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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 twenty-seven. 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.
In 1944, Hayden received his graduate degree from the University of Michigan and remained there for two years as a teaching fellow. He was the first black member of the English department. He then joined the faculty at Fisk University in Nashville, where he would remain for more than twenty years.
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.
Hayden ultimately authored nine collections of poetry in his lifetime, as well as a collection of essays, and some children’s literature.
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.
American Journal (Effendi Press, 1978)
Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (Liveright, 1975)
The Night-Blooming Cereus (Paul Bremen, 1972)
Words in the Mourning Time (October House, 1970)
Selected Poems (October House, 1966)
A Ballad of Remembrance (Paul Bremen, 1962)
Figure of Time (Hemphill Press, 1955)
The Lion and the Archer, with Myron O’Higgins (Hemphill Press, 1948)
Heart-Shape in the Dust (Falcon Press, 1940)
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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 breathe 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
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 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?