Making a Promise to Robert Hayden

I told him that I liked his poems and would look for his book. 

He said, “It’s not very well known. You probably won’t be able to find it around here.”

Mr. Hayden spoke with me after I stopped in front of him on my way out the door. For minutes after his reading, I had been hyper-aware of him. He had asked for coffee, then been served it in a wax cup. I took a wax cup too and poured coffee into it. By then the organizers had arranged for some regular coffee cups to be delivered to the event room. But I felt that Mr. Hayden shouldn’t be the only one whose coffee included melted wax. 

It was in the early spring of 1975, the first poetry reading I ever attended. His poems puzzled me, but I was going to visit Virginia during spring break, and he mentioned the beauty of redbud trees there, as well as his mixed feelings about the south as a place. 

“I’m not angry,” he said. “If you’re expecting angry poems, you’ll be disappointed.” 

He stood at the end of the room underneath an intense light bulb and explained that he was very close to being blind and needed a special lamp to read. The other lights were switched off. To witness his face illuminated in the midst of the darkness made the time with him feel both intimate and exalted. 

Afterward, my friend, who had invited me to the reading, was in a hurry to leave. But I could not go without saying something to him. 

You need to know that I was exceedingly shy. I avoided groups, never asked a question or answered one in either high school or college, and was a failure at making myself known to professors and other influential persons. But Robert Hayden was so intensely self-effacing that I felt comfortable telling him that I had not previously known his work and was grateful that he had visited so that I could hear it.  

He stood up and said, “I wish you success in all of your endeavors.”

As a professor and an acclaimed poet, Mr. Hayden understood that a student such as myself might interpret this as a blessing. He said it anyway. I grabbed my blessing and ran down the stairs behind my friend, eager to catch the bus home.

The next day I easily found Words in the Mourning Time at the University Book Store. My paperback copy has survived a hundred-year flood in Austin, Texas, and twelve or more moves. It’s taken me this long to learn poetry well enough to begin to understand what he’s given the world. 

Robert Hayden. Poetry Foundation.  

Robert Hayden. Library of Congress. 

A Close Reading of a Great American Poem. Lit Hub. 

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