Robert Hayden: Ascent and Repose
In 1969, the poet Robert Hayden (M.A. 1946) received an offer to become the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, the highest honor the United States bestows upon a poet. Hayden would have been the first black poet to receive the title. According to biographer John Hatcher, an administrator in the U-M English department advised Hayden not to accept the offer. Having just returned to the department as a full professor, it would certainly be unconventional to immediately go on leave. Best tell them no, the administrator recommended.
The position, now known as poet laureate of the United States, was an accolade that Hayden had wanted and worked toward for years. Despite his disappointment and frustration, Hayden allowed himself to be persuaded. He declined the position.
Instead, the poet turned his attention to local pursuits. There were classes, curricula, and committees to attend to. There was his family and his own verse. There was work to be done that only he could do. So he worked.
Robert Hayden was born on August 4, 1913. His parents, Asa and Ruth Sheffey, were divorced, and Hayden was raised by Ruth’s friends, the Haydens. He regularly visited his birth mother in Buffalo, where the pair went on boat rides and out to the theater, and Ruth Sheffey also visited the Haydens on occasion. Hayden went to see his father when he was 12, but the meeting did not go well. Like his foster father, Asa Sheffey did not seem to understand his son’s solitary tendencies.
Hayden’s eyes, damaged at birth, forced him to wear very, very thick glasses. His poor eyesight was one reason he hesitated to participate in some activities when he was young; another was his inclination toward solitude and bookishness. “‘You know I always wanted to be in things,’” the poet Michael R. Brown recalls Hayden saying. “‘But, of course, I couldn’t be. First because of my sight, but also because I wouldn’t let myself be.”
When the Great Depression began, Hayden’s family was one of many that had to stand in line for welfare. One day, a caseworker watched Hayden reading a book of poems by Countee Cullen. When asked about the book, Hayden insisted that he, too, would become a published poet. The caseworker showed up at Hayden’s house a few days later, promising to help the young man attain a scholarship to attend college.
“If you’re going to be a poet, you ought to get a good education,” she said. The Haydens, long supporters of Robert’s continuing education, concurred.
The 1930s were a time of dramatic poetic and personal transformation for the young poet. Hayden attended Detroit City College, now Wayne State University, and left in 1936 without a degree. (Hayden couldn’t seem to pass physics.) He got a job in the Detroit branch of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Project Administration. There he met one of his idols, Langston Hughes.
Hayden began graduate work at U-M in 1938, winning a Hopwood Award soon after matriculating and publishing his first book in 1940. Hayden’s daughter, Maia, was born two years later, the same year his wife converted to the Baha’i faith. The following year Hayden converted, as well.
He completed a series of powerful and significant poems during this time, including “O Daedelus, Fly Away Home,” “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” and “Frederick Douglass.” He published an early version of “Middle Passage,” Hayden’s lengthy collage poem about the uprising on the slave ship Amistad, in a journal under the editorship of civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois. Hayden studied with the British poet W.H. Auden during the year Auden taught at U-M. When Hayden won a second Hopwood Award, Auden personally congratulated him.
Degree in hand, Hayden took a job teaching at Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1946. Life in Tennessee in the 1940s was very different from Brooklyn, Michigan, where the Haydens had been living. A segregated city, Nashville still had separate facilities for buses and restaurants and water fountains. Hayden declined to go to the movies because that would have meant using a back entrance and sitting in the balcony. Still, Hayden taught at Fisk for over 20 years, and many of his students went on to become writers in their own right.
At the 1966 Black Writers’ Conference held at Fisk, Hayden shared a panel with writers Arna Bontemps, Margaret Walker, and Melvin Tolson. Hayden found himself out of step with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and his fellow panelists questioned him aggressively on his views. It was three against one, and many in the audience joined the argument during the question-and-answer period, mostly against Hayden. The following year, Hayden did not attend the conference at Fisk, even though he still taught there. By the end of the decade, he and his family had returned to Michigan.
At U-M, Hayden continued to work, writing and publishing some of his most important work. The collections Words in the Mourning Time (1970) and The Night-Blooming Cereus (1972) were both published during this time, as was Angle of Ascent (1975), a collection of new and selected poems. In 1976, almost immediately after the publication of Angle of Ascent, which included many of Hayden’s most important and most famous works, the poet was again offered the position of Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. This time, Hayden happily accepted.
The accolades continued. He was elected to the Academy of American Poets. Throughout the decade, he received a slew of honorary doctorate degrees from Grand Valley State College, Brown University, Benedict College, Wayne State, and, finally in 1978, Fisk University.
Following a cancer diagnosis in 1979, Hayden hired Frederick Glaysher, a U-M graduate student, to collect and organize his letters and papers. In 1980, a tribute celebrating Hayden’s long life and list of accomplishments was organized at Michigan. The night included music, plays, and poetry, including two poems read by the poet Michael Harper dedicated to Hayden. But his illness had progressed too far for Hayden to attend his own tribute.
Some went to Hayden instead. The poet greeted, hosted, and entertained his guests at his own home, all of whom attested to his wit and graciousness in the face of heavy circumstances. Hayden bid his guests good night and went to bed. He died the next day.
Hayden’s time at Michigan spans the gap of time between Michigan’s early 20th-century poets—including Robert Frost and Auden—and those teaching here at the turn of the 21st century, a list that includes Tarfia Faizullah, Lorna Goodison, Linda Gregerson, A. Van Jordan, Laura Kasischke, Thylias Moss, and Keith Taylor.
Robert Hayden’s legacy will be honored along with the rest of the University’s poets and poetry at a conference this Friday, April 7, 2017, called Poets at Michigan, Then and Now, which is part of U-M’s bicentennial celebration.
Hayden’s legacy is long and includes the list of students improved by his attention, books developed under his editorial eye, and possibilities created by his determination and talent.
That determination in the face of racism and marginalization empowered Hayden to describe a subjectively experienced world in universal terms, to carve out a space for people to read and see the world together. It is what prompted Brown to remember Hayden as “a revolutionary in a mauve coat.” LSA Professor Laurence Goldstein, who knew Hayden and edited a book of essays on his work, describes the poet’s rare quality like this:
“[Robert Hayden] did not ‘do his duty’ to literature,” Goldstein writes, “rather he acted joyfully upon his artistic instincts, making articulate the music of humanity that few of his contemporaries heard as clearly as he.”
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