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Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden
Born Asa Bundy Sheffey
(1913-08-04)4 August 1913
Detroit, Michigan, USA
Died 25 February 1980(1980-02-25) (aged 66)
Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
Occupation Poet, essayist
Nationality United States
Alma mater Wayne State University (1936)
University of Michigan (1944)
Notable works Heart Shape in the Dust, A Ballad of Remembrance
Notable awards Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (US Poet Laureate), 1976-78
Spouse Erma Inez Morris

Robert Hayden (4 August 1913 – 25 February 1980) was an American poet, essayist, educator. He served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1976–78, a role today known as US Poet Laureate.[1] He was the first African-American writer to hold the office.


  • Biography 1
  • Career 2
  • Bibliography 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit, Michigan, to Ruth and Asa Sheffey (who separated before his birth). He was taken in by a foster family next door, Sue Ellen Westerfield and William Hayden, and grew up in a Detroit ghetto nicknamed "Paradise Valley".[2] The Haydens' perpetually contentious marriage, coupled with Ruth Sheffey’s competition for young Hayden's affections, made for a traumatic childhood. Witnessing fights and suffering beatings, Hayden lived in a house fraught with chronic anger, whose effects would stay with the poet throughout his adulthood. On top of that, his severe visual problems prevented him from participating in activities such as sports in which nearly everyone else was involved. His childhood traumas resulted in debilitating bouts of depression that he later called "my dark nights of the soul."

Because he was nearsighted and slight of stature, he was often ostracized by his peer group. As a response both to his household and peers, Hayden read voraciously, developing both an ear and an eye for transformative qualities in literature. He attended Detroit City College (Wayne State University), and left in 1936 one credit short of finishing his degree during the Great Depression and went to work for the Federal Writers' Project, where he researched black history and folk culture.[3]

After leaving the Federal Writers' Project in 1938, marrying Erma Morris in 1940, and publishing his first volume, Heart-Shape in the Dust (1940), Hayden enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1941 and won a Hopwood Award there. Raised as a Baptist, he became a member of the Bahá'í Faith during the early 1940s after his wife,[3][4] and raised a daughter, Maia, in the religion, and became one of the best-known Bahá'í poets. Erma Hayden was a pianist and composer and served as supervisor of music for Nashville public schools.[4]

In pursuit of a master's degree, Hayden studied under W. H. Auden, who directed Hayden's attention to issues of poetic form, technique, and artistic discipline, and influence may be seen in the "technical pith of Hayden's verse".[2] After finishing his degree in 1942, then teaching several years at Michigan, Hayden went to Fisk University in 1946, where he remained for twenty-three years, returning to Michigan in 1969 to complete his teaching career.

A great supporter of the religion's teaching of the unity of humanity, Hayden could never embrace Black separatism.[5] Thus the title poem of Words in the Mourning Time ends in a stirring plea in the name of all humanity:

Reclaim now, now renew the vision of
a human world where godliness
is possible and man
is neither gook nigger honkey wop or kike
but man                            permitted to be man.[4]

He died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1980, age 66.

In 2012 the U.S. Postal Service issued a pane of stamps featuring ten great Twentieth Century American Poets, including Hayden.[6]


On 7 April 1966, Hayden's A Ballad of Remembrance was awarded, by unanimous vote, the Grand Prize for Poetry at the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal.[3] The festival had over ten thousand people from thirty-seven nations in attendance. However, on 22 April 1966 Hayden was denounced at a Fisk University conference of black writers by a group of young protest poets led by Melvin Tolson for refusing to identify himself as a black poet.[3]

Hayden was elected to the American Academy of Poets in 1975. His most famous poem is Those Winter Sundays,[3][5] which deals with the memory of fatherly love and loneliness. It ranks among the most anthologized American poems of the 20th century. He declined the position later called United States Poet Laureate previously, accepted the appointment for 1976–1977 during America's Bicentennial, and again in 1977–1978 though his health was failing then. He was awarded successive honorary degrees by Brown University (1976) and Fisk, (1978). In 1977 he was interviewed for television in Los Angeles on At One With by Keith Berwick.[7] In January 1980 Hayden was among those gathered to be honored by President Jimmy Carter and his wife at a White House reception celebrating American poetry.[8] He served for a decade as an editor of the Bahá'í journal World Order.[9]

Other famed poems include "The Whipping" (which is about a small boy being severely punished for some undetermined offense), "Middle Passage" (inspired by the events surrounding the United States v. The Amistad affair), "Runagate, Runagate", and "Frederick Douglass".[5]

Hayden’s influences included Wylie, Cullen, Dunbar, Hughes, Bontemps, Keats, Auden and Yeats. Hayden’s work often addressed the plight of African Americans, usually using his former home of Paradise Valley slum as a backdrop, as he does in the poem "Heart-Shape in the Dust". Hayden’s work made ready use of black vernacular and folk speech. Hayden wrote political poetry as well, including a sequence on the Vietnam War.

On the first poem of the sequence, he said: “I was trying to convey the idea that the horrors of the war became a kind of presence, and they were with you in the most personal and intimate activity, having your meals and so on. Everything was touched by the horror and the brutality and criminality of war. I feel that's one of the best of the poems.”[7]


  • Selected Poems by Robert Hayden. NY: October House 1966.
  • Words in the Mourning Time: Poems by Robert Hayden. London: October House, 1970
  • Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems by Robert Hayden. NY: Liveright, 1975
  • American Journal: Poems by Robert Hayden. NY: Liveright Pub. Corp., 1982
  • Collected Prose: Robert Hayden. Ed. Frederick Glaysher. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1984.
  • Collected Poems: Robert Hayden. Ed. Frederick Glaysher. NY: Liveright, 1985; rpt. 1996.


  1. ^ "Poet Laureate Timeline: 1971-1980". Library of Congress. 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-19. 
  2. ^ a b Ramazani, Jahan; Ellmann, Richard; O'Clair (2003). The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. vol.2 (Third ed.). New York: W.W. Norton.  
  3. ^ a b c d e Buck, Christopher (2004). "Chapter 4: Robert Hayden". Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 177–181.  
  4. ^ a b c Harriet Jackson Scarupa (January 1978). "'"Robert Hayden `Poet Laureate. Ebony 33 (3). pp. 78–80, 82.  
  5. ^ a b c Pontheolla T. Williams (1987). Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry. University of Illinois Press. pp. 26–27, 66, 154, 162.  
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b Laurence Goldstein; Robert Chrisman (2001). Robert Hayden: Essays on the Poetry. University of Michigan Press. pp. 23, 106.  
  8. ^ "Carters host poets". Santa Cruz Sentinel (Santa Cruz, California). Jan 4, 1980. p. 22. Retrieved Dec 24, 2014. 
  9. ^ "Poets, writers honor Rober Hayden". Bahá'í News. April 1990. pp. 8–9. Retrieved Dec 24, 2014. 
  • Hatcher, John (1984). From the Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden (First ed.). Oxford: George Ronald.  

External links

  • Those Winter Sundays hermeneusis by ex-Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky
  • Academy of American Poets listing
  • About Hayden's Life And Career
  • Online Selection of Poems
  • SoledadAudio of Hayden's poem
  • "On 'Middle Passage"":
  • Poetry Foundation
  • Modern American Poetry
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