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In His Own Words: Remembering Poet Robert Hayden


ROBERT HAYDEN: Here's a poem that comes directly out of my boyhood in Detroit.


That voice belongs to the late poet Robert Hayden. He was born 100 years ago today. Hayden grew up in Detroit bandying between his birth family and a foster family. Both homes were impoverished during the Great Depression. Hayden's poor vision prevented him from making many friends, so he struggled through Coke bottle glasses to gorge himself on the works of great authors and poets, a career he'd chosen for himself.

Following his days with the Federal Writers' Project and a lifetime in academia, Robert Hayden became the first African-American to serve as the poetry consultant to The Library of Congress, an honor now known as the Poet Laureate. Among his most famous works is a collection of short poems called "Elegies for Paradise Valley."


HAYDEN: Paradise Valley is part of the old slum section of Detroit where I grew up. And it was a park where, as my father would've said, all the fast people gathered.

LYDEN: This recording was made in 1976 during a reading at the Guggenheim Museum.


HAYDEN: (Reading) My shared bedroom's window opened on ally stench. A junkie died in maggots there. I saw his body shoved into a van. I saw the hatred for our kind glistening like tears in the policeman's eyes. No place for Pestalozzi's fiorelli. No time of starched and ironed innocence. God-fearing elders, even godless grifters, tried as best they could to shelter us, rats fighting in their walls.


LYDEN: Robert Hayden, reading the first two parts of his "Elegies for Paradise Valley." He was born on this day 100 years ago. Thanks to the American Academy of Poets for providing that recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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