By THOMAS MOODY
Last month, the National Endowment for the Arts released its findings from the 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the nation’s largest and most representative survey of patterns in adult participation in the arts. Noticeable among the numbers were the tremendous gains made by poetry. Nearly 12 percent of adults read poetry in the last year, which amounts to roughly 28 million Americans, up 5 percent from 2012. This rise can in large part be attributed to increased readership among minority communities. Over the same five-year period, poetry readership among African-Americans jumped from 6.9 percent to 15.3 percent. Asian-Americans experienced even greater gains, almost tripling in number from 4.8 percent to 12.6 percent, as did non-white/non-Hispanics (4.7 percent to 13.5 percent), while Hispanic-American poetry readership almost doubled from 4.9 percent to 9.7 percent.
This diversity in readership is a testimony to the strength and vitality of contemporary American poetry itself. American poetry reflects America in a way that other forms of literature, perhaps, currently do not. Upon being sworn in as Queens Poet Laureate in 2015, Queens native Maria Lisella echoed this sentiment when she made the connection between poetry and the World’s Borough.
“To me, Queens epitomizes what New York City has always been: the first stop for immigrants in their quest for a new life….Poetry is linked to human movement because all of our stories are renewed by the flow of cultures, and Queens has myriad stories to tell,” she said.
This diverse range of voices is also mirrored at the national level. Of the last four poet laureates of the United States, two have been African-American women (Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith), and another a son of migrant farmers (Juan Felipe Herrera). Diversity is no longer the exception; it is very much the rule.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Terrance Hayes’ astonishing new book of poems American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is being hailed as the first great work of literature to address the current zeitgeist. Although written as a direct response to the election of Queens native Donald Trump to the presidency—Hayes sat down to draft his first sonnet on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016—the book is far more than a piece of mere political or social commentary. It is as much an investigation of the 21st-century self as it is of the external pressures that constrain, liberate and often fetishize it; and leads us to understand that as individuals, one is both distinct from and wholly fastened to one’s family, tribe, country, history. “On some level,” writes Hayes, “every action is an affirmation / Of personality.” The “assassin” of Hayes’ sonnets is as much himself as it is his others.
The book’s title is taken in part from Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets, what the late poet called “jazz sonnets…with certain properties—progression, improvisation, mimicry, etc.” Hayes picks up on this spirit of improvisation and doubles down on it. For him, the American sonnet is a constraint, a place to be locked in, or to lock someone else in, that is “part prison, part panic closet” and “part music box, part meat grinder.” But within these set of limitations, great invention is born. Mimetic of its form, one of the book’s continuing themes is the notion of constraint. As the sonnet must figure out how to resolve itself within its 14-line ceiling, so Hayes grapples with how to negotiate the America of 2018 as a son, a father, a man and, most importantly, a person of color.
“Probably twilight makes blackness dangerous / Darkness” opens one sonnet, which quickly evolves into a litany of shootings of unarmed African-American men by police, and the disquieting recognition that “probably someone is prey in all of our encounters.” Hayes’ concern is, however, neither exclusively with race nor with gender, but with classifications that constrict us all, exploring the tension found in our assertions to want to do away with these constraints and our inevitable retreat back into them as forms of shelter. For Hayes, we live “as if a bird could grow without breaking its shell.”
There is also a generous amount of humor in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, some of it satire, some parody. President Trump is a frequent figure of fun, referred to as “Mister Trumpet” and described as having a “Dumpling of a body. Humpty-Dumpty. Frumpy.” But always underneath the surface of this humor is a reminder that we are living “in the land of a failed landlord.” Throughout the sonnets, Hayes traces the bizarre and profound parallels between the sitting president and contemporary rap culture, with the assertion made that Trump has a “people of color complex.” This is a double-edged line that cuts right through both cultures—“your gold is the yellow of ‘Lemonade’ by Gucci Mane,” he writes in one sonnet, wishing the president “the opposite of what Neruda said of lemons. May all the gold you touch burn, rot and rust.” The couplet is a clever inversion of the story of Midas, and displays what is evident throughout the book: Hayes’ understanding of the long and enduring chain of great art that crosses cultures and eras, of which this book of 70 sonnets is the latest link. The poet’s variety of reference is wide and surprising, from Langston Hughes and Orpheus to Emily Dickinson and Jimi Hendrix. Hayes, who won a National Book Award in 2010 for his collection Lighthead, has a musician’s ear for tempo and cadence. His writing is agile, full of slant rhymes and unexpected line-breaks. But these skills, which he has in abundance, are but the garnish on the meal, not the meal itself.
The power of American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin rests in Hayes’ ability to generate a world within each sonnet. The book’s title is also given as the title of each individual poem. An index in the back with first lines provides a useful reference (the index itself broken up into five 14-line sections that read as Ted Berrigan inspired cut-ups), but the sharing of names gives each sonnet an eerie sense of repetition without familiarity. Read in succession, a powerful momentum develops. Sonnets begin to reference back to one another, lines are reused and reconfigured, but never does a sense of expectation creep in, never a sense of having seen this or that trick before. One line that is a refrain throughout the book is “There has never been a black male hysteria”—a devastating observation in a climate tweaked so high with white-male anxiety. It is hard not to juxtapose the line against another sonnet that includes a list of white men beginning with George Zimmerman and John Wilkes Booth and ending with the klansman Edgar Ray Killen. Killers all. But it would be foolish to assume these assassins are individual aberrations; the assassin of American Sonnets is ubiquitous: the banality of a group of white girls posing for selfies on a park bench, the gang that lynched Emmett Till, and America itself, “I carry a flag bearing a different / Nation on each side. I carry money bearing the face of my assassins.”
After some of the naked hatred shown during the 2016 presidential campaign, it is easy to understand how Hayes could feel abandoned by his country, but his is an abandonment not filled with hatred but with longing. The relationship between country and citizen is likened to the relationship between father and son, the way in which the son can feel abandoned by the father, and the father can lose sight of the son.
Hayes goes on to note that there is nothing new in this desertion. “Christianity is a religion,” he writes, “built around a father who does not rescue his son.”
This is an important book. It is also a challenging book, not in its ability to be understood, but in the troubling implications of the subjects it addresses. But as challenging as it is, it is equally funny, inventive and, ultimately, rewarding. It is also representative of what is good and worthwhile about American poetry, and why poetry is essential: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin takes an archaic form and refashions it, invigorates it and revolutionizes it. It opens up a conversation between past and present, and allows history to speak to us in our own vernacular. As Hayes writes, the poet is someone “with a good memory and a better imagination.” In the same sonnet, Hayes goes on to ask the essential question of our moment: “Can we really be friends if we don’t believe in the same things, Assassin? Probably.”
Let us hope so.
Thomas Moody is a writer and commentator on literature. He is based in Brooklyn, New York.