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Robert Hayden’s “Summertime and the Living…”

March 22, 2012 | by

Robert Hayden.

One of the pleasures of reading a great poem over time is the way its meanings establish themselves (like the “trees of heaven” that reclaim the space of “quarrels and shattered glass”) and grow sturdier, larger.

I first read Robert Hayden’s “Summertime and the Living...” at an age where I neither understood ellipses nor was hip to the signals of quotation marks. I had scarcely heard of Porgy and Bess, so I missed entirely the allusion to “Summertime” the song. Instead, I thought of the poem as situated in memory, as a man looks back on a boyhood imprinted by the “Mosaic eyes” of those elders to whom “the florist roses that only sorrow could afford long since have bidden ... Godspeed.” If I had known that the next two words indicated by the title “Summertime and the Living...” would be “is easy,” I no doubt would have (knowing what a predilection I then had for irony) seen the poem as a quick “gotcha,” an “oh you thought it was this but it was that” kind of poem, and I imagine it would have taken longer for me to appreciate its nuance. But I was first reading the poem at that tender time when I still took it on faith that nearly all poetry is born of sincerity, and I missed Hayden’s sly joke. It was that sly.

Later, I heard the song. Later, I saw the deft choice in every word. The way “gangled” worked off “vivid” which worked off “unplanned” to suggest a lively disorder out of which dream emerges in the form of “circus-poster horses.” And later still I saw the roses not as a decorative flower (as I’d once imagined them) but as a necessary embodiment of sorrow exceeding frugality in its expensive claim on our hearts. Later, I understood the symbolic power of boxer Jack Johnson setting “the ghetto burgeoning with fantasies” as he leaves in a “diamond limousine.” Read More »