Though his work is most associated with the Detroit ghettos of his youth, Robert Hayden spent his formative writing years in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and returned to the college town years later to live out the rest of his life. He first came to Ann Arbor in 1938 to attend the University of Michigan's graduate program in English. While there, he worked with W. H. Auden, who deeply influenced Hayden's work. His poems transformed from his self-described derivative early work to the compression and discipline that marked his later work.
While in Ann Arbor, Hayden published his first book, the slim-volume Heart-Shape in the Dust, in 1940 through a local publisher. He also got married, had his only child—a daughter—and joined the Baha'i faith. After completing his degree, Hayden stayed in Ann Arbor to work at the university as a teaching assistant. He left in 1946 for Fisk University in Tennessee, where he worked for twenty-three years.
Hayden returned to Ann Arbor in 1969 for a professorship at the university and stayed until his death in 1980. While there, he published several major collections, including Night-Blooming Cereus and Angle of Ascent, and in 1975 he was appointed to a two-year term as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (now known as the poet laureate), becoming the first African American to hold the post.
Hayden's only oblique Ann Arbor reference comes from his sonnet "The Performers," in which he observes window washers outside his seventh floor window, most likely the seventh floor of Haven Hall, in the English department of the university. The poem includes the lines:
two minor Wallendas, with pail and squeegee along
the wintry ledge, hook their harness to the wall
and leaning back into a seven-story angle of space
begin washing the office windows...
Hayden lived at 1201 Gardner Avenue, not far from campus; however, his severe nearsightedness made it impossible for him to drive, or even walk the rutted sidewalks to work. As a result, Hayden regularly took the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority's #5 bus that ran along Packard Street. It was short ride between the Congregational Church on State Street near campus and the intersection of Gardner and Packard. From there, he had a quick walk home, along a sidewalk bordered with hedges and lilac bushes.
Surrounded by fellow riders who surely recognized him by his inimitable coke-bottle glasses, Hayden was left undisturbed, though probably watched with wonderment about what lines he might be silently composing in his mind. Sitting or standing, not reading and unable to observe the scenery rushing by, he remained in quiet contemplation.