Robert Hayden Childhood & Early Life
Robert Hayden was born as Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4, 1913 in Detroit, Michigan, USA, to Ruth and Asa Sheffey. His parents got separated before his birth and he was thus raised by a foster family next door, Sue Ellen Westerfield and William Hayden. Hayden grew up in a Detroit ghetto nicknamed “Paradise Valley”. Its adjacent neighborhood was Black Bottom. Hayden had an emotionally turbulent childhood as he shuffled between the home of his parents and that of a foster family, who lived next door. Most of his early years were spent witnessing fights and suffering beatings. He grew up in a house fraught with continuing angers which affected his mental development and whose effects were clearly seen throughout his life. Additionally, Hayden also suffered from severe visual problems which prevented him from taking part in different activities such as sports, which he really missed. These childhood traumas gradually resulted in debilitating bouts of depression. Hayden described his childhood days as “my dark nights of the soul”. Hayden was often shunned from his peer groups and friend circles because of his poor eye sight and fragile stature. The constant negligence from his family and friends, forced him to read voraciously which developed his intellectual abilities to a higher level. Hayden graduated from high school in 1932 and, with the help of a scholarship, attended Detroit City College (later Wayne State University).
Hayden left the college in 1936 and started working for the Federal Writers' Project. Federal Writers' Project was a United States federal government project to finance written works and support writers during the period of Great Depression. FWP was taking in writers, editors, historians, researchers, art critics, archaeologists, geologists and cartographers. In FWP, Hayden studied and researched black history and folk culture. He left Federal Writers' Project in 1938. Hayden was raised as a Baptist but he became a member of the Bahá'í Faith after marrying a Bahá'í, Erma Inez Morris in 1940. He published his first volume of poems in 1940 named as “Heart-Shape in the Dust”. In 1941, he enrolled in a graduate English Literature program at the University of Michigan. At Michigan, he studied under W. H. Auden who became an influential guide in the development of his writing. Hayden studied the works of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elinor Wiley, Carl Sandburg, and Hart Crane. He also admired the works of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer. Hayden was bestowed with a Hopwood Award there. He finished his degree in 1942 and spent the next four years teaching in Michigan University. In 1946, he went to Fisk University where he stayed for twenty-three years.
In 1948, Hayden published his other poem collection, “The Lion and the Archer”, which established him as a mature, self-possessed artist. In 1955, he came with poem collection, “Figures of Time: Poems”. Hayden’s poetry started gaining international recognisation in 1960s. In 1966, he received the grand prize for poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal for his book “Ballad of Remembrance”. He returned to Michigan in 1969, to complete his teaching career. In 1975, Hayden was elected to the American Academy of Poets. Between the time periods, 1976-1978, he was the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He held the distinction of being the first African American to hold that post. This position later became the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. His most famous poem, “Those Winter Sundays”, came during this time. The poem deals with the memory of fatherly love and loneliness. His other famed poem, “The Whipping” was about a small boy being severely punished for some undetermined offense. Another notable poem, “Middle Passage” was based on the events surrounding the United States v/s The Amistad affair. His other acclaimed poems are “Runagate”, and “Frederick Douglass”.
Hayden’s work generally addressed the plight of African Americans, often using his earlier home of Paradise Valley slum as a backdrop theme. This was clearly evident in his poem, “Heart-Shape in the Dust”. Hayden used the black vernacular and folk speech in his works. He also wrote political poetry, which includes a sequence on the Vietnam War. Hayden was an artist committed to the discipline and craft of poetry. His poetry was known for their technical manipulation and were highly economical, heavily relying upon compression, understatement, juxtaposition, and montage. The poems like, “Snow”, “Approximations”, “The Diver”, “The Night-Blooming Cereus”, and “For a Young Artist” show his intense use of specific words or concise phrases to release a range of symbolic probabilities. Hayden’s command of technique helped him to create poetry both within and against the symbolist tradition. His poetry shows his thematic movement from racial or experiential specificity to fundamental commonalities. Even today, Hayden’s poetry is considered sustaining and compelling because of its struggle with epistemology and language. Other factors for his famed poetry are its celebration of African American oral tradition and its engagement of history.
Hayden married pianist Erma Morris in 1940, which was also the year when his first publication “Heart-Shape in the Dust” was released.
Hayden died in Ann Arbor, Michigan on 25 February 1980 at the age 66.