• Writing Ideas

    1. Write a poem about one of your parents or grandparents. Think about the work they do every day, and describe one of their seemingly simple routines—doing laundry, for example. Like Hayden, try to use as many sense images as you can: how does their task sound to you? When do they do it?


    2. “Those Winter Sundays” alternates between very concrete images, like “cracked hands that ached from labor,” and more abstract ones, like “the chronic angers of that house.” Think about the effect of the two kinds of images—what do you picture when you read the final line of the poem, for example? Try writing a poem that uses both concrete and abstract images to describe an event you remember, either from the distant or more recent past.

  • Discussion Questions

    1. How does Hayden characterize the relationship between father and son in the poem? Try to find particular words that seem to suggest more than one meaning and think about how they contribute to both the literal and emotional world of the poem.


    2. The poem features an adult speaker looking back on his childhood. What does the son feel about his father now, and what did he feel then? Try to find particular images in the poem that expose the difference in the speaker’s childhood and adult understanding of his father.


    3. How does sound knit the poem together? Pick one sound—the hard “c” in “clothes,” for example—and trace it through the poem. Why would Hayden use so many of the same sounds in his poem? What do the sounds make you think of?


    4. “Those Winter Sundays” ends with a rhetorical question. What is the effect of the poem’s final question? How do you feel about the speaker by the end of the poem?

  • Teaching Tips

    1. Begin by having students create ad hoc sketches of the most striking or dominant image found in the three stanzas of the poem. Have them follow up their illustration with a discussion about the physical position of each of the human characters in their illustrations, considering how these emblematic images relate to the meaning of the poem.


    2. Have students consider the dominant sounds in each stanza and look back on their sketches to see if they can detect patterns and variations among sounds, as they are associated with each character and with the larger meaning of the work.


    3. After each activity, have students examine their findings and discuss the relationship between the father and son in this poem. Ask, how does Hayden depict the father’s relationship with his son? What seems to motivate each of these characters? How does the son reflect on his father’s actions at the moment he speaks this text?


    4. Have students view the video animation of the poem, and discuss the animator’s choices, evaluating the selection of images and their connection to the text.

Those Winter Sundays

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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)
Discover this poem's context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Robert Hayden: “Those Winter Sundays”

Poem Guide

A lost father warms a house.

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

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