Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 476
Robert Hayden’s childhood independence was instrumental to his becoming a scholar and poet. He was reared in a poor Detroit neighborhood, where such distinctions were rare. Soon after he was born Asa Bundy Sheffey, Hayden was adopted by the Haydens, neighbors of his birth parents. A sufferer of extreme myopia...
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- Critical Essays
Robert Hayden’s childhood independence was instrumental to his becoming a scholar and poet. He was reared in a poor Detroit neighborhood, where such distinctions were rare. Soon after he was born Asa Bundy Sheffey, Hayden was adopted by the Haydens, neighbors of his birth parents. A sufferer of extreme myopia as a child, Hayden was separated from his peers into a “sight conservation” class; although his handicap kept him from participating in most sports, the resulting time alone allowed him to read (especially poetry, which demanded less of his vision), write, and play the violin, thereby developing rhythmical and tonal sensitivities that would well serve his eventual vocation.
Several fortuitous events and encounters in Robert Hayden’s life supported his choosing texts in African American history, especially the narratives of rebellious slaves, as fruitful subjects for his verse. After attending Detroit City College (which later became Wayne State University), Hayden, in 1936, began working for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration; he was assigned to research “Negro folklore.” Two major figures encouraged his ensuing interest in African American history. The first, Erma Inez Morris, a pianist and a teacher in Detroit’s public schools, became Hayden’s wife and, for a time, his financial support. She also introduced her new husband to Countée Cullen, the Harlem Renaissance poet who admired Hayden’s first book, Heart-Shape in the Dust, and who motivated Hayden to keep writing. Hayden also found inspiration from the British poet W. H. Auden, also a folklorist, who instructed Hayden at the University of Michigan when the younger poet began graduate work there.
In 1946, Hayden began a twenty-three-year tenure as a professor at Fisk College in segregated Nashville. During this time Hayden wrote steadily, despite being hampered by a heavy teaching load. The quality of Hayden’s work was recognized internationally—it was broadcast by the British Broadcasting Company, and his 1962 book A Ballad of Remembrance won the Grand Prize for Poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal—before he was discovered in the United States. Eventual recognition included invitations to teach at several universities and to edit anthologies of work by his poetic heroes and contemporaries. The year that Angle of Ascent was published, 1975, Hayden was elected fellow of the Academy of American Poets and Appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
Hayden’s greatest personal successes, however, occurred in the last few months of his life. The poet was publicly celebrated both by President Jimmy Carter, at “A White House Salute to American Poetry,” and by his peers at the University of Michigan with “A Tribute to Robert Hayden,” the latter occurring the day before Hayden died of a respiratory embolism at age sixty-six. Popular appreciation of Hayden’s sensitive lyrics, dramatic monologues, and poignant remembrances has grown since his death.