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D. A. Powell Has “Summertime and the Living…” Stuck in His Head

By Harriet Staff

At the Paris Review Daily, D. A. Powell’s got a Robert Hayden poem stuck in his head. And what a poem it is! Powell recalls reading Hayden’s “Summertime and the Living” when he was younger and reflects on the ways he failed to register the nuances of the poem:

I first read Robert Hayden’s “Summertime and the Living…” at an age where I neither understood ellipses nor was hip to the signals of quotation marks. I had scarcely heard of Porgy and Bess, so I missed entirely the allusion to “Summertime” the song. Instead, I thought of the poem as situated in memory, as a man looks back on a boyhood imprinted by the “Mosaic eyes” of those elders to whom “the florist roses that only sorrow could afford long since have bidden … Godspeed.” If I had known that the next two words indicated by the title “Summertime and the Living…” would be “is easy,” I no doubt would have (knowing what a predilection I then had for irony) seen the poem as a quick “gotcha,” an “oh you thought it was this but it was that” kind of poem, and I imagine it would have taken longer for me to appreciate its nuance. But I was first reading the poem at that tender time when I still took it on faith that nearly all poetry is born of sincerity, and I missed Hayden’s sly joke. It was that sly.

Powell goes on to describe how he came to understand the poem’s allusions and rich, powerful language. Make the jump to read the poem. And for more Hayden poems, go here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, March 23rd, 2012 by Harriet Staff.