Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Reading Guide

Robert Hayden

A lost father warms a house in "Those Winter Sundays."
by David Biespiel

If there were a Top of the Pops for poetry, Robert Hayden’s "Those Winter Sundays" would be on it. Ten years ago, based on a Columbia University Press survey, the poem was ranked the 266th most anthologized poem in English. This put it nearly a hundred spots ahead of "Paul Revere’s Ride" (#313), but still lagging far behind Robert Frost’s "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (ranked 6th).

Born in 1913, Hayden grew up in a destitute African-American section of Detroit known as Paradise Valley. A neighbor’s family adopted him at the age of two when his parents separated and his mother could no longer afford to keep him. His adoptive father was a strict Baptist and manual laborer. Still, the new family nurtured Hayden’s early literary interests, and as a teenager, he was immersed in the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and in traditional poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Carl Sandburg.

While in college Hayden studied with the English poet W. H. Auden, who stressed a poetics of technical precision, for which Hayden was naturally suited. Poetic form would always remain important to him. Technique, he once said, enables discovery and definition in a poem, and it provides a way of "solving the unknowns."

In 1940, Hayden published his first volume of tidy lyrics called Heart-Shape in the Dust. The book drew little attention. But that would change. For the next forty years Hayden’s precise style would become widely acclaimed. In 1976 he was the first African-American to serve as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the post we now call U.S. Poet Laureate. He died in 1980.

"Those Winter Sundays" is his heart-wrenching domestic masterpiece, and very much a poem of discovery and definition.

What it discovers is a synchronicity of sound that embodies the poem’s spirit of reconciliation. Listen to the K sounds: blueblack, cracked, ached, weekday, banked, thanked, wake, breaking, call, chronic. That percussive, consonant-cooked vocabulary is like a melodic map into how to read the poem, linking the fire, the season, the father, and his son.

Then there’s what the poem defines, unspoken love. It begins with the father toward the son, when he makes the fire. Then, the unspoken love is returned, when the adult son asks, "What did I know, what did I know...?" The tone of that repetition—more statement than question—cuts from indifference to guilt to admiration. It’s a fast moment in the poem that blossoms into the last word, "offices," a metaphor that expresses the endurance required of long-term love, of manual labor, and of the official fatherly role.

Yet it all begins with that quiet, understated opening line ("Sundays, too, my father got up early"), which defines Hayden’s initial memory, as well as bringing to mind the other unmentioned six days of the week—and for how many years?—when the father began each day in the cold darkness, to warm up the home for his still-dreaming child.

Reprinted from David Biespiel's monthly column on poetry for the Sunday
Book Review of The Oregonian.

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