Robert Hayden (1913-1980)

    Contributing Editor:
    Robert M. Greenberg

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    It's important to get students to fully appreciate Hayden's effects of sound, image, and atmosphere. For better appreciation of the poems' aural qualities, have students read such selections as "Summertime and the Living" and "Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday" out loud.

    Discuss a condensed narrative poem such as "Tour 5" as a short story. This should permit a discussion of the evolving point of view of the travelers and the evolving psychological quality of the imagery.

    Point out also Hayden's control of voice. "Mourning Poem," for example, is spoken in the idiom of the black church, as if by a chorus of mourners; and if one reads the final lines to mean that the congregation did suspect her of misbehaving, then the poem becomes a masterpiece of wryness and irony.

    Students are interested in questions like the following:

    1. Is it possible to be both an ethnic and a universal (or liberal humanist) writer? What constitutes universality? What constitutes successful treatment of ethnic material?

    2. Can a writer from a minority group write for a general educated audience without giving up in resonance what is gained in breadth of audience and reference?

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Major themes are tension between the imagination and the tragic nature of life; the past in the present; the nurturing power of early life and ethnically colored memories.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Precede discussion of form and style with a discussion of the function of a particular type of poem. For example, Hayden wrote spirit-of-place poems such as "Tour 5," which depend heavily on imagery; folk character poems such as "Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday," which depend on economy of characterization and humor; and early neighborhood poems such as "Summertime and the Living," which depend on realism mixed with nostalgia, fancy, or psychological symbolism.

    Original Audience

    It is important to realize Hayden always wrote for a general literate audience, not exclusively or even primarily for a black audience. The issue of audience for him relates to the issue of the role of a poet.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Compare Yeats as an ethnic-universal poet to Hayden.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. "Tour 5"

    (a) Discuss the human situation the poem describes. Consider its treatment of both the external and internal aspects of the experience for the travelers.

    (b) Discuss the allusive quality of the adjectives used in the first stanza to convey a festive mood and in the last three lines to convey the violence of the Civil War and the cruelty of slavery.

    (c) Discuss what makes this a poem of the first order. Conciseness, controlled intensity, human drama, eloquence, and powerful symbols are some of the qualities you might touch on.

    2. "Summertime and the Living"

    (a) Discuss Hayden's use of a third-person retrospective point of view to write about childhood. (It gives him the ability to be both inside and outside the child's perspective.)

    (b) Discuss the sound of words and their connection with sense. Hayden is highly conscious of the aural dimension of language.

    (c) What is the function of the title, which is taken from a song in George and Ira Gershwin's opera Porgie and Bess?

    3. "Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday"

    (a) Discuss the viewpoint of the speakers about the murdered diva. Discuss the final two lines. Are they at all ironic? Are the speakers totally surprised?

    (b) Discuss the importance of tone throughout the poem.

    (c) Discuss the poem's atmosphere and how elements other than tone contribute to the black church feeling.


    Greenberg, Robert M. "Robert Hayden." In American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, Supplement II, Part I, edited by A. Walton Litz, 361-83. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981. Has biographical, critical, and bibliographical material.

    Hayden, Robert. Collected Prose: Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick Glaysher. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. Has excellent interview material with Hayden about particular poems.