Biography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 848

African American poet Robert Earl Hayden, named Asa Bundy Sheffey when he was born, grew up poor in Detroit, raised by foster parents (the Haydens) who wanted him to have a good education. In Hayden’s well-known poem “Those Winter Sundays,” he recalls his foster father getting up early to make “banked fires blaze” and to polish his shoes.{$S[A]Sheffey, Asa Bundy;Hayden, Robert}

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After high school and years of odd jobs and reading in libraries, Hayden managed to attend Detroit City College (now Wayne State University). He spent several years in the Federal Writers’ Project before beginning graduate work at the University of Michigan, where he studied with W. H. Auden and received two Hopwood Awards. He earned his master’s degree in 1944 and began his long teaching career, first at Fisk University and later at the University of Michigan.

Although he won the Grand Prize for Poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Senegal, he was denounced by some militants during the 1960’s for his view that he was a poet rather than a “black poet.” However, some of his finest poems deal unforgettably with African American history, including “Middle Passage,” “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” “Runagate Runagate,” and the sonnet “Frederick Douglass.”

All four of those poems appear in his breakthrough 1962 volume, A Ballad of Remembrance. He wanted his earlier poems, which he called his “’prentice pieces,” omitted from his collected works. “Middle Passage,” a longer poem that runs just over six pages, is a masterpiece about the African slave trade told in different voices. It includes passages from a sailor’s log, testimony about a burning abandoned slave ship, talk from a trader, and a request for the extradition of Cinquez, “that surly brute who calls himself a prince.” Passages of third-person narration alternate with the monologues. The poem begins with a list of ships’ names and intersperses lines from spirituals, summing up with a split line of iambic pentameter: “Voyage through death/ to life upon these shores.”

“The Ballad of Nat Turner” transforms the traditional Scottish ballad into a vehicle for telling the story of how Nat Turner escaped to the swamp, had a vision of warrior angels whose black faces “were like mine,” and returned to bide his time until leading an uprising of slaves in Virginia. “Runagate Runagate” tells the story of runaway slaves. It begins in mid-stride: “Runs falls rises stumbles on from darkness to darkness.” As in “Middle Passage,” there are passages from pro-slavery whites, such as a notice seeking the return of “my Pompey, 30 yrs of age.” Part II deals with Harriet Tubman, “turned upon us, levelled pistol/ glinting in the moonlight.” Both “Runagate Runagate” and “Middle Passage” are vividly cinematic, cutting from voice to voice, scene to scene, linking together flashes, scraps, and snatches of songs into montages.

Many of Hayden’s other poems, such as “The Ballad of Sue Ellen Westerfield,” “Night, Death, Mississippi,” “A Ballad of Remembrance,” “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves,” “Crispus Attucks,” “A Letter from Phillis Wheatley,” “Paul Laurence Dunbar,” and “Homage to Paul Robeson,” deal with black experience in the United States. In “The Snow Lamp” he writes about Matthew A. Henson, the black co-discoverer of the North Pole. Hayden’s imagination ventures widely. The first poem in his Collected Poems, for example, is “The Diver,” a short-lined poem about an undersea diver who explores a wreck and resists pulling away from that dreamlike immersion, but finally begins his “measured rise.”

Hayden converted from Baptist to Baha’i in 1942, and his faith in the essential unity of all religions underlies much of his poetry. He also wrote about the Holocaust (“Belsen, Day of Liberation”), Mexico (“‘An Inference of Mexico’”), art (“Monet’s ‘Waterlilies’” and “Two Egyptian Portrait Masks”), music (“Homage to the Empress of the Blues”), flowers (“The Night-Blooming Cereus” and “Zinnias”), animals (“Killing the Calves,” “Butterfly Piece,” and “A Plague of Starlings”), and window-washers (“The Performers”). His poems range from rhymed metrical poems to free verse, from the haiku of “Smelt Fishing” to the cadenced, unpunctuated prose of “[American Journal].”

One of Hayden’s central poems is “The Tattooed Man,” a dramatic monologue spoken by a man with “jungle arms,” birds of paradise tattooed on his thighs, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” on his chest: “all art is pain/ suffered and outlived.” The monologue is a plea for love, directed toward a person for whom he would “endure caustic acids” to avoid the “looks of pain.” It is a poem similar to Randall Jarrell’s monologue “The Woman at the Washington Zoo.” In Hayden’s poem, too, the speaker seeks to free himself from an internal cage and seeks a metamorphosis that can never happen. Hayden’s poem is perhaps also a kind of ars poetica, as the speaker wears a skin of images, suffering for his art, and must live within it until his death: “I am I,” he concludes. Hayden is an essential American poet, one who happened to be black and who wrote brilliantly of African American history and experience.

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