and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
In 1975, Hayden became the Fellow of the Academy of American Poets. In 1976 he was appointed as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He was the first African American holder of that post.
Hayden’s work addresses the plight of African Americans, often using his early experience in Detroit slums as a backdrop. Hayden also wrote political poetry, including a sequence on the Vietnam War. Hayden's poetry celebrates the African American oral tradition and its engagement of history.
Hayden grew up in a destitute African-American section of Detroit and at age two was adopted by neighbors. Most of his early years were spent witnessing fights and suffering beatings. Growing up in a violent household affected his mental development. Additionally, Hayden suffered from severe visual problems which prevented him from taking part in different activities.
These childhood traumas gradually resulted in debilitating bouts of depression. Hayden described his childhood days as “my dark nights of the soul”. Hayden was often shunned by his peer group because of his poor eye sight and fragile stature. The constant negligence from his family and friends, forced him to read voraciously which developed his intellectual abilities to a higher level.