A Wide Range of Styles in a Small Body of Work

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

On February 24, 1980, the day before Robert Hayden died at the age of sixty-six, the Center for African American and African Studies at the University of Michigan, where Hayden had taught since 1969, sponsored a daylong tribute to Hayden. The occasion served to celebrate Hayden’s accomplishment as a poet and his integrity as a man. The ascendancy of Hayden’s critical reputation signified by that occasion has continued, and Robert Hayden is recognized as one of the significant American poets of his generation. The quantity of his work is not great—his Collected Poems, published posthumously in 1985, runs to fewer than two hundred pages—yet it is work that sustains a high level of artistic merit and that includes a handful of authentically great poems. Hayden’s poetry is impressive for the range and variety of form and theme that it embodies and for the poet’s success in fusing a multiplicity of influences into a body of work as coherent as it is eloquent.

The influences manifest in Hayden’s first published book, Heart-Shape in the Dust (1940), are essentially two. The first, and the more fundamental in shaping Hayden’s notions of the nature of poetry, is the example of the Harlem Renaissance, the name most commonly given to the remarkable flowering of African American art and literature in the 1920’s. For an African American looking for his own authentic poetic voice in the 1930’s, the work of the poets of the earlier...

(The entire section is 483 words.)