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.

On The Minority Report by P.K. Dick

This survey covers the book more than the movie. Before discussing the story, let’s review the major and minor characters:

John Anderton, founder of Precrime. He is the police commissioner. He is paranoid about losing his job to the new assistant, Ed Witwer. He is proud of his achievements with Precrime, believes it has truly helped society by reducing felonies. After the car crash scene, he goes into hiding under the assumed identity of “Ernest Temple.”

Lisa Anderton, wife of John Anderton. Lisa is an executive in Precrime and met John when she was a secretary. John is paranoid about her as well; he thinks she and Witwer are conspiring against him. Tod Fleming also implicates her as being behind the frame job of Anderton, but this is false. She actually stands by her man and attempts to help him flee the police building.

Ed Witwer, the new assistant to Anderton. Witwer has ambitions for replacing Anderton as police commissioner. When Anderton stands accused, Witwer leads the investigation to find and prosecute him. Anderton’s paranoia, however, is unfounded. Witwer does not attempt to frame him.

The Precogs: Donna, Jerry, and Mike. These are the oracles in the story. Semi-retarded mutants, they are attached to machinery that  records their garbled visions. The Precogs see the future, in particular crimes that are going to be committed before they occur. They live in an area of the building called the monkey block. Typically, two of the three will concur on a prediction (the majority report), with the third’s vision called a minority report. The narrators describes these variations as being out of phase. In other words, there are multiple timelines, multiple futures being predicted. Without this possibility, the whole notion of PreCrime would be a lie, for how could you prevent a crime from happening? 

Wally Page. Page is a subordinate in charge of the monkey block. He assists Anderton in regaining access to the block after he’s been in hiding. Page, however, is also an Army plant, passing information from the police department to Army officials.

The Senate. The governmental body responsible for authorizing the Precrime division. They have the power to deauthorize them as well.

Leopold Kaplan. The man Anderton is supposed to kill, according to the Majority Report. He is in his seventies, a retired general from the Army of the Federated Alliance. He is head of an exclusive, secretive veterans organization: the International Veterans League. Since the wars, the power of the military has been divided and split off. Kaplan seeks to regain power on their behalf by discredting Precrime. 

Tod Fleming. A man who rescues Anderton from the car crash and pretends to be from a police oversight agency. Apparently an ally of Anderton’s, he provides Anderton with a new identity so he can hide from the police. He later resurfaces when John and Lisa Anderton are escaping from police headquarters. He assaults Lisa, having accused her of framing Anderton. Anderton prevents him from strangling her and knocks him out. His identity papers reveal his affiliation with the Internal Intelligence Department of Military Information, answerable to Leopold Kaplan.

Plot summary.
I. This chapter provides exposition. We are introduced to our protagonist, John Anderton. We have an explanation of how precrime works and our first major plot point comes: Anderton sees his own name turn up on a card fingering him as a murderer to be.

II. Anderton suspects his wife Lisa and assistant Witwer are conspiring against him to take away his job. He has 24 hours to escape before Precrime comes after him. Lisa points out to him that he doesn’t know the man’s name he is going to kill: Leopold Kaplan.

III. Anderton is packing to escape. He his abducted in his own home and transported to Kaplan’s house. A conversation between them ensues. Kaplan orders his men to take him back to the police.

IV. On the way back, Anderton discusses the possibility that Precrime may be imprisoning innocent people. Then their car crashes. He is dragged away by a man named Fleming.

V. Fleming provides him with a new identity (Ernest Temple) and Anderton escapes to the seedy side of New York City. He hides out in a hotel, listens to radio reports of his escape and the news that a minority report exists. He needs to read it. Perhaps it will exonerate him.

VI. Anderton phones Wally Page and asks to be allowed entrance to the monkey block. Page points out to him the Precog who produced the Minority Report: Jerry. Jerry’s vision took the majority report conclusion (that he would kill Kaplan) as datum and produced a conflicting, time-phased report where he doesn’t commit the murder. Lisa enters and offers to help him escape.

VII. Lisa and John discuss important ethical questions about Precrime. She convinces him (with a little help from her gun) to turn himself into the police, so as to prove that the majority report was not wrong, thus saving Precrime from Kaplan’s designs to discredit it. Fleming, who is hiding in the police cruiser, attacks Lisa and intends to strangle her and  throw her out of the car. Anderton knocks him out. They return to police HQ. Anderton identifies him as working for Kaplan’s group.

VIII. Anderton talks to Witwer and explains the plot against Precrime. Kaplan’s organization wants to prove Precrime wrong so they can regain power. He studies the data tapes to see how he would kill Kaplan. He discovers that there are three time paths: Donna’s, Mike’s, and Jerry’s. Meanwhile, an Army rally is being prepared where Kaplan plans to expose the fraud of Precrime. He will then ask the senate to deauthorize Precrime and return policing power to the Army. Anderton realizes he will have to kill Kaplan after all.

IX. At the army rally, Anderton and Kaplan discuss what is about to happen. Kaplan’s critique of precrime is given. Anderton kills him in public.

X. Anderton, who has plea bargained for a sentence of exile, is packing  to leave with his wife. We discover that there were three minority reports in consecutive order: Donna’s, Jerry’s, Mike’s. One provided datum to the next, which superseded the timeline of the previous. In Mike’s tape (the last in the sequence), Anderton kills Kaplan to save the integrity of Precrime. Anderton warns Witwer (acting police commissioner) that those who have access to the cards are at risk for the same sort of circumstance that he experienced.

Discussion questions
We can compare and contrast this story to Oedipus Rex with respect to the themes of oracles, seeing the future, fate, destiny, and freewill. What do Dick and Sophocles share in common, and how do they differ?

Do you agree with the philosophy of Precrime? Is it right or wrong?

Is Kaplan’s criticism a fair one? Do his ulterior motives taint your judgment?

Can you think of modern day examples where people have been rounded up and imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit yet? Does this happen today? Can it happen? How might it happen?

Is Anderton’s decision to kill Kaplan made freely or is it an inevitability? How does this compare with Oedipus’s will to action?

The Minority Report raises questions about fate and free will. It is a good example of science fiction (also known as speculative fiction), which speculates on the possibilities , what our world might be turning into and whether we are headed in the right direction.

Anderton consciously decides that he must kill Kaplan, so could he just as easily have decided not to kill him? If you interpret the answer to be yes, then why are other potential killers not given the chance to make a conscious choice? If the answer is no, then the story seems to be an elaborate, roundabout way of fulfilling the ultimate vision (Mike’s, the last in the series), and Anderton paradoxically wills to do what he was inevitably going to do anyway.

Another question raised by the story concerns the social/political dimension. Would we want something like precrime in our society? Is Anderton correct in his belief that precrime is all for the social good, and that the benefits (crime prevention, saving people from victimization) outweigh the costs (the forced incarceration of people who have not actually committed a crime)? And is the military takeover a greater danger to society than the Precrime system? We can’t be sure whether we should go a long with the implied author of the story (P.K. Dick’s authorial persona), who apparently is siding with his protagonist. This sense of instability was exploited by the film version (Speilberg’s Minority Report), which took a much tougher, more critical stance against the philosophy of Precrime, making it part of a state that was prying into people’s private lives in many areas: policing and detective work, advertising and niche marketing, security, and entertainment.  Dick’s story ends neatly with a satisfying resolution: the “prophecy” is fulfilled bythe freely willed, conscious act of Anderton, who chooses to save his Precrime from being dismantled. Anderton is sent into exile -- but thematically, there is less resolution. There are no easy answers or choices when considering matters of fate, free will and the choice between private freedoms and public security.