On 7 April 1966, Hayden's A Ballad of Remembrance was awarded, by unanimous vote, the Grand Prize for Poetry at the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. The festival had over ten thousand people from thirty-seven nations in attendance. However, on 22 April 1966 Hayden was denounced at a Fisk University conference of black writers by a group of young protest poets led by Melvin Tolson for refusing to identify himself as a black poet.
Hayden was elected to the American Academy of Poets in 1975. His most famous poem is Those Winter Sundays, which deals with the memory of fatherly love and loneliness. It ranks among the most anthologized American poems of the 20th century. He declined the position later called United States Poet Laureate previously, accepted the appointment for 1976–1977 during America's Bicentennial, and again in 1977–1978 though his health was failing then. He was awarded successive honorary degrees by Brown University (1976) and Fisk, (1978). In 1977 he was interviewed for television in Los Angeles on At One With by Keith Berwick. In January 1980 Hayden was among those gathered to be honored by President Jimmy Carter and his wife at a White House reception celebrating American poetry. He served for a decade as an editor of the Bahá'í journal World Order.
Other famed poems include "The Whipping" (which is about a small boy being severely punished for some undetermined offense), "Middle Passage" (inspired by the events surrounding the United States v. The Amistad affair), "Runagate, Runagate", and "Frederick Douglass".
Hayden’s influences included Wylie, Cullen, Dunbar, Hughes, Bontemps, Keats, Auden and Yeats. Hayden’s work often addressed the plight of African Americans, usually using his former home of Paradise Valley slum as a backdrop, as he does in the poem "Heart-Shape in the Dust". Hayden’s work made ready use of black vernacular and folk speech. Hayden wrote political poetry as well, including a sequence on the Vietnam War.
On the first poem of the sequence, he said: “I was trying to convey the idea that the horrors of the war became a kind of presence, and they were with you in the most personal and intimate activity, having your meals and so on. Everything was touched by the horror and the brutality and criminality of war. I feel that's one of the best of the poems.”