Read at the ROBERT HAYDEN CENTENNIAL CONFERENCE AND POETRY TRIBUTE, The University of Michigan, November 1, 2013. YouTube link at the end.
“It is hard for a man to find one kindred spirit among thousands of his fellows, and if at last, softened by our prayers, fate grants one, there comes the unexpected day, the unlooked for hour, which snatches him away, leaving an eternal emptiness.” —John Milton’s Elegy for Damon (tr. Anna Beer)
As a young poet I had chosen not to go off to the university after high school, but followed what I thought of as the solitary examples of Robert Frost and E. A. Robinson and other writers. For a few years, living and writing on an old farm in Oakland Township, Michigan, I tried on the singing robes of Whitman and others, eventually moving to Detroit, near Seven Mile and John R, having been born at Deaconess Hospital on East Jefferson Avenue. More than one line of my family tree has roots extending into the neighborhoods near and of Jefferson Chalmers, some back into the 19th Century. One day at the Detroit Public Library, I noticed a placard that a librarian had posted about the poet Robert Hayden. I sought out his books and read and immersed myself in his poetry, deciding, in time, I would transfer to the University of Michigan in hope of studying with him. My dream came true more than I had ever expected, taking three classes with him, one in Recent Poetry, an independent study of Emily Dickinson, and a private tutorial in writing.
As I explain in my essay on Hayden in my book The Grove of the Eumenides, during the poetry class, he was diagnosed with cancer and was understandably devastated by the prognosis. Looking back I think my writing for him a paper on Countee Cullen brought me to his attention, or an office visit, before long in and out of class. His poetry had already worked its way deep into my consciousness. He knew I held him in high esteem and I felt it a duty to let him know it. In time he became not only older poet, master, mentor, but, I believe, mutually heart-felt friend, father, taking me increasingly into his confidence, hiring me as a secretary to help him get his papers somewhat in order, and allowing me entry into the private life of his home and family, often two or three afternoons a week for the last several months of his life. Robert Hayden is not merely a literary, academic subject to me but the pivotal personal relationship of my entire adult life….
Now available in an expanded, more detailed essay twice as long as what was delivered at the University of Michigan.
The Myth of the Enlightenment: Essays
Forthcoming, September, 2014.
In my epic poem, The Parliament of Poets, Apollo calls all the poets of the nations, ancient and modern, East and West, to assemble on the moon to consult on the meaning of modernity. On Earth and on the moon, the poets teach a new global, universal vision of life. In a 3-minute excerpt from a 12-minute canto, the Persona begins to recount how he traveled there with his guide, the poet Robert Hayden.