191. Those Winter Sundays: Robert Hayden

My father died last two Tuesdays ago.

As odd as it sounds from someone who keeps a poetry blog, I don’t immediately look to poetry for inspiration or comfort. The morning after the Boston Marathon bombings, for example, the news on television kept bringing up images for me of the science fiction show “Fringe”. Popular movies and television offer, to me, images and immediate visceral emotional connections. This is our age.

So when my father died, I did not rattle off a poem. Even as we put together the program, it was my family who supplied the appropriate bible verses. My mind was blank.

But poetry does offer comfort later. Poetry, and to a lesser extent, prose, provides, for me, the words and images I need to process. To reflect.

Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” is a good example of a poem that helped me put my own father’s life, and his role in my life, in perspective. It’s a process that’s been happening as he slowly faded over the past few years, and will continue as the grass grows over his grave. (A friend, unfortunately, does the same thing with “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke. You can go to the Poetry Foundation page here for that sad poem.) The poem guide for “Those Winter Sundays” and related content tabs (including teaching tips) on the Poetry Foundation site are good, and can be found here.

Take a moment with your students for them to appreciate the little acts that those around them do that they don’t notice on a daily basis, but that make a difference. Who, for example, has made their lunch every day? (It might be the lunch ladies, in which case a “thank you” is owed them.) When my NCLB scores come in, I have my students write notes to those teachers that made a difference–taught them to read, turned them onto fantasy literature, or did something else that pushed them forward academically. We once put the little notes in a bowl and left it in the staff room for everyone to read–a big hit and some positive PR for the middle school in our K-8 school.

If literature does guide us, might I suggest a unit on family? Years ago, I spent some time teaching at a Catholic high school. After a theology lesson on the Holy Trinity by our resident priest, I created a unit on fathers and sons (and included mothers and daughters). It was a hit. There is plenty of material out there, and I found my students hungry to explore their relationships at a time where those relationships were changing fast. So much positive emotion came from it, even from the worst of situations (FYI: Great movie for parental relationships, good and bad: “The Great Santini”).

Those Winter Sundays
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?


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