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.”
The man we meet in the poem has lived among “poor folks” who were “so harshened after each unrelenting day that they were shouting-angry.” And though he sees the “broken steps” and “shattered glass” of this economically depressed world, he also celebrates the bold brightness of the sunflowers, the vivid children, the “tolerant wickedness,” and the Elks’ parades. There’s a rich particularity to the language, a mosaic texture of sharp hue and jagged line. In the last stanza, the rhythm rises like the voice of a street preacher, and long e’s in every final syllable of the last four lines ring like tambourines. Celebratory, sad, and splendiforous, like an old-time funeral. “Poetry exceeding music,” Wallace Stevens reminds us, “must take the place of empty heaven and its hymns.” Robert Hayden lifts both the reader and the elegized citizenry of the impoverished cityscape, through this deeply melodious poem fretted with angelic fire, into the realm of paradise.
Nobody planted roses, he recalls,
but sunflowers gangled there sometimes,
tough-stalked and bold
and like the vivid children there unplanned.
There circus-poster horses curveted
in trees of heaven
above the quarrels and shattered glass,
and he was bareback rider of them all.
No roses there in summer—
oh, never roses except when people died—
and no vacations for his elders,
so harshened after each unrelenting day
that they were shouting-angry.
But summer was, they said, the poor folks’ time
of year. And he remembers
how they would sit on broken steps amid
The fevered tossings of the dusk, the dark,
wafting hearsay with funeral-parlor fans
or making evening solemn by
their quietness. Feels their Mosaic eyes
upon him, though the florist roses
that only sorrow could afford
long since have bidden them Godspeed.
Oh, summer summer summertime—
Then grim street preachers shook
their tambourines and Bibles in the face
of tolerant wickedness;
then Elks parades and big splendiferous
Jack Johnson in his diamond limousine
set the ghetto burgeoning
of Ethiopia spreading her gorgeous wings.
D.A. Powell is the author of five collections of poetry, including Chronic, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His honors include the Gold Medal in Poetry from the California Commonwealth Club, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in San Francisco. His new collection, Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, was published in February 2012.