Many memorable poems have been constructed from the fragmented relationship that exists between child and father. When the child grows up to become a poet, the verse that is produced as a result of that relationship very often reveals a much more complicated, ambiguous and sometimes even more tortured expression of emotions than the verse produced about that same poet’s mother. Robert Hayden’s contribution to this impressive list of poems about fathers is highlighted by his much-anthologized “Those Winter Sundays” which employs the imagery of a father’s primary position within the framework of the family unit as caretaker to add to the growing literature of poetic ambivalence expressed by the mature adult recalling childhood memories of a father.
What makes “Those Winter Sundays” stand out from an assortment of father poems that tackle much the same subject in much the same way is that fragmented, postmodern aura of the schizophrenia that informs not just the content, but very structure of the poem. It is the overwhelming sense of wanting to inch closer emotionally and physically, the impact of not being able to move closer, the intense sensations of hurt and anger that arise as a result of this this inability to be close followed hard by the gut-wrenching, heartbreaking torrential downpour of guilt that such feelings inspire which serves to instill in Robert Hayden’s contribution to daddy poems a distinctly schizophrenic aspect. The conflicting emotions at work within the poet’s recollections in “Those Winter Sundays” very powerfully conveys the connection that exists between geographical distance and emotional distance of father and son. The conflicted psychological response of the son to his father is a direct response to the father’s response to the necessity of work to take care of his family and his home. One way of interpreting the poem is strictly as a grown-up child’s reflection back to the demands made by fatherhood, but the resulting anger that is expressed in the final stanza must take into account the time travel that send that grown child back to being just a child who has not yet matured to the point of being able to fully appreciate the sacrifices of a father too often absent. Without fully understanding that the anger expressed in that final stanza is being exhibited by the child he was rather than the adult he is, it becomes easy to read the poem merely as the memory of a selfish adult feeling only negative emotions. Only by realizing that time travel has taken place can one fully appreciate a reading of the poem as a far more positive—or at least conflicted—reflection of a child’s feeling toward his father.
In addition to geographical distance and emotional distance, an important component for properly reading the poem is an understanding that time is also a form of distance. And it is only through this type of distance that a child expressing resentment toward his father being distant in the other ways. Time is what allows the grown child to realize those “cracked hands that ached from labor” were in that condition not out of desire, but because of the choice of his father to accept the responsibilities of being the caretaker of the family. As caretaker, the labor doesn’t end when the workday ends, but continues on even into home on Sundays during winter when still more responsibilities exist to take the father way. A general reading can lead one to believe that the emotional center is expressed by “Speaking indifferently to him” because the intensity of that anger is so understandable and sits there boiling at the beginning of the last section.
Far more important is how the poem starts. The tone is respectful and even grudgingly admirable through lines that can seem stripped of even the mere baseline of emotional content, much any sort of emotion that can be described as intense or overwhelming. Where, one might one wonder, is the passion in lines as prosaic and bare as “Sundays too my father got up early” and “No one ever thanked him.” Those lines are not filled with sound and fury, but overlooking their importance is exactly what leads to a reading of the poem as a purely negative and unhealthy reflection of an absent father. Years have been required to reach that point of maturation and the reader should be willing to expend at least the time it takes to read through twice to fully understand that the poem is ultimately a positive recollection as it becomes a recognition of sacrifices made and unobserved.