So listen, we’ve been beating around the bush for some time now, and I think it’s time to finally cut through the malarkey. Now, one of the primary reasons I started this blog was to offer up a poem a week with some brief but otherwise genius commentary by yours truly. Truly. I was even extremely close to calling this Close Reads Blog, but its awkwardness and my sudden fancy for the words “plot” and “oath” in some as then yet undecided order compelled me in a different direction. Life is full of regrets, caprice, remediation.
O this deserves a new paragraph. The time for bravery is upon us! I offer for your challenge, to tease the fear right out of you, the first of many Close Reads. For the inaugural festivities I choose “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. Read all of him here. I know this poem intimately—it is one of my favorites, even as I’ve otherwise moved on to less gentle pastures. It is a favorite of many, and for good reason. Now, in full disclosure, I’ve taught this poem several times as a great example of how diction affects mood, so, free of university charge, I’m essentially going to give you that lesson in this big classroom in the sky we call The Internet. Alright enough fussing around.
Those Winter Sundays
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?
Right of the bat let me point out the title and the inclusion of the quite definite article “those.” Poetyness could otherwise allow Hayden to omit that article, and one can certainly hear the imagistic emphasis he misses by not simply titling it “Winter Sundays,” which means essentially the same thing and allows the body of the poem a little more space to define itself for itself. But he doesn’t title it that; he is quite specific, “those,” and the effect is a kind of wistfulness. The speaker wants you to know we are entering into a very specific and personal (nearly private) territory, and he expects you to follow. This will be a poem about the poet, not “Winter Sundays.” How, what’s the word, solipsistic. Am I right?
Observation two requires your rulers, you scientists, you. Notice a little something about the rhythm? If you said iambic pentameter, you are one third right. Shall we then:
SUNdays TOO my FAther GOT UP EARly
and PUT his CLOTHES on in the BLUE BLACK COLD
THEN with CRACKED HANDS that ACHED
from LAbor IN the WEEKday WEAther…
Or about that—I’ll admit I’m no expert at this. A little rough, which is actually a point I will get to, but despite that we can still see a trend, even in these first four lines. Hayden is masterful. He alternates trochaic with iambic lines. A trochee is the opposite of an iamb, stressed/unstressed. So we get this sort of pattern: T/I/T/I, etc. Can you see it? Can you HEAR it? Good. Moving on.
The important thing about this alternation is that it begins to hint, formally, at a kind of attitude. Here is my fishing-for-a-specific-answer question: what action does the speaker describe twice? Yes, he’s that inefficient. Well, what it is?
…got up early / and put his clothes on
and slowly I would rise and dress,
One sounds a lot better than the other, right, the second one. This is really where the meter becomes important. The other difference between the two lines is that one is a description of the father and the other is a description of the poet, the “I.” See that rubble-mess of stresses up there when the father is described. “Got up early” is hardly language that pours like honey out of the mouth, but “slowly I would rise and dress” is so sweet it will give you lockjaw. So the father gets the tough language and the poet gets the smooth. What a jerk, right?
What this maneuver suggests to me, however, is in fact a kind of irony. The speaker is conscious of his talent at spinning words—he is not a stupid fellow—and he realizes that the privilege of his talent has come, perhaps, at a cost his father has had to bear. His father “got up”in the cold so he didn’t have to. This much is clear: the speaker feels guilty. This is the sort of thing I’m sure a number of artistically inclined menfolk can understand—this emotional push/pull that surrounds the fact that the father cannot or refuses to follow the son into his more tender life.
Now, with guilt so palpable, redemption can’t be far around the corner. But what I absolutely love about this poem is how carefully the speaker navigates this—you can feel him refusing to give this poem that sort of release, that sort of redemption. It sounds resigned, “what did I know,” but I really think it’s in fact exactly what the poet needs to do. He admits his failure, his lack of knowledge and, subsequently, words. The tricky part to this, unfortunately, is that he doesn’t end there. I don’t fault Hayden for this—I recognize that the poem can’t end there, and while the following line seems to reverse this triumph of modesty with a display of pretty metaphor, it also achieves the poem’s greatest sonic accomplishment. “Love’s austere and lonely offices”–there are so many “o” and “au” sounds in that! And to me, almost always, this signifies a kind of nothingness. Think of the shape of the mouth—it is open, it refuses definition, it surrounds a vacancy, and the tension of the beautiful, exact metaphor with this sonic emptiness is just exquisite. This is, of course, in addition to the tension of the metaphor itself, the idea of love as an office, and, going all the way back to the beginning of this post, the final marriage of the father with a clean run of iambs. I think this is one of the best poems in the English language not because it achieves any one of these things, but because it centers all of them toward such an exact emotional tenor and logic. It’s god damn genius.
So you love this poem now, right?