P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.9 - February 2017
“My Favorite Poet”
by David Graham
I don’t know if dancers, actors, painters, or even novelists get the sort of questions and comments that poets routinely hear. I’ve heard some doozies. Once at a party when a friend introduced me to a surgeon, saying that I was a poet, the doctor announced without any further provocation that he hated metaphors. Couldn’t stand them. “I’m concrete!” he declared, apparently with some pride. I felt like telling him I wasn’t fond of scalpels and surgical clamps, but that might have prolonged the conversation. Because I’m a poet and a smart-aleck, it did occur to me, of course, that “I’m concrete” is a rather compact example of a metaphor, and, in this case, perhaps a fitting one for the blockhead before me. Good luck getting through a day without metaphors, whether you’re discussing the bottom line, the crack of dawn, or pulling the plug on an awkward conversation.
Long ago I formed the habit, when meeting someone new, of saying I was a teacher rather than leading with my identity as poet, which had the dual advantage of being true and avoiding yet another variation on “Oh, I just don’t get poetry!” It also side-stepped the sort of questions for which there is no satisfying answer, such as “Oh, what do you write about?” or “Who’s your favorite poet?” As for what I write about, the wise-guy in me is always tempted just to quote the ancient Roman poet Terence, who observed “Nothing human is alien to me.” Which is also true, if unhelpful.
As for my favorite poet, I like Donald Hall’s solution. Rather than indulging in nit-picky qualifications or just refusing the question, he simply picks a name out of his very large hat of favorites and runs with it. “Andrew Marvell!” he might declare on Monday. Tuesday it’s “Marianne Moore!” or maybe “Thomas Hardy!” That works for me. So in this month’s column I would like to recommend my favorite poet, who is . . . (drum roll) . . . Robert Hayden.
Hayden, who died in 1980, was part of a rich generation of American poets, including figures like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, and Gwendolyn Brooks, all of whom gained renown long before he did. He’s probably not as well known as those others, even today. But for my money, he’s incomparable. Born poor, he suffered both from a hard upbringing as well as from all the discrimination arrayed against an African American in his time. He wrote historical poems, lyrics, devotional verse, dramatic pieces, and meditations on art. And he wrote as well as any poet ever has about the complicated, tragic history of race in this country.
But he’s probably best known for this rather understated, rueful lyric about his father, “Those Winter Sundays,” which if not my favorite poem of all time, is certainly in my top five:
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?
This is about as perfect a poem as I know. Its fourteen lines do not, strictly speaking, form a sonnet, but it remains as tightly crafted as anything by Shakespeare. For instance, note how the poem's second word ("too") contains a world of implication in its single syllable, marking the social class of this family as well as letting us feel the weariness of a father who, on his single day off from a backbreaking job, rises early to do chores at home and prepare the family for church. Then, from the crackling sounds of the woodstove to the metaphor of a house infected with "chronic" anger (a heartbreaking image), Hayden dramatizes the complicated emotional dynamic of being the fearful son of a short-fused father. The kind of man who can only express his love by working hard, and then harder.
When I taught this poem, we would linger a good while over those last two lines, first unpacking the implications in “austere,” with its suggestion of poverty, moral strictness, and emotional deprivation. Then on to “offices,” which in addition to suggesting a workplace, a duty, and a position of trust (the “office” of fatherhood), could also be taken in a religious sense, as in “divine offices.” The interlocking implications pack a lot of meaning into a short space.
Sooner or later we would find ourselves wondering: what is the answer to that final, apparently rhetorical question? What did the son know of this sort of love? I can think of several possibilities that the poem as a whole keeps alive at once. As a boy, he knew nothing in the sense that he took his father’s devotion for granted, as children will. But later, as a grown man writing this poem, he is able to see not only the love that lies hidden in anger and austerity, but also how lonely his father must have been in his office of fatherhood. All in all, it is a rich example of Auden's wonderful definition of poetry as "the clear expression of mixed feelings."
As noted, Hayden wrote many different kinds of poems, on personal as well as public themes. Many of his best, such as “Middle Passage” or “Runagate Runagate” are too long to look at here. But let me leave you with one of his historical poems, his richly layered and rhetorically potent homage to the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In this time of painfully persistent and systemic racism in the U.S., Hayden’s poem, written at the height of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, deftly reminds us both of how far we still have to go, and how much solace we can take from the inspiration of leaders like Douglass. Even as we lament how distant “the beautiful, needful thing” of racial justice remains, we can take comfort in the example not just of Douglass but of the many “lives grown out of his life.”
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.
©2017 David Graham
Editor's Note: If you would like to write to David about this article, his email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org