This is Not Sentimental Verse

by Ed Simon

Terrence Hayes’ collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is structured by the unique conceit of every poem therein sharing the same title, which is simply the singular of the book’s title itself. Published two years after the 2016 presidential election, and with four centuries of American white supremacist violence and black disenfranchisement to protest, Hayes’ book is both a personal and political meditation on the nature of race in the United States. Critic Tara McEvoy would note in The Guardian that Hayes’ is a ‘book that speaks with urgency and authority, bearing witness to the absurdities and cruelties of the present moment,’ but it’s also a collection of deep associative and connotative references, its lyrics tendril-like connected to a history of both oppression and resistance. The title is its own poem, a strange and contradictory invocation. How can one have a past and future assassin? What’s invoked then is something cyclical, a statement about the perpetuation of violence, but also about the endurance of resistance (for if the past assassin had completed his task there would be no future assassin). The conflation of individual poem title to that of the entire collection is not incidental. By making each lyric’s identifier the same, there is both an implication of unity and equality, but simultaneously a mockery of the bigot’s tendency to see all African Americans (particularly black men) as being the same. Sonnets, like people from any particular group, share certain qualities and experiences; in the case of the former we can say with relative assurance that the genre is defined by having (generally) 14 lines. But like people, the poems in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin have different personalities. The lyrics exhibit the sheer diversity of experience that can define any one history, from persecution to triumph, marginalisation to cultural innovation.

The last subject is taken up by the first sonnet in the collection (entitled, of course, ‘American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin’). Hayes pens an Ars poetica for the black poetic tradition, providing both encomium and genealogy of letters. Yet this particular exercise in theorising constitutes only the first four lines of the blank verse sonnet, as Hayes moves his focus outward into a broader question of vision, inspiration, and the place of empathy in aesthetics, especially across cultural lines. ‘The black poet would love to say his century began/With Hughes or, God forbid, Wheatley,’ he writes. It’s a funny line (and Hayes is a funny poet) wherein he attempts to excavate some kind of formal origin for black poetry. We’re forced to ask if ‘The black poet’ mentioned in the first line is really ‘This black poet’, for though it’s always risky to conflate narrator and poet there is an unmistakable attitude conveyed by his humour. In saying that his hypothetical poet ‘would love to say’ that this tradition began with Langston Hughes, there is the intimation that such a claim must be erroneous. The ‘would’ immediately implies that such a claim for cultural patrimony from the modernist exemplar of the Harlem Renaissance is inaccurate, especially considering the two words after the comma at the enjambment of the second line where Hayes gives us a ‘but actually’. (It is telling as well that those two words are so often associated with a certain type of knowing masculine internet discourse.)

Combining Hughes with Phyllis Wheatley associates the most famous black poet of the 20th century with the woman who is normally identified with the formal birth of black poetry in the 18th century. Hayes’ poem removes us from the realm of literal historical genealogy into that of the archetypal – how can it be said that the black poet’s ‘century’ began when more than two centuries separate Wheatley and Hughes? Furthermore, how can this be understood as literal account when the listing of Hayes’ influences is asynchronous? Rather what’s implied, and is partially reconciled in the fourth and fifth lines of the sonnet, is that within this space of more than twenty decades there is an ignored history wider and more expansive than either poet, which Hayes tries to rectify – not with scholarship, but with a sense of poetic vision. The quasi-blasphemous intensifier, funny in its own way to a reader familiar with Wheatley, is an expression of a profound ambivalence about not black poetry, but the ways in which black poetry has been canonised by the academy, by anthologisers, by critics and historians.

A child prodigy who survived the Middle Passage to be enslaved by a Boston family, Wheatley authored Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773, which constituted the first book of verse published by an African American. Perennially under-rated, Wheatley’s poetry was written in a high Augustan style of rhyming couplets that evoked both John Dryden and Alexander Pope, even while across the Atlantic nascent Romanticism was beginning to take hold. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was heralded as an achievement throughout Boston when it was first printed, even while racist clergy and academics initially refused to believe that the book could be the product of a black woman (even while she was fluent in Latin and Greek while still a child). They were eventually mollified after a gruelling cross examination was held by several Harvard professors, and Wheatley’s poetry was celebrated for both its religious and patriotic edifications. Hayes’s sense of embarrassment at Wheatley may seem initially befuddling – what embarrassment could there be at a woman who accomplished so much under such horrific conditions?

Hayes’ sentiment is not unusual, however. Henry Louis Gates explains in The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers that the poet’s ‘troubling afterlife is a larger parable about the politics of authenticity’ for a once ‘revered figure in black letters would, in the sixties, become the most reviled figure.’ For critics during the Black Arts Movement, Wheatley was an example of an embarrassing tokenism, especially regarding her poem ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America,’ as Gates argues. It’s hard not to see why one would cringe at the poem, at why Hayes would exclaim a ‘God forbid’ when being made to consider her the fore-mother of the black poetic tradition. ‘Some view our sable race with scornful eye,’ Wheatley wrote, ‘“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”/Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.’ What would read as liberal in the 18th century is clearly problematic in our own day. Whether or not critical history has been fair to Wheatley, giving due-consideration to the constraints she had to work under (literal and not poetically formal ones), is a different question than asking if it’s understandable why Hayes would express such an ambivalence regarding her status – of course such an attitude towards what Gates calls ‘the most scorned poem in the tradition’ makes sense.

‘American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin’ does something interesting in these first two lines: the hypothetical black poet can’t help but exclaim their discomfort with Wheatley’s canonisation as the primogeniture for their tradition, while he also argues that they ‘would love to say his century began’ with her. Why the seeming disjunct? Why the partial acceptance a poet who is politically unsuitable in many ways? The answer to that question is more implied than given when Hayes reveals who the actual inventors of black prosody are, but again that answer isn’t given until after the second line. Hughes doesn’t receive the same scorn as Wheatley, yet it’s no more accurate to say that the black poet’s century began with him than her (especially considering the vagaries of chronology). Hayes’ answer to where that tradition began is prefigured by Hughes himself in his 1921 poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, published in the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis. In that celebrated poem, Hughes writes: ‘I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the/flow of human blood in human veins,’ and he then proceeds to enumerate four archetypal rivers – the Euphrates, the Nile, the Congo, and the Mississippi – which have connotative allegorical significance to the black experience. By conflating the flow of rivers with that of blood, Hughes gestures towards an ancient and hidden tradition animating the black poetic experience which is in stark contrast to formal academic anthologising. But if Hughes’ is implicitly gesturing to who the mother or father of black poetry actually is, then Hayes answers that question – and it’s not Hughes, or Wheatley, or anybody else that anyone has ever heard of.

Rather, as follows that ‘but actually’, the pantheon of black prosody ‘began with all the poetry weirdos & worriers, warriors, /Poetry whiners & winos falling from ship bows, sunset/Bridges & windows’. It’s a remarkable second half of the first sentence of the sonnet, which in itself spreads over five lines, with three of those devoted to the anonymous crowd that animates the tradition of which Hayes is writing. The reason why the ‘black poet would love to say his century began’ with a poet like Wheatley or Hughes is because such an identifiable lineage would provide the imprimatur of academic legitimacy, and perhaps with a bit of self-mockery the narrator identifies himself with that position. The reality is all the more wondrous, if not recognisable to the arbitrary standards of Western literary criticism. Hayes’ ultimate sources, through poets like Wheatley and Hughes, are a distant, hidden, secret yet vibrant confraternity of dejected and forgotten poets who provide the language and meter of a tradition’s whose origins are not fully excavated. Hayes’ line is a litany of pairs (assembled in glorious alliteration), but we’re not meant to associate proper nouns with these weirdos, worriers, warriors, whiners, and winos. Part of the power of the line is the sheer exuberance and joy of language’s feel; if poetry is in part defined as a medium that positively revels in the rhetorical possibilities of language itself, beyond simply the mundane need to communicate, than ‘American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin’ is most assuredly a poem in the fullest sense of the word. The idea that language becomes poetry when it draws attention to itself as being language (through rhyme, rhythm, rhetoric, etc.) is a contention that owes much to formalist analysis, but it’s even more accurate to note that such linguistic play has African origins as well, so that Hayes’ claim about where black poetry actually begins is demonstrated in a line that embodies those very rhetorical forms.

Ethnomusicologist Ernest Borneman, writing in Nat Hentoff and Albert J. McCarthy’s anthology Jazz, that African literary traditions often aim at ‘circumlocution rather than at exact definition. The direct statement is considered crude and unimaginative; the veiling of all contents in ever-changing paraphrases is considered the criterion of intelligence and personality.’ If Hayes’ line is anything, it’s playful – it’s an enjoyable line to read and speak because it has a musicality. But it does so precisely through circumlocution; what he is saying is equally important to how he is saying it. By evoking all of those ‘weirdos & worriers, warriors, /Poetry whiners & winos falling from ship bows, sunset/Bridges & windows’, Hayes does service to those women and men, not by naming them, but writing in an idiom that reflects their method of composition. More importantly, the line has a particular musicality to it, a rhythm which is the source of its oral and aural power, or as Gates says of the African-American poetic tradition the ‘rhythm of the poems is also crucial to the desired effect, an effect in part reinforced by their quasi-musical nature of delivery’.

Writing in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism, Gates explains that the literature of the Bantu and Kwa was expressed in tonal languages, and thus that sing-songy sense of musicality would be transferred to African American poetry. (It is notable that Wheatley, writing in the stead of Pope and Alexander, lacks Hayes’ sense of flow.) ‘Signifyin(g)’ is the central conceit of African-American literature according to Gates, ‘the trope of tropes’ which places the iconic figure of the trickster (exemplified by Yoruba and Igbo gods like Esu and Legba) as central figures who both create and play with language. Exemplified by the verbal sparing that constitutes ‘Playing the Dozens’, but including forms as diverse as the improvisational verbal performances of rap, signifyin(g)’s mode is play and its author is the trickster. For example, note the homophonic quality between words like whiners/winos, and worriers/warriors, especially in the twang of Hayes’ North Carolina accent. The pairing of those near words, especially the last circumstance, provides insight to the sonnet’s signifyin(g). We might think that a ‘worrier’ and a ‘warrior’ are opposites, but the conjunction (and the almost identical sounds of the words) belies a more potent insight: to be a black man in American society is to be in a perpetual state of worry, and that in and of itself is as if going into a war zone every day – a type of bravery required every time one is pulled over by a cop or trailed by a white neighbour.

This is the aesthetic that Hayes identifies as where ‘his century began’, not with the academic litany of approved names, but from the nameless who spoke in an idiom of incalculable influence for American culture. A foundation, it should be said, not fully excavated. Not fully excavated because the historical traumas of modernity prevent it from being so, as ‘falling from ship bows’ with its allusion to the most brutal aspect of the Middle Passage makes clear, a reference to both the endemic suicide upon the Atlantic, or the practice of slave ships emptying their ‘cargo’ to offset shipping costs. Gates writes that:

‘The black Africans who survived the dreaded ‘Middle Passage’ from the west coast of Africa to the New World did not sail alone . . . these Africans nevertheless carried… aspects of their cultures that were meaningful, that could not be obliterated…[including the] black vernacular tradition . . . [which] stands as its signpost, at that liminal crossroads of culture contact and ensuing difference at which Africa meets African-American.’

Hayes’ initial lines sets up a tension between what the ‘black poet’ desires (the respectability of official academic lineage) and the reality (the authenticity of poets innumerable whose names we’ll never know). This is of no small concern because African American literature and American literature are synonymous; nothing truly original, unique, great, or transcendent in American letters doesn’t bear the trace of its African origins. American vocabulary, American rhetoric, American idioms, and American forms ultimately find their beginnings in precisely this hidden tradition that Hayes alludes to. An ambivalent reality, for as he notes, ‘In a second I’ll tell you how little/Writing rescues.’ This is ambiguous, because ‘rescues’ has two meanings here: there is the sense that the actual act of writing ultimately preserves little, all of those lost poems composed and delivered by kidnapped people who perished in slave ships or on Southern plantations; but it also can refer to the way in which writerly production itself doesn’t necessarily rescue those who create it. Few writers would be as influential as those ‘weirdos & worriers, warriors . . . whiners & winos’, yet we don’t even know their names. This is not sentimental verse, even if Hayes can be playful, he remains clear-eyed about the score.

African-American literature is, as Gates noted, a literature of syncretism. Critic John Leland writes in Hip: A History that ‘slaves and freedmen worked an early form of verbal jiujitsu, imposing African values about the foreign vocabulary’, and this is abundantly clear in Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassins. If the poem is haunted by the lacunae of the first African-American poets, and if it engages an African aesthetic of signifyin(g), then it also enacts this syncretism, not least of all in the form which Hayes has chosen to write in. Few poetic genres are as ‘Western’ as the sonnet (even if it can be historically traced back to the European periphery as a form used heretical Albigensians during the Middle Ages). The earliest of 13th-century sonnets were written in languages from Sicilian to Provencal, Arabic to Ladino, so that Hayes’ post-modern sonnet sequence drawing from the patterns of Wolof and Yoruba becomes its own continuation of tradition. Since Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard appropriated it from their Italian Renaissance antecedents (most notably Petrarch) in the 16th century for English purposes, the sonnet has been the most celebrated, crystalline, sophisticated, and elegant of European forms. ‘The sonnet is the one durable, widely used form in English poetry in the last five hundred years,’ writes Robert Hass in A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry, the ascendancy of the form contemporaneous with the very beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade.

Hayes is explicit about the ways in which the constraint of the 14 lines is suitable for addressing the traumas of a half-millennia of Western history. ‘I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, /Part panic closest, a little room in a house set aflame,’ he writes in another poem in the sequence. Such syncretism – the marriage of African theme with European form – can be read as an act of resistance against the later, appropriating the strictures of the sonnet in a paradoxical emancipatory act for the former. But it’s also an effective demonstration of the exact hybridisation enumerated and celebrated by Gates and Leland. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the spectre of the past poet who most clearly animates American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Wanda Coleman, more than either Wheatley or Hughes, is the inspiration who most clearly percolates throughout the book. Her 1994 collection American Sonnets is, in theme, form, and title, an obvious precursor to Hayes’ work. He has acknowledged Coleman as the inventor of the unrhymed form of the ‘American Sonnet’, as structurally unique as a Petrarchan, or Spenserian, or Shakespearean sonnets.

Coleman’s concerns are Hayes’ concerns, writing in ‘American Sonnet (10)’ that the black experience began ‘embarking/from Africa in chains/reluctant pilgrims stolen by Jehovah’s light/planted here the bitter/seed of blight and here eternal torches mark/the shame of Moloch’s mansions/built in slavery’s name’. Both are, of course, political poets. This is not a disjunct from the larger sonnet tradition; William Wordsworth certainly wrote political sonnets as well. Yet Coleman and Hayes reinvigorate the sonnet as a specifically African American form, marrying theme and idiom to the 14-line tradition. Hayes is nothing if not respectful of his poetic inspirations, and Coleman’s animation is given due deference in the collection (the epigraph is a quotation of hers), with Hayes telling Courtney Faye Taylor of Slice Magazine that Coleman did ‘all kinds of wild and inventive stuff, and to me that’s really mind blowing, the sense of freedom that she’s demonstrating in that’. Difficult to read a single poem as representative of an entire collection, when Hayes’ sonnets comment on each other throughout, but that Coleman is one answer of where the black poet’s ‘century’ begins is implied by her presence in the book (while keeping in mind that there are multiple answers to that question).

Hayes’ personal canon includes a litany of influences. McEvoy describes how much of American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is influenced by not just Coleman, but James Baldwin, ‘Emily Dickinson, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane’. Most of these figures aren’t poets, and not all of them are black. To expect that the answer to the question of when the black poet’s century begins must be with a black poet, or a poet at all, is to court a type of myopia which Hayes roundly rejects. Nowhere is this clearer than by line six of the sonnet when an appearance is made by an unexpected character, that scion of the WASP poetic establishment – Sylvia Plath. Hayes’ poem is ‘about’ black poetry insomuch as he is a black poet (and the narrator has announced that as his intent in the first line), but ‘The black poet would love to say his century began’ can be read not just as the beginning of an argument about influence and canonicity within the black poetic tradition, but as a universal claim about poetry in general put forward by a specific person (the black poet). Indeed, Hayes’ consideration of Plath takes up five lines of the sonnet; it is neither incidental nor fleeting, and marks a transition to a broader reflection on poetic vision more generally.

The reflection on Plath follows the second sentence which starts on line five and moves into lines six, wherein he promised that ‘In a second I’ll tell you how little/Writing rescues’. With the enjambment, line six thus begins with ‘Writing rescues’ which taken alone contradicts the sentence of which it is a smaller part. His engagement with Plath follows, with Hayes writing that ‘My hunch is that Sylvia Plath was not/Especially fun company. A drama queen, thin-skinned, /And skittery, she thought her poems were ordinary’. Something poignant in that enjambed fragment from before, since the incomplete claim that ‘Writing rescues’ is of course repudiated by the biographical example of Plath herself. Hayes’ use of Plath is fascinating. It’s as irreverent and iconoclastic as his treatment of Wheatley, not least because his conjecture strike the reader as accurate. Sylvia Plath probably wasn’t much fun to be around. Yet her difficulty is not a strike against her: in Slice Magazine Hayes makes clear that the poet has a right to be difficult. That Plath felt ‘her poems were ordinary’ is, in Hayes’ estimation, an implied tragedy. ‘What do you call a visionary who does not recognize/Her vision?’ he asks, and the question isn’t just rhetorical, but empathetic as well.

What follows is the volta of the sonnet, whereby Hayes introduces his last character, the mythic creator of poetry Orpheus, with whom he concludes ‘American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.’ Eavan Boland writes in The Making of a Sonnet that the volta, the ‘turn’ in a sonnet’s structure, is a ‘simple engine of proposition and rebuttal [that] has allowed the sonnet over centuries, in the hands of very different poets, to replicate over and over again the magic of inner argument,’ as is its purpose here. Every poem is at its core a defence of poetry (by its very example and existence), though Hayes’ sonnet tacks to this more explicitly:

Orpheus was alone when he invented writing.

His manic drawing became a kind of writing when he sent

His beloved a sketch of an eye with an X struck through it.

He meant I am blind without you. She thought he meant

I never want to see you again. It is possible he meant that, too.

Hayes began with the political, historical, and aesthetic question of where the black poet’s century begins, but ends with a metaphysical meditation on where all poetry began. The answer as to the utility of this innovation is ambiguous. Orpheus seems disordered, he’s ‘alone’ and ‘manic’, the invention of poetry is done in isolation, and the result is the (potentially) accidental spurning of Eurydice. Poetry is ambiguous, by its nature it exists not to communicate literal information, but to endlessly refer back to itself. Orpheus’ drawing (not a poem, incidentally) is meant to communicate one thing, but by the endless malleability of meaning it is perilously interpreted in an entirely different way. ‘It is possible he meant that, too,’ Hayes writes, a comment on the mercurial danger and triumph of poetry. What is suggested, is that there is a danger in being Orpheus, potentially misinterpreted and playing in a form where meaning is always elusive (and allusive) and deferred. In the role of the reader and critic, we can only hope that we correctly and fruitfully interpret that X, and all which it implies as an algebraic unknown, or a point on a map. What can’t be forgotten, however, is that there is even more risk in being Eurydice.

Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is published by Penguin.