American Sonnets (Part VIII: A Tale of Two Sonnets)

Dora Malech
December 20, 2017
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[Continued from “American Sonnets (Part VII: Close-up On Coleman)”]

The first published sonnet by Terrance Hayes I can find is in his debut collection Muscular Music, originally published by Tia Chucha Press in 1999 (later rereleased by Carnegie Mellon University Press). “HOWYOUBEENS,” which appeared in The Pittsburgh Post Gazette in 1996 (while Hayes was still a student in the University of Pittsburgh MFA program in creative writing) doesn’t announce itself as a sonnet in its title as his American Sonnets do, perhaps because it is already in many ways recognizably formally traditional. One thinks of the old (sometimes tired, sometimes true) creative writing workshop adage that one has to “know the rules to break the rules”; this traditional sonnet in Hayes’s first book perhaps speaks to some element of that trajectory.

The version that appeared in The Pittsburgh Post Gazette is different from the version that found its way into Muscular Music, but both adhere to elements of the Petrarchan sonnet, with fourteen lines composed of loose pentameter; an initial octave, a turn (the sense of the turn for me comes at the moment of self-implication: “I too am guilty”), and an end-rhyme scheme. Comparing the two versions gives a glimpse into process:

The first version begins:

Mostly people talk to people, holding
On to lingo bits in the gone hours
Of Monday.

The second begins:

Mostly people talk to people, standing
Round to jibber-jabber in the blue hours
Of weekdays.

The first continues the line from “Of Monday”:

Of Monday. You see them meandering
Words while the calendar tilts and pours
Its steady juice of minutes. You see them
On Forbes almost vaporish, almost stupid
To newspaper’s steady whip; to trash bins
Gluttoned with watchheads, switchblades, red-lipped

Cups, obituary ink. Lost letters,
Teeth of despair, relics of the moment:

The second continues the line from “Of weekdays”:

Of weekdays. You see them meandering
Words while the calendar tilts and pours
Its steady juice of minutes. You see them
On Forbes almost vaporish, almost stupid
To newspaper’s steady whip; to trash bins
Gluttoned with dollheads, switchblades, red-lipped

Cups, obituary ink, love letters,
Teeth of hair-combs, relics of the moment:

The first ends:

Everythings ignored in the name of Weather,
Or somebody’s business & “Howyoubeens.”

I too am guilty, chattling after strangers,
Wasting it. Dumb. Whining about the wind.

The second ends:

Everything ignored in the name of Weather,
Of somebody’s business & “Howyoubeens.”
I too am guilty. Chattling after strangers.
Wasting it. Dumb. Bitching about the wind.

In both, the four opening lines and four closing lines enact the most recognizable elements of an ABAB rhyme scheme and the syntax remains largely the same throughout, but individual word choices are fine-tuned – “gone hours” to “blue hours,” “Teeth of despair” to “Teeth of hair-combs” – in a way that grounds the poem in the mundane particulars even further. The fact that the poet made revisions but did not alter the form as he revised seems to indicate that form and content are crucially intertwined here. The sonnet speaks to us, traditionally of love, and of the turns of our own mind. Here, the form asks us to interrogate this scene for signs of love – is this silly small talk actually the closest we come some days to connection? Or is it what is keeping us from truly connecting? The motion of mind is clear in the turn, as the poet must make clear he is no better than the collective “people” he indicts in his description. This raises one more line of questioning in the reader’s mind: is the poem the antidote to small talk, or must the poet alone in a blue hour admit that the poem, even the finely crafted sonnet, is just another dead-end conversation to pass the time?

In Terrance Hayes’s 2002 collection Hip Logic, the sonnet and Wanda Coleman come closer together in his work – “The Things-No-One-Knows Blues” (after Wanda Coleman) lands on page 9, and Hayes’s perhaps-most-talked-about sonnet (called “Sonnet”) appears just a few poems later on page 13. I don’t know if it’s actually Hayes’s most talked about sonnet, but I have certainly seen it referenced again and again as an example of a contemporary conceptual interrogation of the sonnet. It appears as a fourteen-line block on the page, consisting of the same iambic pentameter line over and over again:

We sliced the watermelon into smiles.

Whatever smile is happening here feels like a forced one, the form’s repetition and visual presentation only accentuating the restrictive “box” – of poetic tradition? of stereotype? of both? Steph Burt’s essay “The contemporary sonnet” in the 2011 The Cambridge Companion to the Sonnet presents this poem after Gary Copeland Lilley’s unrhymed sonnet “Cicada”; Burt writes, “Other Black poets still view the sonnet with suspicion, as a form made by privileged white folks, an ill-fitting mask.” Burt also references this sonnet in a 2015 profile of Hayes, saying that “when poets talk about Hayes, they tend to address his invented forms: poems based on anagrams, on the Japanese slide shows called pechakucha and on puzzles.” Yes, there is questioning, subversion, and invention in Hayes’s relationship with form, but it is still just that – a relationship. Somewhere on the formal spectrum between the traditional sonnet of “HOWYOUBEENS” in Muscular Music and the conceptual “Sonnet” of Hip Logic, we may see the groundwork laid for the outpouring of American Sonnets to come almost two decades later. Selfishly, because of my own investment in the full spectrum of tradition and subversion, I hope Hayes wouldn’t disown either of these two earlier sonnets and would feel them all to be engaged in the same conversation still – that he would see them as related – adversarial siblings, perhaps, but kin nonetheless.

(See Metta Sáma’s essay “The Burden of Seed, the Seed of Burden: ‘Repetitional Schemas’ & Pace in Terrance Hayes’s ‘Sonnet'” in Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets for an interesting take on the poem just discussed.)

[Continued in “American Sonnets (Part IX: Concept and Impact)”]

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