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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Number 35: Robert Hayden "Those Winter Sundays"

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback 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?

-- Robert Hayden

Hap Notes: Robert Hayden (1913-1980) studied writing poetry under W.H. Auden at the University of Michigan and you can see traces of Auden's fingerprints on Hayden's brilliant poetry. Once again, a poet so gifted that one does not immediately see the craft and intelligence and work in the ease of the verse.

Hayden's childhood was one of exile, in a way. Born in Detroit, his parents gave him up when he was born. He was raised by foster parents (and took their name) who were as good to him as they were vicious in punishment. (Read his poem "The Whipping" sometime.) Parental arguments were frequent in the Hayden household. He had severe eye problems (note the very thick glasses.) This made it impossible to play sports like the other kids (I believe Detroit may be like much of the south, Alabama and Texas et. al.- where sports are an integral part of the life of a boy.) Reading was one of his only comforts.

Hayden ran into a bit of controversy in the 60s when other black poets and readers thought he should have identified his race with more vehemence in his poetry. The 60s were a wasp's nest of problems: civil rights, Vietnam etc. Hayden was of the Baha'i faith (he converted from Baptist when he married his wife in the early 1940s) and their belief is in the spiritual unity of all people and Hayden stuck to his guns. People are people first- race is a made-up difference. This was a very brave stance to take and he may have been a weak-looking bespectacled fella but he had the heart of a lion.

It wasn't that Hayden didn't understand the civil right movement. He was acutely aware of the problems of race in America and he fought for rights in his own way. It was that he did not believe that the violence and the harsh words would solve anything. I know this sounds like common sense but there's nothing common about it, as we all should know, but, obviously, do not.

This poem, especially after reading some details about his life, needs little augmentation from me. His father is breaking up wood for the furnace or cook stove that warmed the house. His father wakes up early, even on Sunday, to do this. His father polishes his "Sunday" shoes as he sleeps. Loneliness and love are the two human conditions that need warmth. The poem may be perfect in it's execution. The "chronic angers" of the house could be arguments, punishments or just plain coldness. It's a good poem to read in January when the weather is cold and you can feel the father's cracked and achy hands, feel the cold around you.

Hayden taught at Fisk University and the University of Michigan, I think. He was poet laureate of the U.S. from 1976-1978 (most folks only do it for a year). He was the first African-American to hold the post.

Here's a good Hayden quote: “[My poetry is] a way of coming to grips with reality . . . a way of discovery and definition. It is a way of solving for the unknowns.”

You can find more Hayden here:

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