Robert Hayden’s Poem, ‘Those Winter Sundays’

Pictured is the American poet Robert Hayden.

Here’s a hot take on a blog post about a cold poem for which I could spend an entire post talking about and may still: Human beings are weird because we pine for the past even though all available evidence indicates, as one teacher on Twitter recently put it, “this really is the best time to be a random living human, and it’s not even close.” That is, would any human being in the history of our species willfully elect to be born at any other point in human history than this period we’re all living through? And yet.

Today’s poem by American poet, Robert Hayden, made me think about this because it’s a poem born of a different time, and a time that I wager, again, any rational human wouldn’t want to go back to! But, there are still echoes of that time today, of course.

According to the Academy of American Poets, Hayden, who was born in Detroit, was an active poet in the early 1940s, and even published his first book of poems, Heart-Shape in the Dust (lovely title), at the age of 27! 27! As the Academy notes, Hayden had an interest in African American history and “explored his concerns about race in his writing.” By the 1970s, he became the first black American appointed as a consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, which is now known as “poet laureate.” But what’s interesting is 1.) fellow poet William Meredith said Hayden was particularly mindful to declare himself an American poet rather than a Black poet at a time when those designations were quite sharp, but I suspect it’s because Hayden viewed himself as an American and a man in that order and worried about any narrower labels; as one poem on his Wikipedia suggests, “reclaim now, now renew the vision of a human world where godliness is possible … but man permitted to be man.”; and 2.) the poem I selected, thanks to scrolling Twitter this morning and seeing the Academy post this one, actually has nothing to do with race. Instead, as I indicated, is more about a window into a different time.

Consider the poem, “Those Winter Sundays,” in full here, and the excerpt:

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.

Now, this poem spoke to me this morning because I’m cold! On a basic level, seeing “those winter Sundays,” and thinking about how I’m cold at the moment, spoke to me. I have a hoodie and a beanie on, and a blanket draped across my lap as I sip hot coffee, and I’m still cold! But I’m cold in 2020, not 1920 thereabouts when this scene might have taken place for Hayden (the poem was written in 1966 as part of Collected Poems of Robert Hayden). And more importantly, I’m not waking up in a house imbued with the tumult that Hayden seems to be insinuating.

That is, in the third stanza, I get the feeling that his relationship to the cold house isn’t the only cold relationship on offer. His relationship with his dad, at least as a child, seems cold. His father seems like a hard, impenetrable man, who is knee deep in a laborious world, where he had “cracked hands that ached,” and “no one ever thanked him.”

But re-reading that excerpted second stanza again, maybe I was too hasty in calling the relationship cold. Consider, “when the rooms were warm, he’d call.” That is, the father got up extra early, warmed the house, and then called for his son to wake up, and awake to a warm house. There’s a certain level of love there, even if it’s maneuvering with austerity. And perhaps that’s what the beautiful meditation at the end indicates? “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” As in, now that Hayden is holder and reflecting on it, yes, his father was a hard and impenetrable man, but also, he showed his love, just in a different way. That’s the kind of love that’s hard to appreciate as a child because as a child, you want the affection and verbalized love, but as an adult, while you still certainly want that, you at least now have the perspective of hindsight and that of an adult to appreciate love of a different kind.

This was one of those poems I wrote up a bit on thinking it was one way, then re-read, deleted my first interpretation, and went with the second. It took a second to click with me that there’s a retrospective on offer here. The question at the end is the hint.

What do you think of this poem?

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