Books

Terrance Hayes Won't Be Pinned Down

The virtuosic poet is still finding new ways to dazzle—and thwart—his readers

Stephanie Burt

Where Terrance Hayes has gone, other poets still follow. Image courtesy Blue Flower Arts

How does it feel to know everyone’s watching? If any major American poet of my generation can answer that question, it must be Terrance Hayes. He must also know how many younger poets now imitate him, and how often large audiences—especially white ones—see only what they expect to see. Starting with Muscular Music (1999) the South Carolina–born poet has published eleven books, winning a National Book Award and a MacArthur “genius” grant, among other honors. After nearly twenty years in Pittsburgh—where, at one point, a huge portrait of him greeted travelers at the airport—Hayes has become a professor at NYU. Some people see him and think he speaks for Poetry. Or for Black poetry. Or for hip, with-it Black poetry. Or for Black men.

It must be frustrating, if not infuriating: a reason to fashion yourself as a puzzle, or an enigma, or a dilemma, as well as a reason for counterprogramming, for Black delight. At least that’s what his writings imply: they steer readers, insistently and consistently, away from one-dimensional representations—of masculinity, or Blackness, or eros, or up-to-the-moment-ness—directing those readers instead to manifold suppler, stranger ideas. “A poetics of Blackness,” he laments in Watch Your Language, his 2023 book of prose, “gives me the right to reprimand, in almost any manner I prefer, a white woman who tries to reduce my story to a cliché.” (Or a white man, or a white-run institution.) The poems in So to Speak, a collection of Hayes’s new poems released the same day as Watch Your Language, play off that reprimand even as they recap his formal inventions, his growth as a writer, and his fame. The poems remain canny, reflective, multiple-minded: parables of strength that reject single meanings. They show how far Hayes stands from any one story, both because all of us live out more than one story, and because Hayes, in particular, has lived out an art of verbal multiplicity. His poetic language is not only something to watch; it also becomes a way to dazzle and to confound: his parkour, his parachute, his plot armor, and his great escape.

Where Terrance Hayes has gone, other poets still follow. He invented, in Hip Logic (2002), the “anagrammatic” poem, in which the final words of each line use only the letters in a one-word title (“oracle” might yield “clear” and “real” and “or”). Wind in a Box (2006) brought a dizzying hybrid of terza rima and blues. In Lighthead (2010), he introduced the now- extraordinarily popular “golden shovel” poem, whose line-terminal words come from a preexisting poem by another author (originally, and usually, Gwendolyn Brooks). In the same book, he invented a new form called the PechaKucha, derived from a Japanese slideshow format. He has also revived rare forms and genres: the poem as a set of instructions to a painter (as in Andrew Marvell); the poem as a camera-ready shooting script (as in Seamus Heaney). And then, in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018), Hayes remade the sonnet, with regular rhythms, few or no end rhymes, and a forceful final couplet. Any time spent with debut poetry collections from the last few years will demonstrate how far his inventions extend.

Stasis is vulnerability, fixity, death; living spirits must change.

So to Speak is a book aware of the poet’s career, a book that folds into its variety of short poems almost all the forms mentioned above. It even combines them, making fierce chimeras: “American Sonnet & Golden Shovel for the Tree of Liberty”; “A Ghazalled Sentence After ‘My People . . . Hold On,’ by Eddie Kendricks and the Negro Act of 1740,” a poem in the form of a single sentence in which sixteen lines end with a variation on the word “people.” New PechaKuchas look back to the ones in Lighthead; “American Sonnet for My Grandfather’s Love Child,” invoking “the water a girl becomes to survive,” points back at “The Whale” from Wind in a Box. It is a book about retrospect, about restarting in the wake of an only partly painful past, with a nod to the poet’s recent divorce. The poems gesture gratefully to Hayes’s literary mentors and peers and then, ambivalently, with great care, to the household he no longer shares. It is a book full of such ambivalence: what shall it profit a poet (the poems sometimes ask) if he learns all the techniques any poet could ever hope to learn, and does not change the unjust world? And it is a book whose careful suspicions, antiracist evasions, and virtuosic moves, over and over, bring to mind not Heaney but another internationally acclaimed Irish poet: Paul Muldoon.

I insist on the Muldoonian parallel because Hayes belongs on the world stage. I insist on it, as well, against the bad habit American critics have of comparing Black poets only to other Black poets. Hayes encourages those comparisons—to Brooks, to Wanda Coleman (from whom he borrowed the label “American Sonnet”), to his beloved teacher Toi Derricotte, all of whose names appear in his new poems—but it seems silly to limit his readers to them. Like Muldoon, who comes from Northern Ireland, Hayes reacts to the injustices and topographies of the lands that shaped his youth with an illimitable array of plays on words, arranged so enigmatically that they may seem to hide—though really they fit—his “multiple genres of longing.” The Scottish critic Brian Morton dubbed Muldoon a man who “could rhyme ‘knife’ with ‘fork’”; Hayes rhymes, or semi-rhymes, the word “Marlon” with “The Wild One” (a Marlon Brando film) and then with “person” and “demon.” Elsewhere in the same poem, he rhymes “name” with “I am”; “singing” with “weeping”; “winning is” with “loss.” (Compare, too, “A Ghazalled Sentence . . .” to Muldoon’s mono-rhymed “They That Wash on Thursday,” a fifty-line poem about physical abuse in which every line ends with “hand” or “hands”; the overlap demonstrates, if not conscious influence, the shared habits of two sharp minds.)

Both literature and life, for Hayes as for Muldoon, comprise sets of puzzles. But literary puzzles imply solutions: in life, most often, the numbers just won’t add up. Poetics can make sadness a game and permit escapes, from misery and from the demands of readers, the same readers that Muldoon once said he meant to leave “in some corner at a terrible party, where I’ve nipped out through the bathroom window.” Hayes’s puzzling, puzzled, enchanting, disenchanted poems may promise that kind of perverse flight from interpreters. They can also work as roundabout consolations, or as angry elegies, broadcasting failures like the one in “Muscular Fantasy”: “The girl falling down the well sang without pause // as she fell. People described it as gospel.” Girl, fall, well, fell, peo-ple, gos-pel: surely the pattern means something? Hayes cannot help seeing symbols and codes everywhere, turning sounds into clues in a kind of poetics that (like Muldoon’s) borders on apophenia. “Almost anything you see is a map in some way,” he writes in a poem called “Maps of States” (first published in this magazine). But that map may not point you where you want to go; it may lead to a dried-up, or a deadly, well.

You may also try to make art into shelter. Linguistic tricks can become shields that might keep your people safe, as the builders of Black churches tried to keep refugees and congregants safe long ago: “After several hours working / For the nothings of enslavers black people / Raised the scaffolding of holy shelters in the dark.” Someone should figure out how to scan these syncopated, not-quite-hexameter, jazz-influenced lines; available prosodic tools fall short. Like any jazz performer, Hayes loves the unpredictable, the “never-the-same-way-twice,” pursuing cascades of puns, homonyms, homophones, and internal rhymes. He also favors the word “or,” since it opens out onto alternatives: “I am picturing a brood of boll weevils migrating to the US / In bales of Mexican cotton or maybe in the bowels // Of the great Galveston hurricane or the ears / Of four apocalypse horsemen.” Boll, bale, bowels. (Later, the same poem refers to “Lead Belly’s / ‘Boll Weevil Blues.’”)

Such play brings a kind of solace along with a kind of power. We cannot usually rearrange the world and fix all its problems, but we can arrange the words we use. If we have verbal talents close to Hayes’s—though of course almost nobody does—we can make those arrangements so memorable that they are both a source of joy and a protest. What’s wrong with this disorganized, damaged world? Why can’t we bring into being one with more wit, weirdness, play? The Hayes of So to Speak—both drier and more patient than the Hayes of American Sonnets—extends these proposals to other kinds of elaborate, defiantly playful beauty, as in the following line of argument from “The Kafka Virus Verses: Thursday,” which starts with a sharp stanza break:

                                                             Most

big decisions are made without me and you

every day too. I’m just so accustomed to

adjusting to everything. How often must I tell you

I was born to a sixteen-year-old black girl who

had three siblings with different fathers

in the projects of South Carolina in

1971, after a neighbor raped her?

If there is no solution,

a problem is not a real problem by

definition. When my mother’s grand-

mother was alive,

she lived on the dark potions of a beautician

with a mouth full of hairpins,

and an enchanted freehand

above the minds of ladies looking

to feel more lovely beneath their lovers’ hands.

The same poem likens Hayes himself to a beautician: “my hands were made for beautiful things.” As beautiful, indeed, as the chain of euphonies, half-rhymes, and exact rhymes here: “accustomed to,” “adjusting to,” “must I tell you”; and “grand,” “and,” “freehand,” “hands.” Who wouldn’t want to believe that these forms of beauty could solve our problems? On the other hand, who would believe it?

Hayes admires visual alongside verbal transformations: the poems give us much to hear, and more to see, though nothing we see or hear stays put. Hayes studied painting as an undergrad at Coker College (now Coker University). His paintings appear on the covers of almost all his books. So to Speak and Watch Your Language, like How to Be Drawn (2015), also include sketches, concrete poems, and diagrams, inviting us into nonlinear, non-sentence-based ways to put together the faces and names he wants us to see. His preoccupation with physical transformation has also allowed Hayes—who wrote about wigs, and drag queens, and playing dress-up repeatedly in earlier volumes—to become one of very few cis people who can write sensitively about trans experience. A poem about his mother’s acquaintance’s grown trans daughter Taffeta concludes:

                            You are not you for long.

I am not trying to change the world,

I am trying to change myself

so that the world will seem changed.

What is new here, compared to the Hayes of prior books? The restricted vocabulary: many passages, including this one, contract into repetition or use only common words, as if he were trying to write with one hand (or one dictionary) behind his back. What is consistent with Hayes’s past books? His wit, his subjects, his attitudes and assumptions. Stasis is vulnerability, fixity, death; living spirits must change. No wonder “Stevie Wonder’s head purples with plural visions / Of blackness, gavels, grapples, purrs, pens. Odds are ten / To one God also prefers to be referred to as They & Them.”

As in earlier books, Hayes peoples So to Speak with homages to artists, musicians, and other writers, some famous, some less so: Romare Bearden, Marvin Gaye, Henri Matisse, Octavia Butler, Frank Stanford, David Berman. Hayes seeks not only to canonize but also to make up a new literary form for each figure he reveres. Octavia Butler gets two “American Sonnets” in which other Black artists make imaginary films and photographs of her—but Hayes also offers an “Illustrated Octavia Butler Do-It-Yourself Sestina,” with tables of words for readers to assemble followed by seven diminutive pen-and-ink sketches of Butler in various states of metamorphosis.

In Watch Your Language, such celebrations of kindred spirits are also central. The volume collects two decades of Hayes’s occasional, critical, and appreciative prose, while hand-drawn trading cards of Hayes’s “AA All-Stars” depict figures in his personal Black canon. An essay first published in this magazine about Hayes’s poet friend Joel Dias-Porter (also known as DJ Renegade) visits the Washington, D.C., scene of the 1990s, where Black writers Ta-Nehisi Coates, Douglas Kearney, A. Van Jordan, and others hung out together: literary historians take note. The late poets Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Lucie Brock-Broido also get their own Hayesian prose elegies: Brock-Broido’s beloved Maine Coon cat Sweet William “communicates across time & space with all of Lucie Brock-Broido’s [other] cats. I am one of those cats.” I’d love to be one of them, too.

The Hayesian canon even comes with a mock-academic exam: a 255-question “Twentieth Century Examination” in nine parts, mixing reviews, essays, long blurbs, and shortish keynote speeches with questions about American poetry and existential inquiries such as “When did you last sing to someone?” or “Can any truly diverse audience agree on anything?” (A few of the verifiable questions could have used fact-checking. For example, “When will someone make a movie about Elizabeth Bishop abroad?” Someone has: try Bruno Barreto’s Reaching for the Moon (2013) or Barbara Hammer’s Welcome to This House (2015). Fortunately, as Hayes says elsewhere in the book, “the test maker is not allowed to grade you on the truth of your dreams.”)

Read Watch Your Language too rapidly, and you might feel that you can’t truly know Hayes’s work unless you have digested all his influences—or at least appreciated them. (Muldoon’s book of collected poetry lectures, The End of the Poem (2006), started similar hares.) Read it more slowly, and you will see a poet whose influences, directions, and drives are multiple, self-complicating, self-perpetuating, throwing off old models for others while settling into no template himself. “No reader should want a poet to be one thing,” Hayes declares. “No poet should want to be one thing, to have one style.” Just so: and yet we might recognize Hayes—his mercurial language, his skips and leaps and double meanings—almost anywhere.

What do we recognize when we recognize Hayes? On the one hand, it’s wrong to reduce any artist’s work to a single topic, even one as capacious as Blackness, or whiteness, or self-consciousness, or love, or regret. On the other hand, these poems neither wish to, nor find themselves able to, get away from Afro-diasporic identities, from disappointment in romantic love, and from a history of dispossession. A story in verse about Pablo Picasso, near the end of So to Speak, becomes a tableau of a marriage falling apart and also “a tale / About slaves. The artist was suffering a notion of color.” An astonishingly funny four-page poem in tercets imagines what happens, when you are a Black poet, if “Bob Ross Paints Your Portrait.” The frizzy-haired white painter speaks the poem: “We want it all to be approximately the same deep-space / black, black-hole black . . . black stars for eyes & black stars for scars.” How many kinds of Black can a white painter—or a white reader, like me—distinguish or even comprehend? How much do we miss if we try to see Blackness in art as one thing, or as always the same thing? We miss the point of Hayes’s art: to dramatize a feeling without confining the poet to one expression, one version, one way to be real.

As much as So to Speak looks back over his career, it also delivers new responses to timely subjects, like those of 2020­­ and 2021: Covid, quarantine, the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder, Build Back Better (some poems come with dates). A poem called “George Floyd” overlays familiar phrases—“watch your mouth is little more / than a door being knocked / out of the ring of fire”—up to the thunderously grim last line: “Emmett till the end of time.” Other poems play other allusive games, as in “Things Seen Right and Left Without Glasses,” whose opening lines echo the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Longing that would drive other poets to the edge of the inexpressible instead drives Hayes to hyperlexia, to figures that overlap and collide with each other, made harsher because he knows we are watching and listening: “Sometimes I feel like the child whose disfigured / expression was placed in a fishbowl.” He is lonely, and famous, and everyone is staring at him as if his MacArthur-winning verbal powers could solve our romantic and political problems. They won’t even solve his own.

So to Speak looks outward, to 2020, and to the public reception of Hayes’s constantly imitated, yet inimitable, style. So to Speak looks backward, revisiting Hayes’s earlier work. And it looks inward, to Hayes’s new life as the father of now-grown children, living in a new city on his own. “Is who hurt you / equal to who you hurt? Is who you love equal // to who loves you?” How can we know? Did Hayes’s marriage—does every marriage—work only because, as he says in another new “American Sonnet,” “We lie to stay together. / We lie to make do”? The poet here must be thinking about Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 (“I do believe her, though I know she lies”). He’s also reacting—as his whole book reacts—to a history of misidentifications, oversimplifications, outlines, shadows, and disappointments, not by lying down, not by lying about them, but by making new things out of them. “My essential poetics,” Hayes writes in Watch Your Language, “is simply to be doing something, making something, playing, struggling, learning something,” spending “more time in practice than in the game.” He also encourages us, in So to Speak, to practice seeing through illusions, to “balance the morass & the molasses of jackasses,” with help from a “new pair of glasses.” Given the mess and morass of Hayes’s America, we may need to learn to see as he sees: we may all need more than one lens, or more than one pair.

Stephanie Burt is the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English at Harvard. Her books include the poetry collection We Are Mermaids, After Callimachus, and Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems.
Originally published:
February 7, 2024

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