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Robert Hayden Biography

(1913–80), The Armistad, Heart-Shape in the Dust, Figures of Time: Poems

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African-American poet, born in Detroit, educated at Wayne State University and the University of Michigan; he taught English at Fisk University before returning to the University of Michigan in 1968. In 1976 Hayden became the first African-American to be appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He worked as a researcher for the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration (19368) and the facts of African-American history with which he dealt formed the substance of much of his later poetry. Prominent historical black figures like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Nat Turner combine with more recent figures like Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, and Bessie Smith and with personal recollections. ‘Elegies for Paradise Valley’ is a sequence of poems that recreate the Detroit neighbourhood in which Hayden grew up. The historical imagination is central to Hayden's work, especially in poems like ‘Middle Passage’, a collage which dramatizes through multiple voices a range of accounts of slavery focusing upon the conditions aboard the slave ship The Armistad and the slave-led rebellion that symbolizes the conflict between oppression and the indomitable desire for freedom. Hayden deliberately wrote of themes other than racial conflict and African-American history and culture: he adhered closely to the belief that poetry should speak universally and that the representation of a particular political moment should be such that it carries universal relevance. His collections include Heart-Shape in the Dust (1940), Figures of Time: Poems (1955), A Ballad of Remembrance (1962), Selected Poems (1966), Words in the Mourning Time (1970), Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (1975), American Journal (1978), Collected Prose (1984), and Collected Poems (1985).

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