Poetry Dispatch No.237 | June 8, 2008
Poems for the Father
Father’s Day, June 15th, is one week from today. In celebration and memory of ‘the father’ I thought it appropriate for Poetry Dispatch to devote this entire week to poems about “Dad” in all his guises, complexities, relationships in the family.
You can’t write to any depth or read anything worthy of thought and concentration without running into the age-old story of dear old dad. Literature abounds with “fathers and sons”—fathers and daughters as well. There’s love; there’s conflict; there’s admiration; there’s hate; there’s forgiveness; there’s guilt; there are things one should have said and never did; there’s the absence of a father; there’s the father one becomes with little to go on but the father who was yours; there’s the father who lives only in memory and, perhaps, comes back to visit only in dreams. Ah speak, memory… Norbert Blei
P.S. Everyone should have a favorite father poem, own a book of someone’s poetry with a father poem he loves, an anthology of poems devoted to the father. Every poem on Poetry Dispatch this week will be identified by the title of the book in which the poem appears and whatever source information that may be available, should the reader be so inclined to seek out a gift copy for—the father, the son, the daughter, the grandchild, himself/herself or the family.
Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden
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?
from FATHERS, A Collection of Poems, Edited by David Ray and Judy Ray, St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999, $10.95
Robert Hayden (August 4, 1913 – February 25, 1980) was an American poet, essayist, educator and Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
Born as Asa Bundy Sheffey, Robert Hayden grew up in Detroit, Michigan. Born to a struggling couple, Ruth and Asa Sheffey (separated before his birth), Hayden was taken in by a foster family, Sue Ellen Westerfield and William Hayden, and grew up in a Detroit ghetto nicknamed “Paradise Valley.” The Haydens’ perpetually contentious marriage, coupled with Ruth Sheffey’s competition for young Hayden’s affections, made for a traumatic childhood. Witnessing fights and suffering beatings, Hayden lived in a house fraught with ‘chronic angers’ whose effects would stay with the poet throughout his adulthood. His childhood traumas resulted in debilitating bouts of depression which he later called “my dark nights of the soul”.
Because he was nearsighted and slight of stature, he was often ostracized by his peer group. As a response both to his household and peers, Hayden read voraciously, developing both ear and eye for transformative qualities in literature. He attended Detroit City College (Wayne State University), and left in 1936 to work, for the Federal Writers’ Project, where he researched black history and folk culture.
He was raised as a Baptist, but converted to the Bahá’í Faith during the early 1940s after marrying a Bahá’í, Erma Inez Morris. He is one of the best-known Bahá’í poets and his religion influenced much of his work.
After leaving the Federal Writers’ Project in 1938, marrying Erma Morris in 1940, and publishing his first volume, Heart-Shape in the Dust (1940), Hayden enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1941 and won a Hopwood Award there.
In pursuit of a master’s degree, Hayden studied under W. H. Auden, who directed Hayden’s attention to issues of poetic form, technique, and artistic discipline. After finishing his degree in 1942, then teaching several years at Michigan, Hayden went to Fisk University in 1946, where he remained for twenty-three years, returning to Michigan in 1969 to complete his teaching career.
He died in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1980, age 66.
Hayden was elected to the American Academy of Poets in 1975. From 1976 – 1978, Hayden was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the position which in 1985 became the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Hayden’s most famous and most anthologized poem is Those Winter Sundays, which deals with the memory of fatherly love and loneliness.
Other famed poems include The Whipping (which is about a small boy being severely punished for some undetermined offense), Middle Passage (inspired by the events surrounding the United States v. The Amistad affair), Runagate, Runagate, and Frederick Douglass.
Hayden’s influences included Wylie, Cullen, Dunbar, Hughes, Bontemps, Keats, Auden and Yeats. Hayden’s work often addressed the plight of African Americans, usually using his former home of Paradise Valley slum as a backdrop, as he does in the poem Heart-Shape in the Dust. Hayden’s work made ready use of black vernacular and folk speech. Hayden wrote political poetry as well, including a sequence on the Vietnam War.
On the first poem of the sequence, he said, “I was trying to convey the idea that the horrors of the war became a kind of presence, and they were with you in the most personal and intimate activity, having your meals and so on. Everything was touched by the horror and the brutality and criminality of war. I feel that’s one of the best of the poems.”
- * Selected Poems by Robert Hayden. NY: October House 1966.
- * Words in the Mourning Time: Poems by Robert Hayden. London: October House, 1970
- * Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems by Robert Hayden. NY: Liveright, 1975
- * American Journal: Poems by Robert Hayden. NY: Liveright Pub. Corp., 1982
- * Collected Prose: Robert Hayden. Ed. Frederick Glaysher. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1984.
- * Collected Poems: Robert Hayden. Ed. Frederick Glaysher. NY: Liveright, 1985; rpt. 1996.