Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

Thus begins one of my favorite poems, “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. If there is verse that more honestly, more painfully expresses gratitude for love, I don’t know it. Writing these lines, Hayden makes nothing up. He goes simply and directly to his own experience. But this isn’t a “confessional poem” in any meaningful sense, despite its reporting from life. He doesn’t sensationalize or complain. He simply tells.

then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze.

The poem is autobiographical but it’s not really about him. It’s about his father, one of those stern working class men uncomfortable to be around who had a thousand expectations, pointed out every shortcoming, and never said, “I love you,” not even once. The flames that heat the house, stoked before the speaker wakes, reflect the daily duty of the unsung founder going on even when he’s not at work, blissfully absent.

                                                           No one ever thanked him.

These are the kind of hands that run furnaces in the basements of buildings, or in the cavernous windowless spaces of factories and mills, but also invisibly provide the ambient passion that holds the family together. The hearth is the heart of the house and its consumptive burning that demands constant fuel is the patriarchal lineage of perseverance and commitment.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

In a family like this, a mother’s love— implicit here, though never mentioned—is abundant and easily acknowledged despite the meager circumstances. But a father’s love is more taciturn and tenuous, subtle, perhaps even denied as somehow unmanly by both father and son.

and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Hayden didn’t have it easy, growing up poor in Detroit. He resented his father’s failure to give them more or better, and he lived afraid of the dissatisfaction and repressed rage that such inadequacy left just beneath the surface of the day to day. In every room, at every meal, in every forced proximity lay the chance that silence would blaze into conflagration.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.

Yet at the end of the day, Hayden had a house, food on the table, a kind mother and an honorable father, who laid down his life year after year to give his son life. It was that man, not some other, who stuck around to raise him up into a decent human being. To paraphrase James Wright, this wasn’t a good home, it was a home, and that was enough.

What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

It was Hayden the man not the child, who too late as is often the case, understood he owed his imperfect father everything, and with these humble words repaid him.

  1. That was beautiful – both the poem and your assessment.

  2. This is a really different journey through a poem for me. The poem had so many emotions written into it. Your walk through focusing attention on the reasoning, enhanced the journey and softened the edges. So many children grow up in a similar atmosphere or often much worse. So what are we thankful for? Unconditional love. Thank you for this expressive post, David and Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Hi Linda,

      It’s true, a lot goes on in this humble poem. It’s so strong.
      Thank you for your kind remarks, and I hope you had a good holiday.

  3. Yesterday at the Thanksgiving Celebration I attended, I talked about the day being, for me, a National Day of Gratitude – not a day to celebrate Turkey… (as my vegetarian friend bit into his bell pepper, hopefully even minorly convinced.) I am grateful you pointed out this poem and as always, when you comment on my poems I am always moved by the words you speak in response to mine. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.

    • Hi Julie,

      Thank you. There’s a subtle difference between thanksgiving and gratitude, for me it’s the possibility that gratitude goes beyond a single day, or profession of thanks.

  4. zouxzoux said:

    Your words are as beautiful as his. This is wonderful.

    • Thank you, I think I must humbly disagree with you; but that is a most kind compliment.

  5. Irene said:

    Oh, David I cried reading this. It made me think of my father. I would love to read more of your readings of selected poems. Maybe you could contribute a column to RWP.

    • Hi Irene,

      Thank you for your generous and very open, heartfelt comments. Deb actually just asked me (and I said yes) to write a Workshop Redux column, motivated I think by your suggestion.

  6. The last phrase really resonates and makes a good point. Love’s austere and lonely offices cuts across a number of classes and cultures and is only understood when it is too late.I think this is a very interesting topic
    considering the nature of society now with its unhealthy child fixated emphasis and unconditional love. It is obvious to me that this father was devoted to his family.The term ‘ I love you’ has lost significance and meaning from being trivialised, overused and inappropriately used .For me it should be used to signify a deep feeling. I know this is contrary to current popular opinion, but I feel a person knows when they are loved or not and all the nauseating insincere declarations mean nothing if there is no evidence of love. I’m going to write a poem about this.Thanks David.

    • Hi Rall,

      I agree that today many are not reticent enough about professing “feelings” and need to be more demonstrative with their actions. Clearly the father in this poem, brusque as he might have been, was committed and ultimately appreciated for it.

  7. I think this is everybody’s favourite poem, both for the way Hayden wrote it: sincerely and naturally, and for what it says: we all find a piece of ourselves in it. It’s a magnificent piece.

    • I think you’re right; this is probably the most commonly cited and anthologized poem by Hayden, and deservedly so.

      • Indeed, plus Walcott’s “Love After Love.”

  8. Thanks for this prose meditation on Hayden’s poem, David. I appreciated your observation that “These are the kind of hands that run furnaces in the basements of buildings, or in the cavernous windowless spaces of factories and mills, but also invisibly provide the ambient passion that holds the family together.

    I wouldn’t have joined the words “ambient” and “passion” before, yet ambient passion so accurately and concisely captures the workman’s expression that often is overlooked or elided because of the model it does not fit.

    Wonderful thankful Thanksgiving Day meditation on a thankful reverie.

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your kind remarks. There’s something about the hard, unsung work that some people do I have always been in awe of.

  9. Liz said:

    Thanks for sharing this poem and your insights. It’s a new one for me. I love what it captures about the daily life of working folk and how it uses such straightforward language.

  10. Deb said:

    Thank you for illuminating this poem, which I hadn’t read before, but the fine craft and understated emotion are brilliant. Thank you for bringing me a point of view that is worth recalling, any time.

  11. djvorreyer said:

    The poem speaks to so many people – it is almost always a favorite of my middle school students…nice way to work through it.

    • Thank you. I think it’s a great poem for students, both for the feelings it espouses, and for the point of view and handling of a childhood situation.

  12. Hi Dave,

    Vintage Moolten, indeed. You are evolving as an artist, beautifully. You inspire me to work harder at my craft each time I read one of your works.

    Ron Bennett

    • Hi Ron,

      Thanks a bunch. It’s always good to hear from you, although it would also be nice to hear you, your music that is. It’s been a while.

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