Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1913, Robert Hayden may seem to have made only a minor impact on the world when he died in nearby Ann Arbor in 1980. What that low figure on Hayden’s odometer does not reflect is the lives he touched over the course of the 66 years represented by the touchstones of those two sister cities. Robert Hayden published his poem in 1932 and his last collection in 1979. This long career in which his style evolved with the times served to make Hayden one of those rare writers who genuinely earned the right to be called one of the literary voices of the century.
He is most famous outside literary circles, of course, for composing one of the most widely read poems of that century. “Those Winter Sundays” served to produce probably as many college undergraduate essays on poetry as T.C. Boyle’s “Greasy Lake” has for essay assignments on the short story. The sheer omnipresence of that one poem may run the risk of casting Hayden as the poetic equivalent of a one hit wonder. You do not rise to become the very first African American poetry consultant to the Library of Congress and you most assuredly do not get your face put on a stamp in recognition as one of the ten great Twentieth Century American Poets on the basis of just one poem, however.
Heavily influenced in the early stages of his career by Harlem Renaissance icons Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, Hayden would slowly work his way through a period of richly dense and experimental verse to develop his own voice that stripped bare the ornamental diction infused with a masterly grasp of economical displays of imagery and symbolism. That voice is what is so magnificently on display in “Those Winter Sundays” and which has caused it to penetrate so deeply into the academic canon as an ideal piece for analyzing how simplicity is often deceptively complex.
Often at odds with expectations of what an African-American poet should be, Hayden’s primary rule of writing verse was equally simple and just as deceptive in the complexity of meaning lying underneath: poetry is the art of saying the impossible.