Jan 23, 2010

On Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays"

Collected Poems"Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden

    Sundays too my father got up early
    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?

A child and his father, or more properly, a grown man looking back at his childhood, now reinterpreting his father's "austere and lonely offices": it is a simple enough occasion for a poem about memory, or recapturing the past. The words suggest, however, that these are not particularly happy memories. There is another reason why the past is being called back to the present. The persona remembers his father as a hard working, harsh, perhaps angry sort of man -- a man incapable of displaying sensitivity and vulnerability -- and the son (the persona as a boy), who is portrayed as an ungrateful, fearful, unappreciative, indifferent child. It is a pattern that should be familiar to many parents and children. Parents slave for their kids, only to be unappreciated for it. The children (both young and adolescent) don’t benefit from the perspective of the parent's eye. They don't understand the early rising, the sources of the anger, or the sense of responsibility burdening the parent. And they can't understand why the parents are incapable of communicating the kind of love and affection they need from them. It is only in retrospect, now that the child has grown into an adult, perhaps now that he is a parent himself, that he finally becomes aware of the love the father actually had for him.

We can also use the poem as a vehicle for exploring the cultural identity of fathers and working class men. What is the role of the father, the man, in the traditional American household? He's hard working, he's responsible for the heavy manual labor. This particular father is a day laborer of some sort -- his hands are cracked, arthritic from his outdoors job. As a male role model, he is unwilling or incapable of expressing his love for the child in any kind of affectionate way. Love for him is seen as a severe and solitary duty.  But what the boy missed at the time, amid his indifference and fear of the father, is the raw truth that the father’s love was there all along, expressed in the only way he could express them: daily routines, the chores, the polished shoes, the dedication to keeping a roof over their head and food on the table.

Even on Sundays, the day of rest in the Christian tradition, this father is up early working hard. He has "driven out the cold" from the house. He has polished the boy's shoes. All his love is displaced or channeled into other behaviors, into action, labor, work, duty. Hayden constantly uses active, transitive verbs to convey this working instinct. Hayden also does a fine job at conveying the harshness of the father’s working life through his imagery, even the sound of his word choices conveys something of the father's austerity: note the alliteration in "blueblack cold," the consonance of "cracked hands that ached," "banked fires blaze," "cold splintering, breaking," "chronic angers," "driven out the cold." Note also the patterns of hard consonants (c's and k's and b's) which reinforce the coldness, rawness, and burdensome nature of the chores repeatedly performed. Even the polishing of the boy's shoes is a kind of thankless physical labor.

We might wonder what the boy is afraid of. What are those chronic angers? Aren’t all children a little  fearful of their parents? And in this case, we have not only an incommunicative working man, but the strong suggestion that there are constant tensions in the household (“chronic angers”). Perhaps the family argues a lot. It is not an easy life. The boy is afraid to upset the fragile equilibrium.  The poem’s tone is clearly sad and filled with regret: note the repetition of "what did I know," as the speaker reproaches himself for his own ignorance, his blindness to the father’s true devotion. Moreover, the speaker has, through this new insight into his memories, gained some wisdom, a fresh appreciation for his father, and for the ways that love can be, must be, expressed. The last line of the poem really delivers the goods with impact. As Robert Pinsky has observed, the diction of "love's austere and lonely offices" sounds icy, cold, and chilling, a perfect complement to the sense of the poem. The speaker is feeling the full brunt of irony now, because now that he has become aware of his father’s true feelings, he cannot tell him. Why? He’s gone.

In a biographical excerpt from The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, we learn that Hayden had a rough childhood growing up in the Detroit ghetto. If "Those Winter Sundays" is autobiographical (a logical inference to make in this case), it's worth noting how the poem understates the violence and anger that afflicted his family household. He could have described more harrowing, frightening, violent scenes from childhood. Instead, he chooses to allude to these events through suggestion; he lets his imagery and tone evoke the mood of tension, apprehension, fear, and strategic indifference. Sometimes in poetry, less is more. To spell out all the words and connect all the dots and fill in all the blanks would overload or overdetermine the poem: better to leave openings in the lines so we as readers can invest our imaginations and experience the words and images ourselves.

For more articles and links related to Hayden, see the Modern American Poetry site at the University of Illinois.