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Life Sketch of Robert Hayden

Writing life sketches and/or interviews that focus on well-known poets, philosophers, and others remains part of my writing toolkit.

Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden

Early Life and Education

Born Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4, 1913, in Detroit, Michigan, to Asa and Ruth Sheffey, Robert Hayden spent his tumultuous childhood with an adoptive family headed by William and Sue Ellen Westerfield Hayden, in the lower class Detroit neighborhood called ironically, Paradise Valley. Hayden's parents had separated before his birth, and his mother was unable to care for her son; thus, Mrs. Sheffey’s neighbors, the Haydens, took over the care of Robert, raising him as their own, even though they themselves experienced a dysfunctional marriage.

Hayden was a small framed boy with poor vision, physical realities that kept him from successfully participating in sports. He, therefore, spent much of his time with books, pursuing literary studies. Social isolation led naturally to his life and career as a poet and professor. He attended Detroit City College (later renamed Wayne State University); then after spending two years with the Federal Writers' Project, he returned to school at the University of Michigan to finish his Masters Degree. At Michigan, Hayden had to good fortune to study with W. H. Auden, and Auden’s influence can be detected in Hayden’s technique and use of form.

After graduation with the masters degree, Hayden took a teaching position at the University of Michigan, then he later taught at Fist University in Nashville, where he remained for twenty-three years. Returning to the University of Michigan, he taught there for the last eleven years of his life. He once wryly stated that he considered himself, "a poet who teaches in order to earn a living so that he can write a poem or two now and then." He always considered himself a poet first and foremost.

The Influence of the Baha’i Faith

In 1940, Hayden married Erma Inez Morris. He converted from his Baptist religion to her Baha’i faith. His new faith influenced his writing, and his publications helped publicize the Baha'i faith. Hayden was inspired by the Baha’i teaching that artists’ works represent a manner of worship and through that type of worship the products of artists offer a spiritual service to humanity. Art offers the human mind and heart the opportunity for upliftment. According to a tenet of the religion: "Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation. Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. —Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf.

This belief about the function of art sustained Hayden throughout his writing career. Through this faith, Hayden came to understand the futility and oppression of racial segregation. He rejected the label of "Negro Poet," because he believed there was no such thing as a black or a white poetry. He chose racial unity over the consciousness of tribalism. He understood that the universal human struggle for freedom remained the bridge that unites the multi-colored races.

Painting of Robert Hayden

Painting of Robert Hayden

A Career in Poetry

For his entire life, Hayden continued to write and publish poetry and essays. He found it dismaying that political correctness isolated "black poets" afflicting them with a special critical treatment of lower standards. Instead, he wished to be considered just a poet, an American poet, and to be criticized only for the merits of his works. Before the idea was popularized by Dr. King, Hayden believed in being judged by his character not the color of his complexion.

The scholar of the formal verse form, Lewis Turco, has explained that Hayden recognized that classifying poets by race "was useful to white academics who wish to ignore poetry written by blacks." Hayden further explained that "most 'Black poetry' was and still is relegated to courses in 'Black literature' and is not often taught in the standard English literature syllabus."

Hayden recognized that the ghettoizing of "Black poets" and using different standards to critique their art implied that blacks were not capable of producing quality poetry that could stand alongside white writers and others included in the Anglo-Saxon canon of literary arts. He rightly resented such segregation and insisted that his works be critiqued "as a poet among poets, not one to whom special rules of criticism" apply. Hayden felt that conflating sociology and art made for unworkable, even inaccurate, points of view.

Many blacks have accepted that segregationist standard, even pushing it beyond common sense. As Hayden’s stance has prompted "liberal whites" to "relegat[e] Hayden to the literary ghetto," black militants label him "Uncle Tom." Seeking a false comfort from the lower standard of criticism, those black poets have unfairly castigated Hayden’s poetry, which has, in fact, revealed much about his ethnic background and done so more cogently and clearly than those who accept their confinement in the literary ghetto. According to William Meredith,

In the 1960s, Hayden declared himself, at considerable cost in popularity, an American poet rather than a black poet, when for a time there was posited an unreconcilable difference between the two roles. . . . He would not relinquish the title of American writer for any narrower identity.

Publication and Awards

Hayden published his first book of poems, Heart-Shape in the Dust: Poems in 1940. While serving as professor, Hayden continued to write. His published collections include the following:

Recommended for You

  • Heart-Shape in the Dust: Poems (Falcon Press 1940)
  • The Lion and the Archer (Hemphill Press 1948) Figures of Time: Poems (Hemphill Press 1955)
  • A Ballad of Remembrance (P. Breman 1962) Selected Poems (October House 1966)
  • Words in the Mourning Time (October House 1970) Night-Blooming Cereus (P. Breman 1972)
  • Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (Liveright 1975)
  • American Journal (Liveright 1982)
  • Collected Poems (Liveright 1985).
  • Collected Prose (University of Michigan Press 1984).

Robert Hayden was awarded twice the Hopwood Award for poetry. He was also awarded the Grand Prize for Poetry at the World Festival of Negro Arts for A Ballad of Remembrance. The National Institute of Arts and Letters bestowed on Hayden the Russell Loines Award.

Hayden's stellar reputation became well established in the poetry world, and in 1976, he was picked to serve as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position later became designated Poet Laureate of the United States of America. He served in that position for two years.

On February 25, 1980, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Robert Hayden died at age 66. He is buried in Fairview Cemetery. The FindAGrave site offers the following tribute to this fine poet:

Poet. In 1976 he served as as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position that later became known as Poet Laureate of the United States. One of the most well known and venerated of the Bahá'í poets, he rceived the Academy of American Poets Fellowship. On April 21, 2012, a United States Postage Stamp, within a pane of 10 Twentieth Century Poets, was issued featuring Robert Hayden.

The FindAGrave site also links to memorials of Hayden’s wife, Erma Inez Morris Hayden, 1911–1994, and their daughter, Maia Beth Hayden Patillo, 1942–2020.


© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 07, 2021:

Thank you, Sankhajit Bhattacharjee!

I enjoyed writing this one. I love Robert Hayden's poetry as well as his views on social issues. I found it very interesting and inspiring that he had been influenced by his religious faith. His view of universality needs to spread throughout the world; it would do much to alleviate the tensions and animosity, stoked by demagogues of selfishness, arrogance, and overweening pride.

Sankhajit Bhattacharjee from MILWAUKEE on April 07, 2021:

l enjoyed your writing...

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