I met Bob Hayden in the late 1970s when I, a callow high-school teacher, joined him and others in a textbook authorship project. I was in awe of the former poet laureate of Senegal and later America's first black poet laureate. A soft-spoken gentleman behind thick-lensed glasses, he put me at ease with his unassuming camaraderie.
He didn't speak much about himself. Other co-authors and editors sketched for me his early life: the fact that he had no birth certificate but was born with the name Asa Bundy Sheffey of parents who then separated; how at 18 months he was given to next-door neighbors who renamed him, though he was never legally adopted; how once he became a literary figure, he refused to be called a Negro poet and by so doing won the friendship and respect of Harlem Renaissance writers like Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. I treasure my memory of Robert Hayden.
Robert Hayden's tribute to his foster father demonstrates the effectiveness of understatement, brevity and artful imagery. Mingled with respectful memories of the father figure is his realization of the ingratitude that commonly accompanies youth. He is ashamed of having taken for granted the self-sacrificing duties routinely performed morning after morning by his hard-working and undemonstrative parent.
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with his 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?
In line one the common three-lettered word "too" is packed with meaning. Sunday is the day of rest. A working man should be able to sleep later than on working days. But such was not the case for the man the poet called father.
He rose early and set about the tasks of making the arising of the rest of his family less uncomfortable than it had been for himself. The key images are of cold and heat, and they are rendered visually and audibly. In line two, "blueblack cold" recalls the blue-bottle ice of winter streets in the ghetto neighborhood of Detroit where the poet spent his boyhood.
That coldness expressed more than the room temperature that the father was attempting to ameliorate by stirring banked fires into flame. Such chill also describes the presumptuous and ungrateful attitude of the rest of the household, none of whom ever thanked the man for his efforts on their behalf. The past tense of the poem shows that a regretful realization of blind ingratitude has since dawned on the speaker. His backward look at his father is belatedly warm and appreciative.
In stanza two the words "cold, splintering breaking" reinforce the image of the earlier "blueblack" ice that was both climatic and situational. "Splintering" makes the image both audible and visual as well as tactile. The "chronic angers" bespeak the unhappiness of the domestic situation and an emotional heat or chill that brings no comfort.
It never occurred to the youthful speaker to thank the man who rose early not only to warm the house but also to polish the shoes that his son would wear to church.
The speaker/poet's shame and remorse are poignant in his concluding rhetorical questions. The first "What did I know" suggests a generalized lack of knowledge and understanding of the self-sacrifice of others - a deficiency made understandable though not excusable by the speaker's youth and inexperience. Then "what did I know of love's austere and lonely offices" conveys mature realization of duties one performs willingly and in isolation for loved ones. The selection of "offices" as the poem's final word is brilliant in its denotative and connotative expression of functions dutifully performed without expectation of appreciation or thanks.
The adjective "austere" describes not only the tasks performed but also the man performing them. The elder Hayden was a severe, stern person not given to demonstrations of familial affection. None of that is elaborated in the poem but is conveyed in the metonymous "chronic angers" of a household where fear was a constant and expressions of grateful recognition were absent.
Resource: United States in Literature, by James E. Miller, Jr., Carlota Cårdenas de Dwyer, Robert Hayden, Russell J. Hogan, Kerry M. Wood; Scott, Foresman & Company, 1979
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