Poets of Detroit

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Poets of Detroit

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Poets of Detroit

Robert Hayden and Philip Levine


Place Poetry

Hayden and Levine grew up in Detroit and their work was greatly affected by their surroundings.

Hayden grew up in a poor Detroit neighborhood called Paradise Valley, which he represents in a collection called “Elegies for Paradise Valley”.

Levine strove to “find a voice for the voiceless” of those working in the auto plants of Detroit in the 1950s.


Background on Hayden

Born August 4, 1913 and raised by foster parentsExtreme nearsightedness turned him away from sports as a child.He spent the majority of his time reading.He studied under W. H. Auden at the University of Michigan


Inspiration of Hayden’s Poetry

Hayden extensively studied American and black history.

His poems examined the condition of his people from their roots in Africa to their present situation in America (especially in Detroit).

He strove to illuminate the experience of black Americans through writing of historical figures such as Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman.


Hayden as a Black Poet

Hayden rejected racial classification of his work

Due to his Baha’i faith, an Eastern religion believing in a coming world civilization.

He strongly believed that black writers should be judged among all English literature rather than only among contemporary black literature.

This stance considerably harmed Hayden’s popularity at the time, for it was socially an irreconcilable difference between an American poet (as Hayden wanted to be known as) and a black poet.


Hayden’s Legacy

In 1976 he became the first black Poet Laureate

a consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress

Hayden’s style set him apart from other poets

Wrote in formal, poetic forms

Gave character to his voices by utilizing black vernacular and folk speech

He died in Ann Arbor on February 25, 1980


Background on Levine

Born January 10, 1928Son of Russian-Jewish immigrantsExperienced anti-Semitism while growing upBegin working in automotive factories of industrial Detroit when he was 14


Inspiration of Levine’s Poetry

“I saw that the people that I was working with … were voiceless in a way. In terms of the literature of the United States they weren’t being heard. Nobody was speaking for them. And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that’s what my life would be. And sure enough I’ve gone and done it. Or I’ve tried anyway.” (

Levine in Detroit Magazine


Fascination with Spanish Civil War

Connected exploitation of workers in Spain to what was going on in Detroit factories


Levine’s Legacy

Poet Laureate of the United States for 2011-2012.

Levine’s poetry was characterized by simple diction and a narrative style.

Known for connecting large and hefty themes of death, courage, love, loyalty, etc. to concrete narrative events.

Practically “journalistic” in his reporting of realistic situations

Died February 14, 2015 of pancreatic cancer.


Hayden Excerpt “Elegies of Paradise Valley”

IMy shared bedroom’s windowopened on alley stench.A junkie died in maggots there.I saw his body shoved into a van.I saw the hatred for our kindglistening like tearsin the policemen’s eyes.IINo place for the Pestalozzi’sfiorelli. No time of starchedand ironed innocence. Godfearingelders, even godless grifters, triedas best they could to shelterus. Rats gnawing in their walls.IIIWaxwork Uncle Henry(murdered Uncle Crip)lay among floral piecesin the front room wherethe Christmas tree had stood.

Mister Hong of the

Chinese Lantern (there

Auntie as waitress queened it

nights) brought freesias, wept

beside the coffin.

Beautiful, our neighbors

murmured; he would be proud.

Is it mahogany?

Mahogany--I’d heard

the victrola voice of

dead Bert Williams

talk-sing that word as macabre

music played, chilling

me. Uncle Crip

had laughed and laughed.


Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”

Sundays too my father got up earlyand put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,then with cracked hands that achedfrom labor in the weekday weather madebanked 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?


Levine’s “Belle Isle, 1949”

We stripped in the first warm spring nightand ran down into the Detroit Riverto baptize ourselves in the brineof car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles,melted snow. I remember going underhand in hand with a Polish highschool girlI'd never seen before, and the criesour breath made caught at the same timeon the cold, and rising through the layersof darkness into the final moonless atmospherethat was this world, the girl breakingthe surface after me and swimming outon the starless waters towards the lightsof Jefferson Ave. and the stacksof the old stove factory unwinking.

Turning at last to see no island at all

but a perfect calm dark as far

as there was sight, and then a light

and another riding low out ahead

to bring us home, ore boats maybe, or smokers

walking alone. Back panting

to the gray coarse beach we didn't dare

fall on, the damp piles of clothes,

and dressing side by side in silence

to go back where we came from.


Levine’s “Detroit, Tomorrow”

Newspaper says the boy killed by someone, don’t say who. I know the mother, waking, gets up as usual, washes her facein cold water, and starts the coffee pot.She stands by the window up there on floor sixteen wondering why the street’s so calm with no cars going or coming, and thenshe looks at the wall clock and sees the time.Now she’s too awake to go back to bed, she’s too awake not to remember him,her one son, or to forget exactlyhow long yesterday was, each moment draggedinto the next by the force of her will until she thought this simply cannot be. She sits at the scarred, white kitchen table, the two black windows staring back at her,wondering how she’ll go back to work today. The windows don’t see anything: they’re black, eyeless, they give back only what’s given; sometimes, like now, even less than what’s given,

yet she stares into their two black faces

moving her head from side to side, like this,

just like I’m doing now. Try it awhile,

go ahead, it’s not going to kill you.

Now say something, it doesn’t matter what

you say because all the words are useless:

“I’m sorry for your loss.” “This too will pass.”

“He was who he was.” She won’t hear you out

because she can only hear the torn words

she uses to pray to die. This afternoon

you and I will see her just before four

alight nimbly from the bus, her lunch box

of one sandwich, a thermos of coffee,

a navel orange secured under her arm,

and we’ll look away. Under your breath make

her one promise and keep it forever:

in the little store-front church down the block,

the one with the front windows newspapered,

you won’t come on Saturday or Sunday

to kneel down and pray for life eternal.


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