Eavesdropping on a Poem: How to Understand What You Can Understand

by Tina Blue
December 29, 2000

          In a previous article, "Entrances: How Do We Get into a Poem When the Front Door Seems Barred?" I suggested that you would find poetry easier to understand if you gave it the same sort of attention you give a conversation you are trying to eavesdrop on, when you have no prior knowledge of the people speaking to one another. In this article, I want to look at a poem by Robert Hayden (1913-1980) to show you what I mean about how much information is right out there in the open in a poem.

          The poem I want to look at, "Those Winter Sundays," was published in 1962. Now, the information I have just given you, the years in which the poet was born and died and the year in which the poem was published, is given in any anthology or collection of poems. A naïve reader might accuse a teacher who used that information of applying special knowledge to interpret the poem, but this much information at least is readily available.
          If you want to read poetry, it is not too much effort to look at who the author is and to make a note of these dates. Not all poems are autobiographical, and even those that are autobiographical are not autobiography. But a great deal of information can be inferred from little details like this.

          Of course, a poem in a magazine might not give you the poet's birth and age information, but if you're reading it in a magazine, then you know when it was published, and unless the magazine mentions that the poet has died, you can be fairly sure he is still alive.

          If you are reading the poem in an anthology or a collection, you might be able to view a photograph of the author. In either a collection or an anthology, potentially relevant details about the author are likely to be provided. For example, a picture or a biographical note for Robert Hayden would provide the information that Hayden was African-American. This detail may or may not be relevant to the understanding of a given poem, but it is something extra that you can know as you read the poem, and if the poem is even partly autobiographical, then that information may take on meaning in the context of the poem.

          Just from the information you have already, before you have even seen the poem, you know that it was published when Hayden was 49 years old. That might or might not help us to understand the poem, but we don't dismiss free information until we're sure we don't need it.

          The poem is written in free verse (verse with no identifiable rhyme scheme or meter), and has three separate sections (I don't usually use the word "stanza" for unrhymed line groups), of five, four, and five lines, respectively. Let's look at the first five-line unit and see what information it gives us:

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. (1-5)

          Here are the questions I would ask my students about these lines:

(1) What does the father do for a living?  How do we know?

(2) What is his socioeconomic class?  How do we know?

(3) Does the information about Hayden's age and race seem now as if it might be potentially significant? Why or why not? If we omit that information, does it prevent us from knowing the essential information about the father, or would knowing his age and race merely intensify the impression we already get?

          Obviously, the father is a manual laborer of some sort, since he works outdoors in all kinds of weather. Equally obviously, he is fairly poor, since he cannot take time off from work to permit his cracked and aching hands to heal. The fact that this poem is set in the early part of the last century (I'd say about 1926-1930--I'll tell you in a moment why I came up with those dates.) is relevant, since the lack of central heating would not be as remarkable back then as it would be now. But it also means that as an African-American, the father was probably even poorer and more hardworking he might have been at a later time.

          Thus, we don't learn from the fact of Hayden's age and race that his father was poor and a manual laborer, but knowledge of Hayden's age and race does allow us a clearer and more precise picture of what sort of life the hardworking father must have led. Hayden's age also allows us to guess what the time setting of the events probably was. If Hayden was born in 1913, and if the persona was about 13-17 at the time the events took place, then the poem is probably set between 1926 and 1930.

          The sentence "no ever thanked him" (5) also takes an added layer of meaning, since we know that those who do society's hardest and most necessary work are seldom appreciated for their efforts. We will discover later that this is not the primary meaning of this sentence in the poem, but it is certainly layer of nuance that we are meant to pick up.

          The second section of the poem introduces an unexpected tension:

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 . . . (6-9)

The fact that the persona* fears the "chronic angers of that house" (9) causes us to reinterpret his slow rising, which at first seems to be merely reluctance to leave the warmth of the bed. But there is something more here; the persona has some other cause for his unwillingness to "rise and dress" (8). The fact that the sentence doesn't end here, but carries over to the beginning of the next section, creates a sort of suspense: we believe we are about to be given some sort of explanation for the persona's fear and the house's chronic angers.

          But the first three lines of the next section don't present a direct, straightforward explanation at all:

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well. (10-12)

       Before we get into the issue of causes, though, let's pick up the easy information that is lying around in the open. Is the poem's persona male or female? How do we know?

       How old is he/she when the poem is being spoken? How old is he/she at the time of the events being described? How do we know?

           In the absence of contradictory information in the poem itself, it is customary to assume that the persona is the same sex as the author. But suppose we didn't know that the author was a man? Is there anything in the poem that tells us the persona is male?

          Of course there is. Even now, in this time of smart-mouthed adolescents, it is far more common for a boy to speak indifferently to his father than it would be for a girl to do so.

          Furthermore, as any woman who wore dress shoes on Sunday will tell you, up to a certain age, a girl's dress shoes are almost always patent leather. That would have been even more likely back in the 1920s and 1930s. And you don't polish patent leather. Besides, back then, a girl would have been unlikely to scuff up her Sunday shoes. Girls sat still and proper when they were dressed up for church.
          What about the boy's age? I would say between 13 and 17. Even now, and even with boys, you don't usually get the "speaking indifferently" effect until the kid reaches adolescence. And in that more respectful time, I would guess later rather than earlier adolescence--say 15-17, rather than 13-14.

          What about the causes of the tension between father and son? Now, you may be thinking, How am I supposed to know what's going on here? But of course you do know. We aren't observing an alien species, after all. We know how things can get between a man and his son, especially when money is tight and Dad is always exhausted and overworked.

          Maybe the father is a hitter--back then most fathers did spank their children, and often even whipped them (as another poem of Hayden's, "The Whipping," attests). But we don't even have to assume hitting, or even yelling. The father could just be one of those working men who radiates frustration and anger from stress, so that his sensitive kids pick up on the fact that he's on the edge, even if he never says an unkind word to them.

          And back then it was even harder for a man to openly express his love for his family--especially for a half-grown son. We know the sort of man who loves deeply, but who can only express his love by the things he does for his family. And we also know that such men may push their children away without meaning to, because they speak or act too coldly or too harshly sometimes.

          By the time the boy had reached adolescence, he would have learned to protect his feelings by not seeming to care too much, and also he would be expressing his own anger in the way that children do, because they lack real power--i.e., through passive aggression.

          And yet the depth of the father's love is expressed in the fact that despite his hard work six days of the week, despite his aching hands, he will not make his son, who is surely old enough to assume such a chore, get out of bed and start the fire while the house is still cold. He doesn't call anyone to come down until the rooms are already warm. The cold is what he protects his family from, both literally and metaphorically.           

          The words "too" and "as well" are incremental--and powerful. What the father does is extra. He gets up on Sundays too, he polishes the boys shoes as well. These gestures are more than duty requires. They are the way the man expresses the love he cannot communicate directly to his family. And now we understand the poignancy of the earlier line, "No one ever thanked him" (5). Not only is his hard work ignored and unappreciated by the society that exploits him; even his own family fails to thank him.

          The poem's final lines are a cry of remorse:

What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices? (13-14)

          Clearly this poem is a tribute to the father the persona never thanked when he should have thanked him. Perhaps the father is dead, or perhaps the barrier of a lifetime's failed communication is too great to allow them to establish a meaningful connection now. Even if they are able to communicate, though, that would not change the son's remorse, for he did not thank his father then. He spoke indifferently to him then. That is something he can never undo, whether his father is still living or not.

          Please notice how much information we got from this poem without doing anything technical. I did not tell you anything about this poem that you could not have gotten from it yourself, just by taking hold of the information that anyone has access to.

          There are many things going on in this poem that would require a technical approach to explain, and probably I will do that for you sometime. But my purpose here is to prove to you how much you can get out of a poem if you pay close attention to the stuff that's right there on the surface.

       In other words, if you eavesdrop on the poem.

*persona = the first-persona speaker of a lyric poem