Last week, I featured the late poet Lucille Clifton. Continuing an appreciation for National African American History Month, I introduce you today to Robert Hayden, a much-celebrated poet and the first African American selected to be Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the position now titled Poet Laureate.
Like Clifton, a poet he championed, Hayden, who was born in 1913 and died in 1980, drew deeply on his African American ancestry, culture, and especially history to craft elegant poems addressing "this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful and terrible thing"* for which all people dream. He began researching African American history in the 1930s for the Federal Writers' Project, finding in the story of slaves' journey from Africa to America a narrative on which he built a writing career, though he forcefully rejected being judged a "black poet".
Hayden's identification with and intuitive understanding of the historical experience of his forbears are palpable; hear, for example, the insistent rhythm in this excerpt from "Runagate Runagate":
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
to cross and the jack-muh-lanterns beckoning beckoning
and blackness ahead and when shall I reach that somewhere
morning and keep on going and never turn back and keep on going. . . .
An adherent of the Baha'i faith, Hayden also wrote poems inspired by that religion, which espouses unity and universality, the belief that we are all creations of one God and part of one human family.
Hayden devoted more than three decades of his life to teaching: 23 years at Fisk University (1946 - 1969) and 11 at the University of Michigan (1969 - 1980). He also taught at the University of Louisville and was a visiting poet at the University of Washington, University of Connecticut, and Denison University. His teaching, he said, allowed him to earn a living so that he could "write a poem or two now and then."
Writing in more than one poetic voice and using an array of writing techniques, Hayden could be as dramatic as he sometimes was chilling, as apt to employ formal diction as folk speech or vernacular. His presentation of the routine details of personal life could be very moving, as in this excerpt from Hayden's beautiful poem "Those Winter Sundays":
. . . slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
A reading by Hayden of "Those Winter Sundays" may be heard here. (An interesting aspect about this poem is that Hayden is not writing about his genetic father.) The same poem can be read in full and heard here.
Hayden's Selected Poems of 1966 brought him acclaim; he was deemed then "a major talent" and by the time of his Library of Congress appointment in 1976, he had earned a reputation as one of America's most eloquent and accomplished voices. He was elected to the American Academy of Poets in 1975.
Among his 10 collections of poetry are Heart-Shape in the Dust (1940), Words in the Mourning Time (1970), Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (1975), American Journal (1982), and Robert Hayden: Collected Poems (1985, 1996). He contributed to numerous periodicals, including Atlantic and Midwest Journal and, in the late 1930s, was the drama and music critic for the Michigan Chronicle.
A biographical essay from The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (1997) is here.
A critical essay on Hayden's poetry, including the poems quoted in this post, is here.________________________________
* The lines "this freedom . . . this beautiful and terrible thing" are from the poem "Frederick Douglass".