Recalling Robert Hayden


by David Cope


I studied poetry under Robert Hayden for two years during my undergraduate days at Michigan, but Robert not only taught me that the art was a discipline demanding exact expression, but more importantly he showed me the history never taught in schools in those days.  Hayden's "Middle Passage" tells the story of Cinquez decades before Steven Spielberg and Debbie Allen brought it to the silver screen, but it's also a poem that utilizes the kinds of cultural references and refusal of closure typical of modern masterpieces like Eliot's "The Waste Land" and Pound's "Cantos."  Most important for me was his insistence on the need for direct action if one is to be free:  themes typical of both "Middle Passage" and "Runagate Runagate," and most forcefully expressed in his sonnet celebrating the example of Frederick Douglass.   The Poet laureate/ librarianship of Congress was offered to Hayden in 1968 or 1969:  he would have been the first African American to hold that honor, but he had to turn it down because he was contracted to teach at Michigan during that period.  It was a tough choice for him, but he never allowed that to get in the way of his duties to us, his students.  Robert was one of the most sensitive, thoughtful profs I ever had—even brought the proof sheets of his Words in the Mourning Time to class, to show us how a poet and editor work together.  He also gave us, I think, the first public reading of the title poem, one of the greatest elegies in all American literature, written for Martin King Jr. and for Robert Kennedy—and for America itself in the heart of its wounded and bloodied dream.  I feel honored and lucky to have had him for my teacher for two years in Ann Arbor:  there are those who touch our lives deeply in ways that reverberate for years, and Robert Hayden was such a one.