Hayes’s American Sonnets (Part III: Hayes and The Confidence of Influence)

Dora Malech
October 30, 2017
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[Continued from “Hayes’s American Sonnets (Part II)”]

While my intention in my last post was simply to begin to connect Wanda Coleman’s “American Sonnets” with Terrance Hayes’s “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin,” I also ended up beginning to think about what it means to signal “American-ness” in a poem, what it means to insist on a poem’s place in the sonnet tradition while defying the expectations (aka “rules”) of that tradition, and who gets to be included in these conversations about form and national identity. Creating an anthology is, in many ways, thankless work, and some omissions are due to permissions issues or the simple question of space. Someone will always be left out. I don’t presume to know why, in an American Sonnets anthology that included her contemporaries, David Bromwich excluded Gwendolyn Brooks. I don’t presume to know why, in The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English, Phillis Levin excluded Wanda Coleman. But yes, I believe that the fact that I am writing about poets who are black women makes this question particularly urgent. (One thinks of Malcolm X saying that “the most disrespected . . . the most un-protected . . . the most neglected person in America, is the black woman.”)  The Poetry Foundation’s online overview of Coleman’s life and work connects these two writers as well:

Writing in Black American Literature Forum, Tony Magistrale summarized, “Coleman frequently writes to illuminate the lives of the underclass and the disenfranchised, the invisible men and women who populate America’s downtown streets after dark, the asylums and waystations, the inner city hospitals and clinics . . . Wanda Coleman, like Gwendolyn Brooks before her, has much to tell us about what it is like to be a poor black woman in America.”

At the intersectional nexus of multiple systemic biases, these two poets made great art, engaging with a tradition that still seems at times to neglect them or not fully give them their due. The exclusion of Brooks from Bromwich’s anthology is simply mystifying. I won’t try to explain it. The exclusion of Coleman from Levin’s anthology is most likely easier to explain – though Coleman’s sonnets are highly engaged with their form (more on that in a future post), they are not formally “traditional” sonnets. Levin also doesn’t include Ted Berrigan’s experimental sonnets; she may have decided to draw the line at a certain level of experimentation for the sake of space and focus. That the collection includes Billy Collins’s completely un-formal “American Sonnet” doesn’t undermine this theory, as the fact that his “American Sonnet” is a plain-spoken meta-commentary on the sonnet makes it “accessible” to a wide audience, functioning as an exception-to-the-rule moment in the anthology. (It’s also possible that Levin simply didn’t know about Wanda Coleman and her American Sonnets; Levin has spent her life on the East Coast, and Coleman spent hers on the West Coast, where she was sometimes referred to as the “unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles.” In a conversation about “American-ness,” it’s worth recognizing that there are still a plurality of Americas, in poetry as in life.)

Spending a bit of time thinking about omission within tradition allows me to return to Hayes’s writing to celebrate the opposite: inclusion. Hayes adamantly acknowledges his influences, reminding the reader that a voice is made up of voices, that we are the product of and in conversation with those who came before us. That his influences include a strong  “matrilineage” of black women (Wanda Coleman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Harryette Mullen, Elizabeth Alexander, Lucille Clifton) makes this acknowledgement even more crucial. Unlike Harold Bloom’s theory of the “anxiety” of influence, in which poets must overcome the “great” (and often white and male) poets who influence them, Hayes’s confidence in his influences seems push him to celebrate the great (and often black and female) poets who influence him.

In addition to the recognitions of influence that often begin his poems (After Gwendolyn Brooks; After Elizabeth Alexander; for Marvin Gaye; After Matmos and M. Zapruder) Hayes even goes so far as to refer readers of his most recent collection, How to Be Drawn, to his website:

Notes, references, and inspirations for the poems can be found online at http://terrancehayes.com/notes-drawn/.

There, one finds Leonard Cohen, James Brown, Andre 3000, Ellen Gallagher, Jenny Holzer, Einstein, and others – including Wanda Coleman.

[Continued in “American Sonnets: Part IV (As American As…)”]


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