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When Robert Hayden died in 1980 at the not-so-old-age of 66, he was a big deal in the poetry world—like a really big deal. Just four years earlier (in 1976), he became the first African American poet laureate of the United States. The honor was a just dessert, the cherry that capped off a nearly forty-year career that included a number of university teaching gigs, a few degrees (from Detroit City College, later named Wayne State University, and the University of Michigan), and even a brief spell as the mentee of the great W.H. Auden. Yes, we mean that W.H. Auden, as in Wystan Hugh Auden (did you know that that was what the "W.H." stood for?).
Now, even though Hayden was pretty much a minor celebrity in the American poetry universe, things didn't work out so well in his life. Okay, that's an understatement. They started out pretty terribly, actually. It's kind of a small miracle that Hayden had such a remarkable life, considering the fact that his parents split up and ditched him with some foster parents before he was old enough to know they were. Hayden's foster parents weren't so great either. They were always at each other's throats, with Hayden's foster-father often beating up his foster-mother. At times they would get sick of fighting with each other and take turns violently abusing the young Robert Hayden. All in all, his was not a fun childhood.
In addition to an extremely violent home-life, Hayden was slightly shorter than the average inner city Detroit child and had really bad eyesight. His height, coupled with his visual impairments, meant that he couldn't really participate in organized sports like all the other kids. That may not seem like a big deal, but in those days everybody was playing sports. Hayden must have felt a little bit left out. It would be like going to an amusement park with fifty kids, and all of them were tall enough to go on the coolest roller coaster ever made—except for you.
Since his foster parents were always fighting, and since sports were pretty much out of the question, Hayden sought solace in books. He was kind of like that kid that you know who is always reading a book (in between classes, at lunch, on the playground, etc.). And in the end, all that reading paid off. In 1936 Hayden went to work for the Federal Writers Project. In 1940 he published his first book, Heart-Shape in the Dust. In 1942 he received a master's degree from the University of Michigan, and then began a teaching career that lasted for the rest of his life.
Through it all, Hayden found a way to make art out life's difficulties. The violent and traumatic events of his childhood, for example, inspired famous poems like "The Whipping," which first appeared in 1962 in a volume fittingly titled A Ballad of Remembrance. In an interview given late in his career, Hayden very clearly indicated that the events narrated in the poem were inspired by the "frightening" events of his childhood, by the "dreadful rows" that were a feature of daily life in his home, and by how "very cruel" his foster parents were to him. As you read through the "The Whipping," you can see how perhaps the young boy's feelings, and the woman's anger, are eerily similar to the experiences of Hayden's own life and perhaps to those of many abused children. Luckily, Hayden had the courage to put pen to paper about his difficult past.
It's no secret that violence breeds more violence, plain and simple. Study after study… after study has shown this. Wars lead to more wars, one gang shooting leads to another gang shooting, a suicide bombing leads to various violent forms of retaliation, and so on. But violence doesn't only have to mean gun violence, or gang warfare, or global warfare. It is a well-known fact that children exposed to domestic violence, for example, are more likely to be violent.
Childhood, in fact, often explains the types of decisions people make later in life. It seems like whenever there is a horrific school shooting or other horrible crime, the first thing we ask about the criminal is, "What was their childhood like?" The same holds true for suicide bombers and terrorists in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria—many of them were exposed to violence and radical ideas at a young age, which fundamentally shaped their adulthood.
If this is making any kind of sense, then you're well on your way to understanding Robert Hayden's "The Whipping." At first you might be thinking, what does an extremely angry woman beating the tar out of a young boy have to do with any of this? The answer: everything. The poem is about violence, child abuse, and the origins of both. A young boy is being beaten (child abuse) by a woman who also, it seems, has been the victim of abuse. The woman beats the boy because she's trying to "avenge" (i.e., get revenge) for things that have happened to her. She proves that violence is a cycle with no end to it. For any of us to break that cycle, of course (for ourselves or for others), we must first understand how it works. This poem is an important illustration of generational abuse, helping us to get a better handle of how violence gets passed along, and how we might break that chain in the future.
Life of Hayden
Get all the dirt right here.
Wow—there's something here for everybody.
Check out this very brief bio and some links to some poems.
Here's some great analysis of Hayden's career as a poet.
Check out this area of Detroit where Robert Hayden grew up. (We're wondering if they call it Paradise Valley to be ironic.)
Hayden on C-SPAN
This is just fantastic (and you get to hear Hayden's voice, too).
This reader tries out some home snapshots to help his reading along.
Here's another serious, sonorous reading.
Rockin' the Bowtie
Here's famous picture of Robert Hayden with his trademark tie.
Hayden in Short Sleeves
Maybe it was too hot for the bowtie on the day this picture was taken?
R.I.P., Mr. Hayden
Here's a picture of Robert Hayden's grave stone.
Hayden and Detroit
Did you know Hayden grew up in Detroit? And wrote about it a lot? Check it out right here.
Heart-Shape in the Dust
Hmm, well given the price this is probably a first edition.
Essays on the Poetry
There's lots of good stuff in here, and some of these essays were even penned by Hayden's former colleague and friend, Laurence Goldstein.