
fear one does not clearly follow i replied 
notice you got a funny accent pal     like where 
you from he asked     far from here i mumbled
he stared hard     i left 

must be more careful     item     learn to use okay
their pass word     okay 

crowds gathering in the streets today for some 
reason obscure to me     noise and violent motion
repulsive physical contact     sentinels     pigs 
i heard them called     with flailing clubs     rage 
and bleeding and frenzy and screaming     machines 
wailing     unbearable decibels     i fled lest 
vibrations of the brutal scene do further harm 
to my metabolism already over taxed 

The Counselors would never permit such barbarous 
confusion     they know what is best for our sereni 
ty     we are an ancient race and have outgrown 
illusions cherished here     item     their vaunted 
liberty     no body pushes me around i have heard 
them say     land of the free they sing     what do
they fear mistrust betray more than the freedom 
they boast of in their ignorant pride     have seen 
the squalid ghettoes in their violent cities 
paradox on paradox     how have the americans 
managed to survive 

parades fireworks displays video spectacles 
much grandiloquence much buying and selling 
they are celebrating their history     earth men 
in antique uniforms play at the carnage whereby 
the americans achieved identity     we too recall 
that struggle as enterprise of suffering and 
faith uniquely theirs     blonde miss teen age 
america waving from a red white and blue flower
float as the goddess of liberty     a divided 
people seeking reassurance from a past few under 
stand and many scorn     why should we sanction 
old hypocrisies     thus dissenters     The Counse 
lors would silence them 
a decadent people The Counselors believe     i 
do not find them decadent     a refutation not 
permitted me    but for all their knowledge 
power and inventiveness not yet more than raw 
crude neophytes like earthlings everywhere 

though i have easily passed for an american     in 
bankers grey afro and dashiki long hair and jeans
hard hat yarmulka mini skirt     describe in some 
detail for the amusement of The Counselors     and 
though my skill in mimicry is impeccable     as 
indeed The Counselors are aware     some thing 
eludes me     some constant amid the variables
defies analysis and imitation     will i be judged 
incompetent 

america     as much a problem in metaphysics as 
it is a nation earthly entity an iota in our 
galaxy     an organism that changes even as i 
examine it     fact and fantasy never twice the 
same     so many variables 

exert greater caution     twice have aroused 
suspicion     returned to the ship until rumors 
of humanoids from outer space     so their scoff 
ing media voices termed us     had been laughed 
away     my crew and i laughed too of course 

confess i am curiously drawn     unmentionable     to
the americans     doubt i could exist among them for 
long however     psychic demands far too severe 
much violence     much that repels     i am attracted 
none the less     their variousness their ingenuity 
their elan vital     and that some thing     essence 
quiddity     i cannot penetrate or name 

Copyright © 1978, 1982 by Robert Hayden, from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden's poetry, which explored his concerns about race and African-American history, gained international recognition in the 1960s, and Hayden eventually became the first black American to be appointed as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. 

by this poet

poem
Sundays too my father got up early 
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, 
then with cracked hands that ached 
from labor in the weekday weather made 
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. 

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. 
When the rooms were warm, he'd call, 
and slowly I would