This essay is adapted from Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems, out now from Basic Books.
Poetry is for everyone, but it can’t be the same thing, or do the same thing, for everyone. Poems can console or upset, soothe or baffle, set the table for a fancy dinner or kick the table over and demand that we start again. It depends how you read them, and it depends what poem. As America’s youth poet laureate, Kara Jackson, has recently written, “the most dangerous thing about how we treat poetry is how we let only old white men have it.” What’s true for poetry in general is no less true for particular kinds of poems, techniques, and forms. And if that’s true for modern poems and for poems in new forms (say, those that resemble text messages), it’s no less true for poems in very traditional forms—the sonnet most of all.
The sonnet isn’t the oldest form in English, but it may be the most recognizable, the one we encounter first in middle and high schools, the one Shakespeare used 154 times. To write a sonnet at all, these days—let alone a book of sonnets—is to speak to, or talk back to, the past. If you know what a sonnet is—14 lines, usually, 10 syllables each; rhymed, usually; divided into two parts, or else four, with a couplet—you probably also know that they’re centuries old. But you may not know how thoroughly modern poets have reinvented the form. And no living American poet has done so more assiduously than Terrance Hayes, whose 2018 book American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin amounts to a primer on how to reshape an old form.
Hayes has taken up—or taken down—the sonnet sporadically throughout his career, most famously with a tour de force called “Sonnet” in 2002’s Hip Logic; the poem comprises fourteen repetitions of the same line, “We cut the watermelon into smiles.” Hayes’s fourteen iterations play on racist stereotypes that associate rural black Americans with watermelon and fixed grins, and on the assumption that all sonnets say or mean the same thing. He also points back to the black writer Paul Laurence Dunbar’s famous stanzaic lyric of 1896: “We wear the mask that grins and lies.”
But American Sonnets is something bigger than that. Usually in a collection of sonnets each will have a different title, or (as in Shakespeare) no title at all. Instead, each poem here has, over and over, the same title: “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.” Hayes’ 14-line projects react to the poet’s own frustration with his fame (which eats up his time with worthy obligations, isolates him, and cannot give him peace), as well as reacting fiercely to America under Trump. Hayes’ new sonnets also replace conventional rhyme schemes with much denser sonic arrangements, often untethered to line ends. One of them insults a critic “who cannot distinguish a blackbird from a raven”: “You don’t know how/ To describe your own face. In the mirror you coo/ Gibberish where the shape of your mouth escapes you.”
Hayes’s sonnets know how sonnets are supposed to sound, how older sonnets do sound, with the rhymes at the end; he’s stuffing his own sonnets full of midline rhymes instead, then omitting rhymes where a reader might expect them, while keeping the expectations in mind. (Hayes credits the California poet Wanda Coleman with the invention of the “American Sonnet,” which need not rhyme.) Another sonnet lets loose on politicians whose words are all lies or meaningless sounds: “Junk country, stump speech. The umpteenth boast/ Stumps our toe. The umpteenth falsehood stumps/ Our elbows & eyeballs, our nose & No’s, woes & whoas.” The cascade of open vowels, the almost show-offy feel in these repetitions (Hayes uses the word umpteenth eight times in 14 lines) suggest a fed-up citizen, and also a writer whose expertise with words adds to his moral authority: Somebody who can write like that knows, if anybody knows, what words can do.
But Hayes isn’t just conducting sonic experiments. Nor is he just representing his anger at Trump and Trumpism. (A book of sonnets that did nothing else would start to repeat itself fast.) He’s also inverting traditional stories about the power and the tragedy in the making of lyric poems. In the most famous Western myth on that subject, the not-quite-divine musician Orpheus sang so beautifully that he persuaded the god of the underworld to let him bring his late wife back from the dead, then lost her when he turned around to look at her on her way back to life. That myth proposes that lyric poetry is at base erotic, about attachment; that it is first and last about grief or lack or loss; that it feels magical that it can contradict facts (for example, the fact that death is forever); and, maybe, that it is really about itself—true poets might not so much sing about their love as love in order to sing. The first sonnet in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin concludes in an anecdote about Orpheus:
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.
Does he want his beloved back? Or does he want to write poems? That X, that crossed-out eye, that visible sign of blindness, that letter that could be a number or an algebraic variable, reflects a severe division, a poet who wants mutually exclusive things. A later sonnet decides that “Eurydice is actually the poet, not Orpheus. Her muse/ Has his back to her with his ear bent to his own heart.”
Literary history—and Western history—in this view is a series of misattributions, where readers and listeners and writers credit the captor, the pursuer, the abductor, with what the captive has made up. Resemblances to the history of pop music, where white people take credit for black forms, are surely not coincidental. Nor is it a coincidence that the sonnet—a form compared (by William Wordsworth) to nuns’ cells, to a voluntary imprisonment—appeals to a poet whose mother was a prison guard, whose cousin has been incarcerated, who has written over and over, brilliantly, about the carceral state. (Hayes has also recently published a fine book-length study of the poet Etheridge Knight, whose first and best-known book is Poems from Prison.)
Wordsworth made light of the kind of confinement that sonnets and their stanzas represent: “In truth, the prison unto which we doom/ Ourselves, no prison is; and hence for me… Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.” Hayes seeks alternative models for the sonnet and its pleasurable, melancholy confinement: It is not so much a cell as an “envelope of wireless chatter,” a grave, an “orphan’s house,” “the sweat & rancor of a Fish & Chicken Shack,” “the broken phone booth I passed in the Village/ Beside a puddle of what could have been crushed tomatoes.” Hayes’s sonnets may feel cramped or uncomfortable, but they can nourish us; we can leave at any time.
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Is poetic technique a means of liberation? Or does adopting inherited techniques amount to surrender, and to confinement? In some sense the answer is always “both.” Another one of Hayes’ American Sonnets takes the ideas of body as prison and poetic form as both liberation and confinement further still. The poet, fed up with himself and with his society, tells himself, or part of himself:
I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.…
I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold.…
I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.
Lyric poetry—the poet imagines—works by finding words for someone’s passions, which could also be your own: it can get you out of your one situation, your one body, your one life, though it will not literally free you from a literal jail. It may take up many aspirations to freedom, from the traditions of prison writing to the tradition of existential rebellion against everything that exists. It needs, in that case, something to rebel against. And for Hayes—as for poets before him—the sonnet serves exceptionally well.