Hayden’s Poetry Foundation Bio talks about his somewhat unique place in African American literature as a great African American poet who focused on race and ethnicity, yet nonetheless denied the limitations of a narrow label for himself. At least, he seems to be one of the first major black poets to take that stand so seriously.
[From the poetry foundation:]
“‘In the 1960s,’ William Meredith wrote in his foreword to Collected Prose, ‘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.’ Ironically, much of Hayden’s best poetry is concerned with black history and the black experience.”
Perhaps Hayden’s crowning achievement is the longish poem, Middle Passage. It is gloriously complex and fine, with meaningful dramatic surprises throughout. It is also a grisly depiction of moral baseness set with rich, elevated language. I suppose it must be one of my favorite poems. In 1976 Hayden became “Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress”, that is, our Poet Laureate.