Much of Robert Hayden’s poetry reflects one man’s wrestling with the sway of poetic influence. His early verse echoes the themes and styles of many of his immediate forebears: Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes and Countée Cullen, and American modernists such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Hart Crane. The subjects of Hayden’s later poetry reflect his belief that African American poets need not focus exclusively on sociological study or on protest. Early mentors such as Hughes and Cullen guided Hayden through his years of apprenticeship and obscurity, and defended Hayden during his later successful years, when he was often upbraided by some black poets for being insufficiently political. Hayden’s persevering confidence in his poetic voice and learning inured him against such criticism.
Throughout most of his career as a poet, from the publication of Heart-Shape in the Dust to that of his breakthrough book, Selected Poems, Hayden was sustained by academic work—heavy teaching loads and an occasionally funded research project—more than he was by popular acclaim. Working in the 1930’s and 1940’s as a researcher for the Federal Writers’ Project, and in various university libraries, Hayden found the historical material for some of his most celebrated poems. Interested especially in the motivations of rebellious slaves, Hayden in “The Ballad of Nat Turner” imagines Turner’s almost sympathetic understanding...
(The entire section is 512 words.)