My very favorite piece of African American literature is Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays.” For my ear, this is a perfectly realized poem and one that is earned through deep feeling. The first person speaker in the poem regrets his failure to appreciate his father who got up each morning in the “blueblack cold,/then with cracked hands that ached/from labor in the weekday weather made/banked fires blaze.” The tone of the poem is regret and it is also elegiac. The father expresses his love for his son by sacrificing his own comfort for the sake of his child. Not only does the father bank fires, he also polishes his son’s good shoes as well. By the time the speaker in the poem gets to “What did I know, what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely office?” Hayden opens the poem to a universal level and speaks for those who didn’t recognize the sacrifice and love of someone. And when he asks that question, a gut wrenching question that needs no answer because the poem itself is the answer, my heart unfolds. I love this poem for its music, for its lack of adornment and the way it honors another life. I love “Those Winter Sundays” for its lack of pretense, something I find, sadly, in much of today’s poems that appear as intellectual gymnastics or puzzles for the perpetually perplexed. I often used Hayden’s poem in poetry workshops at Folsom Prison and it was the single most piece of work that continually touched the hearts of the men I worked with, many of whom had far greater challenges with their own fathers. 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?
Hayden’s poem prompted Patrick Nolan, now deceased, at Folsom Prison, to write the following which reveals the power a poem can have on others. This is an excerpt from Nolan’s poem “It Happened in a Dream,” first published through The Sacramento Poetry Center’s publications and edited by Patrick Grizzell and myself:
“My father sits cross-legged
on a bank and prays as I step
into the ice,
submerging myself deeper with each
short breath into the darkness.
I am the child kicking the coal,
unburned by the cold. I rise slowly,
running both hands up along my steamed sides,
washing my body with snow and ice.”