Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Reading Robert Hayden

When I first encountered Hayden’s work, I came across “Winter Sundays” in some anthology, and as soon as I read it, I was struck by the poem’s power and beauty, and “knew” that the poet was black, even though neither his name nor anything in the poem indicated that. I immediately went to a bookstore looking for more of his work, found his Collected Poems, and was one happy black mickyficky. I must have read “Middle Passage” about ten times. DAMN.
Anyway, critics sometimes argue about whether or not “Those Winter Sundays” and “Frederick Douglass” are sonnets. Both poems have 14 lines, but neither poem is faithful to a sonnet rhyme scheme. “Frederick Douglass” takes great liberties with the line length, but is closer to a sonnet’s internal structure of 8 lines to set up the argument, then 6 lines for the conclusion, (it takes 10.5 lines for the argument, then 3.5 for the conclusion). On the other hand “Winter Sundays” starts off, and ends with lines of iambic pentameter and never strays very far from 10 syllables per line, but has a very different internal structure.
I personally don’t consider either poem a “sonnet”, but rather improvisations on the sonnet form, a ‘syncopation of the form’ if you will. This is a common African-American (A-A) practice, where we take a Euro-American form, and “hook it up” by infusing it with an A-A aesthetic. For example, American culture is responsible for the invention of the fruit pie; the French had fruit pastries, the English meat pies, but it was Americans who came up with apple, and cherry pie. Enslaved West Africans, whose staple starch was the yam, found themselves in America and riffed off the form of a fruit pie, making sweet potato pie, (sweet potatoes are the American equivalent of yams). Here we have the African content in the Euro-American form. Transforming the form. And this is what I think Hayden is doing ”, (I am well aware of the fact that Hayden is alleged to have vociferously disagreed with the idea of a Black Aesthetic). Further examples include; Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things”, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”, Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace”, and Marvin Gaye’s “Star Spangled Banner.

Let’s look at “Frederick Douglass” first.

Frederick Douglass

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
And terrible thing, needful to man as air,
Usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
When it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
Reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
Than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
This man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
Beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
Where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
This man, superb in love and logic, this man,
Shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
Not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
But with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
Fleshing his dream of the beautiful needful thing.

To properly ‘read’ this poem, we must properly ‘hear’ it first. The key is remembering that A-A culture is an oral culture, and that Douglass was both a minister and a great orator, (oratorical skills are very highly prized in the West African cultures from which A-A originated), and he is part of a line of great A-A orators from Olaudah Equiano to Jesse Jackson. Because, in this poem, Hayden (who was raised in the Baptist Church) uses a rhetorical style common to speeches and sermons. Speeches like poems utilize certain devices to achieve their effects, and A-A preachers and speakers often utilize semantic riffing in their sermons (think of a preacher saying” Jesus!, is our protector, our comforter, our redeemer, our Lord and Savior” or Malcolm X saying “You’ve been misled, tricked, hoodwinked, bamboozled”).
Examine the first line of the poem, it has 18 syllables (10 is the norm for a sonnet) and is far and away the longest line in the poem. With a poet of Hayden’s caliber this is no accident, he deviates from the form for a reason, he is running long just like a Baptist minister on a Sunday morning. But check out why he goes long, read the first two lines without the phrase “this freedom, this liberty”. They read “When it is finally ours, this beautiful/ And terrible thing, needful to man as air”, he clearly doesn’t need the phrase “this freedom, this liberty” for the poem to make sense. The inclusion of the two abstractions “freedom”, and “liberty” isn’t particularly poetic, and the phrase adds an extra 7 syllables to the line, so why did he do it? To send us a message, that this poem was operating under a different aesthetic. Note that while not particularly poetic, the extra phrase sets up a riff “this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful/ And terrible thing”, the kind of riff found in A-A speeches and sermons. In fact the whole poem is composed of a series of such riffs. Also note that the argument of the poem is one long sentence, which ends in line 10, and at the beginning of the conclusion is the word “Oh”. Once again, this word is not needed to make the point, and adds an extra syllable, but it is exactly the kind of impassioned plea we would expect to find in a sermon, or speech. And unlike other Hayden poems, but like a speech this poem contains only a few similes and metaphors. In effect Hayden is delivering a mini speech to memorialize Douglass. Below, I’ve taken the liberty of modifying the line breaks in the poem so that the structure of the riffs throughout the poem are revealed, and I’ve also added responses to Pastor Hayden’s calls to help illustrate its sermonic nature.

Frederick Douglass

When it is finally ours,
this freedom,
this liberty,
this beautiful And terrible thing, [Speak! Brother]
needful to man as air,
Usable as earth;
when it belongs at last to all, [To all!]
When it is truly instinct,
brain matter,
Reflex action; [Teach, Teach!]
when it is finally won; [Yes Lawd, finally]
when it is more
Than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians: [Preach, Preach!]
This man, [This man!]
this Douglass,
this former slave,
this Negro [Tell’em now]
Beaten to his knees, [Beaten!]
exiled, [Exiled!]
visioning a world
Where none is lonely, [None!]
none hunted,
alien, [Speak!, speak!]
This man,
superb in love and logic, [Superb!]
this man,
Shall be remembered. [Yes, he will!]

not with statues’ rhetoric, [Oh, No!]
Not with legends [Oh, No!]
and poems [Not poems!]
and wreaths of bronze alone, [Not bronze]
But with the lives
grown out of his life, [Speak!]
the lives
Fleshing his dream [Preach!]
of the beautiful needful thing. [A-men!]

It is as if an escaped slave has been riding north in the luggage compartment of a train, and now the journey has ended and he is allowed to uncoil to his true height. Note the five “When” riffs, followed by the six “This” riffs that make up the main statement of the poem, and how they contain riffs within themselves. Note also, how after all the abstractions in the first line, he grounds the poem with two concrete similes, i.e. “needful to man as air, usable as earth”, then follows with an arpeggio of metaphors i.e. “brain matter, diastole, systole” that connect freedom to the body physical, his point being that Douglass was fighting for a tangible freedom, not a theoretical one, (this is underscored by the metaphor “fleshing his dream” in the last line of the poem).
The poem’s tension is established by the statement that “When this freedom is finally ours”, “this man shall be remembered”, which brings to mind the question how? And since Hayden is a poet, the natural answer is “by this poem”. But, the next section then answers, “Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric, /Not with legends and poems”, but “with the lives fleshing his dream”, this unexpected answer supplies an element of surprise to the poem’s resolution. But, Hayden isn’t just riffing on the sonnet as a form, he is also riffing on a particular sonnet, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 (Not marble, nor the gilded monuments). In that sonnet Shakespeare tells his lover his “powerful rhyme” will outlast statues and cities and preserve the memory of its subject. Hayden goes Shakespeare one better, stating that Douglass will be remembered not with statues OR poems, but with the lives of those who actually get to fulfill his dream (freedom and equality for all Americans). This ‘sermon within a sonnet’, that yearns to be free, perfectly symbolizes the duality and dilemma of being African-American.

Now let’s take a look at the other poem-

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?

If people have read any poem by Hayden it is likely to be this one. The sonnet is a flexible form, but by and large it has been used more for love poems than any other subject matter. Hayden invokes this tradition by opening the poem with two lines of pentameter. All of the imagery in the first stanza is concrete, and used to establish the setting. His decision to place the word “too” directly after the word “Sunday” greatly helps to emphasize the father’s sacrifice. Towards the end of the second line his choice of the synaesthetic “blueblack” as an adjective is masterful, because it does double work; one meaning evokes the father dressing in pre-dawn darkness, the other suggests a cold so chilling, it numbs and bruises. In the next line the connection between “cracked” and “ached” is reinforced by consonance, and “ached” and “labor” are reinforced by assonance. The fact that the fire is “banked” tells us that this is a woodstove. The poem’s source of tension is established in line 5, with “No one ever thanked him”, which implies that the father’s actions are unappreciated, and also sets up the expectation that he may be thanked later in the poem. Hayden’s decision to place a stanza break after line five, separates the first stanza (which concentrates on the father) and the second (which concentrates on the son), and sets up a contrast, which reinforces the distance between the two.
In the next stanza, Hayden begins with the word “I” and re-tells the story, showing how the morning’s events were experienced by the speaker. This retelling occupies the next seven lines of the poem and means that the poem takes twelve lines to state the argument, a significant deviation from the standard sonnet structure. The poem also uses narrative to state the argument, something which isn’t usually done in sonnets. The phrase in the first line “the cold splintering, breaking” is a triple entendre; he could mean the metaphorical “breaking” or diminishing of the cold, a literal “breaking and splintering” of the cold (as when ice melts quickly), or the wood in the stove “breaking and splintering” in the blazing flames. Line six also serves another purpose we will come back to later. The phrase ”chronic angers of that house” (an excellent use of metonymy, since it is actually the father’s anger) in the last line is extremely important, as it gives the father a flaw (a bad, and possibly violent temper), which helps justify the distance between the two, and ratchets up the poem’s tension another notch.
Beginning the last stanza with “Speaking indifferently to him” helps to reinforce the son’s emotional coldness towards the father, and together with line eleven re-illustrates the point of tension in the poem (that the father’s actions are unappreciated). In line twelve, we find out that the father has “polished my good shoes as well”, which takes the tension up still another notch.
The best resolutions are those that provide some sort of surprise, and Hayden doesn’t disappoint. In the last two lines we are looking for some kind of thanks to resolve the tension, but instead we get a question i.e. “what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Another source of surprise, is that throughout the poem the speaker has been addressing us, the reader, but his final question could also be directed towards the father.
It is the next to last line which really makes the poem special, the repetition of the phrase “What did I know”, changes the simple question, “what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” into a plaintive plea for forgiveness (“What did I know, what did I know) ”), which acknowledges the significance of the father’s actions. But, the speaker never directly thanks his father (of course the presence of the poem is an indirect thanks). This means that the poem brings us right up to the moment of full resolution (the actual thanking), a resolution which is foreshadowed by line six (“I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking,”, where the “waking” is the speaker’s epiphany, and the “cold” that breaks and splinters is his “indifference”), but never actually provided. This partial resolution draws us back to the poem over and over again, seeking full closure. Note that the last line is ten syllables, which invokes the sonnet form again. One last source of surprise is the choice of the word “offices” to end the poem. Here the word could be read as a concrete noun i.e. (a place of business), which would make the last line a metaphor, but actually has another definition which is “duties”. (“austere” and “offices” are also linked and reinforced by assonance). If we assume that Hayden is in fact the speaker, the poem is made even more poignant by the fact that he was an adopted child.
So, how did I “know” that Hayden was black? I think it is because of the very rhythmic way the poem uses music. There are sound devices in every line of the first two stanzas i.e. (Sunday/early, clothes/cold, cracked/ached, labor/made, banked/thanked, wake/breaking, rooms/warm, I/rise, fearing/anger), and they provide a steady rhythm throughout the poem, and a haunting beauty as well. This kind of rhythmic effect is common in A-A poems, but less frequent in poems by other poets.

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