Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512
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 of his captors as the educated slave “Beheld the conqueror faces and, lo,/ they were like mine.” In “Runagate Runagate” Hayden celebrates Harriet Tubman as “woman of earth, whipscarred,” who has “a shining/ Mean to be free.” The culmination of Hayden’s study of his political heroes can be found in the perfectly crafted sonnet titled “Frederick Douglass,” a poignant paean to “this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro/ beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world/ where none is lonely, none hunted, alien.”
Throughout his middle years Hayden himself might have felt like an alien, teaching at Fisk University in segregated Nashville. He was composing often formal, often disinterested poetry in a time when confessional poetry was fashionable. As was the case with Frederick Douglass a century earlier, Robert Hayden did not let his dissimilarity from those around him keep him from speaking his mind. An inherently peaceful person, Hayden was most upset by the violence of the 1960’s; the title poem of his 1970 book Words in the Mourning Time mourns “for King for Kennedy . . . / And for America, self-destructive, self-betrayed.” Himself feeling betrayed by America’s policies in Vietnam, Hayden asks: “Killing people to save, to free them?/ With napalm lighting routes to the future?” Despite this expressed skepticism toward American nationalism, in the 1960’s and 1970’s Hayden was welcomed by the poetic and political establishment. Named poetry consultant at the Library of Congress and invited to read at the Carter White House, Hayden felt particularly gratified regarding his late ascendancy. His successes corroborated Hayden’s belief that literature composed by African Americans should be judged objectively and should meet the same high standards as the best literature written in English.
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