Those Winter Sundays

By Robert Hayden 1913–1980 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?

Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays” from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick Glaysher. Copyright ©1966 by Robert Hayden. Reprinted with the permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Source: Collected Poems of Robert Hayden (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1985)

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Poet Robert Hayden 1913–1980

Subjects Relationships, Home Life, Youth, Living, Family & Ancestors, Coming of Age

Occasions Gratitude & Apologies

Holidays Father's Day

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Robert Hayden: “Those Winter Sundays”

A lost father warms a house.

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.

Those Winter Sundays

By Robert Hayden 1913–1980 Robert Hayden
 Robert  Hayden

Biography

Born Asa Bundy Sheffey into a poor family, Robert Hayden’s parents left him to be raised by foster parents. Due to extreme nearsightedness, Hayden turned to books rather than sports in his childhood. Some of his best-known poems can be found in his collection A Ballad of Remembrance. Hayden was the first African American to be appointed as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Hayden's formal, elegant poems about the . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Relationships, Home Life, Youth, Living, Family & Ancestors, Coming of Age

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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