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These Summer Sundays
Summer is at it again—flying right by me. I’ve been so busy doing my job (can you imagine?) that I haven’t had time to properly enjoy this short-lived staff writer opportunity, and now, with my end date as PF media assistant closing in fast, it’s as if I’m already gone (cue The Eagles). So goodbye for now but not for good, Harriet!
I began with a belated birthday, and I will end with one—Happy Birthday, Robert Hayden! Disclosure: I am slightly biased in this choice, because he and I share the same birthday—August 4th—along with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Louis Armstrong, Barack Obama, and Helen Thomas.
In my MFA program at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Hayden taught for over the last decade of his life and died in 1980, we studied his work in my graduate contemporary American poetry class not for a week, not for two weeks, but for nearly a month. It may seem a long time to spend on him now, and by the end of the unit it seemed a long time then, but it gave us the unique chance to really investigate the heart of his work—its passion, nuance, and boundless intelligence. He was an ambitious poet, not so much because he sought out recognition but because of his driving desire to present history in a revelatory way. He saw the moment in which he lived as a small notch on time’s long spectrum, and this gift informed the genius of his work.
If you haven’t, listen to 2008 Poetry Out Loud national champion Shawntay Henry (sixteen years old in this recording!) recite his “Frederick Douglass.” “Night, Death, Mississippi”; “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves”; “Summertime and the Living . . .”; “The Tattooed Man”; “The Lions” (he had quite a penchant and a talent for writing about marginal performers) and “Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday” are some of my favorite poems of his.
But, speaking of Sunday, he also composed one of the most lasting American poems: “Those Winter Sundays.” Watch the Poetry Everywhere animated film of this poem; read David Biespiel’s close reading; and listen to Hayden read it, and Terrance Hayes discuss both the poem and Hayden himself, in a recent Poetry Off the Shelf podcast. Hayden, the first African-American to be appointed as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (now Poet Laureate), will also be featured in the soon-to-be-launched DC Poetry Tour (which will have the same format as the Chicago Poetry Tour).
The last two lines of “Those Winter Sundays” hung above the office of poetry consultant in the Library of Congress for decades. The entirety of the poem is breathtaking, with its tactile consonance of the father first out “in the blueblack cold, / then with cracked hands that ached / from labor in the weekday weather made / banked fires blaze”; its emotional punch of “No one ever thanked him”; its wary tone and mood set by “the chronic angers of that house.” However, it’s surely the sonnetesque turn and charge of those last two lines, “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” that give the poem its overwhelming power. I remember reading them for the first time in high school, and, still being more like the child in the poem than the adult remembering, not fully grasping it; I also remember the first time, years later, when I read those two lines and understood something much more than I had before—it can still make me a little teary on certain days, I’m not embarrassed to admit.
So I’ll leave you with this, Harriet: what is it about those last two lines? The move from description into devastating, but oddly triumphant, introspection? The shattering idea that love has offices, and they are austere and lonely? The repetition of “What did I know?” A child understanding a parent in retrospect? A parent, not considering the retrospect, sacrificing for a child? The secret must lie somewhere between the emotional resonance and the perfection of the poetic line, but where, do you think?