Close Reads – “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden

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?

You’re right!:

…got up early / and put his clothes on

and then:

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?

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All Deaths Lead Toward Plots

Well alas, dear blog, no success in making out with Neko this weekend, but perhaps it’s for the best. This is largely due to the ridiculously cheap beer available in central Illinois and the very unmanly effect of it on my sexiness. Also, she doesn’t know me, and they have, like, security.  But humiliations-in-blogs-with-teeny-page-views aside,  let me move on to my engagement du semain.

So, if you haven’t heard, I went to see Neko Case this weekend. It was lovely. Now my most decidedly favorite song of all time in the whole spherical world is “Hold On, Hold On,” which perhaps makes me a terrible fan, since it’s pretty popular, but if you feel that way, hey, fuck you. Aside from displaying her incredible, defining characteristic, the four hundred guitars and the searing harmonies, this song really nails something quite close to most of us, methinks. The plaintive. An anthem of personal history as one of great betrayal. And, subsequently, a cyncism. “I leave the party at 3am, alone thank god.” Right? This is a song for anyone who has been wronged by another, or, for that matter, by the malevolent cosmos. One feels the fool, one feels one has lost one’s innocence, that the rules of life one learned in school no longer or never really did apply. It’s a mature sound, a sound that confesses a kind of knowing, and for that, ironically, there is comfort in it. This is abound in music. Think Bob Dylan. Think Elliot Smith. Damn, this should have been a music blog. And while I’m short on good poetry examples and betraying you, dear blog, let me suggest a quick romp through any of Louise Gluck’s early collections and I’m sure you’ll see what I’m talking about straight away. So yeah it’s strident, wistful, kind of pissy, but also kind of resigned and opened to a different kind of beauty. Depth of experience, life that has meaning and ferocity. So that’s what I mean–THERE’S COMFORT IN IT, a great amount in fact, and this is where I get into my little bit of trouble.

I love this song and most like it, and I have tried to write countless poems that follow similar lines. It has, for me, seemed a necessary indulgence; it has seemed like one of the most unifying verities–who hasn’t had a pity party driving back from something–we can connect with the plaintive because we have failed. A ha, but danger lurks. Entitlement, I think, is the other word. It is my right to sing this song, for I have been wronged. So leap from the realm of song and we get, I don’t know, this war in Iraq. Pretty much, every war. Perhaps I’m leaping to conclusions because I’ve just read “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand,” by DFW (that’s it, I promise), or because this is the eve of the launch of one of the the most violent video games to date (which is why, you’ll notice, I’m posting tonight. Gonna get my killstreak on tomorrow!), or because I feel guilty about my own grievances, that no one wants to publish my book yet, that I am not waking up tomorrow to have a room full of students listen to me, but regardless of any of these things I think the connection remains. Complaint is just a good wind’s push from justification, which rubs it’s sore back against retaliation and, well, continue the metaphor yourself. Maybe it’s more cogent if we localize it, make it a little smaller. Say you are on your fourth breakup in the past six years. You are driving home from the bar and like, feeling this song. You make a decision to leave. Maybe you make a decision to have words with your father. You make a decision to burn your car up out in the desert, hell, I don’t know–you make something happen. This is what art is best at, it compels you. The problem is, you aren’t exactly thinking clearly. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do any of these thing, but you certainly aren’t drawing a line down a piece of notebook paper and making any kind of list of pros and cons. You are being impulsive, reactive, and just go ahead and see above for the more troubling results of this.

So we can see the box of problems this opens up, but let me just take a quick step into the alley with you and whisper something dear: I think this is still necessary. Even if it means war, hatred, disorder, all the lovely kingdom in smoke and ash. Don Delillo has this great, repeated aphorism in White Noise, “all plots lead toward death,” which in a sense means that all plots toward something are inevitably toward a destruction, if you’ll forgive my condescendance. Right, the entire design of a plot is a change in world order, and you can’t sow new seed without overturning the earth, etc etc. This is why Christ died. This is why the Greek, Roman, Egyption or British empires didn’t happen at the same time. Okay but this is getting foolish–my point here is that a serious truth in life is that it turns on dissatisfaction, complaint, and the appropriate and subsequent actions thereafter. Now I am a privilaged individual to sit in my house on my computer with my job to make these kinds of comments. I know nothing of terror, true terror, and of the deep humanitarian desire, need, to put an end IN TOTAL to it. But I think the truism is worthwhile, and little songs like Neko’s, with its ambition much less audacious than mine in the past few sentences, harkens to this truism. By reviewing the past it is designing the future, it is enabling the future, and what I really mean to say is that, short of being totally in love with Neko, it is organic, perfectly natural, how it must be. Ah but this all too serious. Thanks for letting me indulge, dear blog. I can count on you.

Just Elsewhere, But Thinking of You

O dear blog, I have been a terrible patron. But I haven’t forgotten about you. I’ve been busy with other things. As is customary for these autumn months, I suppose.

So I don’t have much in the way of, like, content, but I thought I’d mention just a few things.

1. I’ve sent off my fall round to mags and already had some hits. The world is just! Check out “Side/Side” and “A Yellow Bucket of Sun” next summer at Drunken Boat. Of course I’ll be so kind as to let you know when it actually comes out. Thank you for humoring me with your attention.

2. As I was rehashing my cover letter, I came upon an engagement for you. While I want so very badly to say the internet (interwebs is dead, please, from here on out, use intertron) has great effect on writing students, that it is determining a new world order of poetic composition, etc., but I haven’t really been able to prove it. Moreso, as I was thinking about these things, I realized that the more accurate seachange, perhaps, is that of psychological awareness. And of course the two things are related, at least, that the internet provides us access to unbelievable amounts of external information, and psychology (might we say we live in a post-psychoanalytical world?), our self-awareness, has provided us with unbelievable amounts of internal information. What is the relationship between these two things? Where do they intersect in poetry? Discuss.

3. On a large David Foster Wallace spree, as noted in earlier posts, and I just want to push you to read, at some point in the near future, his short story “Tri-Stam: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko.” A medieval-style telling of California and the birth of rerun television. It’s some of the best satire I’ve ever read. So goes the words of Dirk of Fresno, Ovid the epiclete.

In other news, hoping to make out with Neko Case on Friday. I have a detailed plan on the shared drive, if you are so concerned.

“The most tender place in my heart is for strangers”