Terence Hayes: Master of Form

When it comes to form, nobody does it like Terence Hayes: he understands the larger view of form as a Force that can drive a point right into your heart. In this New Yorker article, author Dan Chiasson says that the sonnet, a form Hayes calls “part music box, part meat grinder,” became the poet’s vehicle of choice for his recent book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin , because for him,

the sonnet offered an alternative unit of measurement, at once ancient, its basic features unchanged for centuries, and urgent, its fourteen lines passing at a brutal clip.

In the book, the American sonnet both contains and assaults his assassins: “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” The form itself being the brainchild of “the L.A. poet Wanda Coleman, who died in 2013 and who coined the term American sonnet. Who considered the term as referring to a more “improvised” sonnet that used jazz techniques and musical patterns.

The language is powerful and immediate, exuding worlds and threats. This is what sets Hayes apart: the combination of power, poetic skill (unique use of craft), unrelenting content, and an intensity of heart that drives all this into a tour de force of words closing in on flesh.

All cancers kill me, car crashes, cavemen, chakras,
Crackers, discord, dissonance, doves, Elvis,
Ghosts, the grim reaper herself, a heart attack
While making love, hangmen, Hillbillies exist,
Lilies, Martha Stewarts, Mayflower maniacs,
Money grubbers, Gwen Brooks’ “The Mother,”
(My mother’s bipolar as bacon), pancakes kill me,
Phonies, dead roaches, big roaches & smaller
Roaches, the sheepish, snakes, all seven seas,
Snow avalanches, swansongs, sciatica, Killer
Wasps, yee-haws, you, now & then, disease.

A list that also serves as ammunition, a kind of automatic fire that thrills with its sheer brilliance and expanse of imagination. And also with its truth, how he disgorges the racist and white supremacist attitudes made flesh in the form of Donald Trump and his followers. To which this collection is addressed, among other things.

This word can be the difference between knowing / And thinking. It’s the name people of color call / Themselves on weekends & the name colorful / People call their enemies & friends.” 

Trump is a palpable undercurrent throughout the book, and occasionally Hayes addresses the President directly, calling him “Mr. Trumpet”:

. . . You ain’t allowed to deride
Women when you’ve never wept in front of a woman
That wasn’t your mother. America’s struggle with itself
Has always had people like me at the heart of it. You can’t
Grasp your own hustle, your blackness, you can’t grasp
Your own pussy, your black pussy dies for touch.

These poems all happen in the mind, which has been portioned into zones called “I” and “you.” Both assume countless different roles, but what remains constant is their reliance upon each other and their tendency to flip positions. This makes the work morally ambiguous in ways some readers will resist: I suspect that not everybody will recognize “blackness” as any part, even a rejected part, of Trump, a man whose loathing of black people seems unabashed.

Yes, “Hayes isn’t describing canonical melancholy, the pined-for vision of mortality that poets sometimes indulge in. He fears a more immediate kind of danger, which can’t be aestheticized or glorified in verse. “You are beautiful because of your sadness,” Hayes admits. And yet: “You would be more beautiful without your fear.” 

In the form he invented:

The Golden Shovel

after Gwendolyn Brooks

I. 1981
When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk
of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we
watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing
his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We
watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.
He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,
how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we
got down on our knees in my room. If I should diebefore I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.
II. 1991
Into the tented city we go, we-
akened by the fire’s ethereal
afterglow. Born lost and cool-
er than heartache. What we
know is what we know. The left
hand severed and school-
ed by cleverness. A plate of we-
ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-
ing in the afterglow. A late-
night chant. Into the city we
go. Close your eyes and strike
a blow. Light can be straight-
ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-
ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat. We
push until we thin, thin-
king we won’t creep back again.
While God licks his kin, we
sing until our blood is jazz,
we swing from June to June.
We sweat to keep from we-
eping. Groomed on a die-
t of hunger, we end too soon.
——————-
The Blue Terrance
If you subtract the minor losses,
you can return to your childhood too:
the blackboard chalked with crosses,
the math teacher’s toe ring. You
can be the black boy not even the buck-
toothed girls took a liking to:
this match box, these bones in their funk
machine, this thumb worn smooth
as the belly of a shovel. Thump. Thump.
Thump. Everything I hold takes root.
I remember what the world was like before
I heard the tide humping the shore smooth,
and the lyrics asking: How long has your door 
been closed? I remember a garter belt wrung
like a snake around a thigh in the shadows
of a wedding gown before it was flung
out into the bluest part of the night.
Suppose you were nothing but a song
in a busted speaker? Suppose you had to wipe
sweat from the brow of a righteous woman,
but all you owned was a dirty rag? That’s why
the blues will never go out of fashion:
their half rotten aroma, their bloodshot octaves of
consequence; that’s why when they call, Boy, you’re in
trouble. Especially if you love as I love
falling to the earth. Especially if you’re a little bit
high strung and a little bit gutted balloon. I love
watching the sky regret nothing but its
self, though only my lover knows it to be so,
and only after watching me sit
and stare off past Heaven. I love the word No 
for its prudence, but I love the romantic
who submits finally to sex in a burning row-
house more. That’s why nothing’s more romantic
than working your teeth through
the muscle. Nothing’s more romantic
than the way good love can take leave of you.
That’s why I’m so doggone lonesome, Baby,
yes, I’m lonesome and I’m blue.
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For NaPoMo, Publishing Announcements, More Coming


Here we are approaching the middle of National Poetry Month and so I’ve decided to break my recent silent streak, starting with a few publication notes, finding timespace thereafter to focus on a selection of the many amazing poets who inspired me.

In publishing notes, my ghazal “The Body’s Hospitality” was published in the February edition of South Florida Poetry Journal, known to fans as SoFloPoJo. Just scroll down to my name; and I’m delighted to have been included among such fine poets as Dorianne Laux and Maura Stanton.

My sonnet “The Departure” was also published on the Better than Starbucks website as well as in the anthology/ print version of the issue, which covers the entire site including many different sections of poetry, as well as reviews, nonfiction and fiction.

New Sonnet at Better than Starbucks


My sonnet “Love Is Hell” is now up at Better than Starbucks (scroll down the page for my poem), an online zine for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, reviews, and more, where you’ll find separate sections for each genre and style, including formal poetry (such as sonnets and villanelles), free verse, haiku and Japanese forms, and light verse, as well as fiction, etc., so you can freely browse or zero in on what interests you. The section for “interviews” has an imaginative interview with William Blake, attended by Blake’s wife. Much worth your time on this site! Please check it out.

Two Poems in Able Muse Review

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Two of my poems, “In the Louvre” and “Portrait of Her Hands,” (the latter being a sonnet which happened to be all one sentence) have been published in the latest Able Muse Review (Winter 2016). This is a very prestigious place to be, a gorgeous print literary magazine that includes fiction, essays, interviews, and art, as well as poetry. Huge thanks to editor Alex Pepple for such a spectacular venue featuring, but not limited to, formal poetry as well as other genres. The photography collection in this issue is breathtaking, featuring cloud forms and skyscapes among other subjects. It is an honor to be included in it.

Review: Catherine Chandler’s “Glad and Sorry Seasons”

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Glad and Sorry Seasons
By Catherine Chandler
Biblioasis
$18.95

Before reading Catherine Chandler’s latest poetry collection, Glad and Sorry Seasons, I was already familiar with several of the poems in it, and felt I knew, to some extent, what to expect: fine, smooth, well-crafted “formalist” poems. And here we find a wide range of forms, in particular the sonnet, her home turf. But what I discovered in this book transcends this sort of categorization. Or maybe redefines it.

The title (from Shakespeare’s sonnet 19) tells us this is about seasons: the seasons of emotion and the passage of time. She explores this subject from the inside, the places of raw emotion, tamed by the sonics of formal poetry. Although metrical and rhyming poetry in English seems like a far cry from haiku, this interview in Rattle with Richard Gilbert on the subject of haiku gave me a number of interesting parallels showing the universality of form in poetry. I would assert that form is part of the essence of poetry, and the author’s mastery of the forms she uses is essential to how well they work.

Seasons, as Gilbert describes, have their own language in Japanese haiku, with whole dictionaries devoted to “season words” or kigo that “go back for centuries, which is really the vertical depth that makes kigo powerful.” In this sense, kigo may be analogous to literary allusions, a language connecting poetry to its own history.

Another dimension to kigo is that each one refers to a whole set of associations, an “environment.” “Moon” isn’t just the moon, for example.

In Japanese, when we say “moon” in haiku, it’s always the moon-viewing moon… there’s also a sense of impermanent beauty…in the early autumn…a quietly festive time sharing a sense of heart—that’s all included in the kigo.

This sense of a word representing many things is analogous to idiomatic expressions and even clichés, in the sense of common, frequently-used expressions. Chandler uses these types of words, in the tradition of Frost, to evoke a larger feeling with a few words.

For example, in her poem “November,” common expressions are used in unusual combinations to create a confluence of associations.

November is a season all its own—
a month of saints and souls and soldiers. Snow
will soon white out a fallacy of brown.
It is a month of waiting, lying low.

November is a season all its own—
a time for turning back the clock as though
it’s useless to pretend. A dressing-down.
Thin ice entices me to touch and go.

November’s neither here nor there, but here
in dazzling dawns that dissipate to grey;
here in the tilting asymmetric branch
and sharp note of a towering white pine where
the pik and churlee of a purple finch
can either break a heart or make a day.

She’s painted a strongly familiar picture of November: “a season all its own” works like a picture frame. Familiar expressions such as “lying low,” “turning back the clock,” “a dressing-down,” “touch and go,” and “neither here nor there” combine their associative power in unusual ways, to create a striking cadence of emotion. None of these words are the way we think of November. Yet the effect is strangely apt for how we feel about it. The poem takes on layers of new meaning, tinged with foreboding, cut to the possibility of uplift at the end, as if to say “at this point it’s in your hands.” We’re left with the image of the lovely birdsong, which will be what we make of it.

Of course, the dynamic of haiku is entirely different, image-focused, but this quote proposes a greater similarity than we’d think:

Linguistically, these languages, English and Japanese, do not meet at all on the level of the syllable; they meet on the level of the metrical phrase.

(Italics mine.)
So there is a universal element between such disparate forms as, say, the sonnet and haiku. Chandler writes with an uncanny ear for that “metrical phrase,” in its rhythm and rhyme.

One more major and relevant haiku concept is kire or “cutting,” referring to how “the haiku has to be cut in space and time in some way, [which]… has an emotional charge.” This “creates these two broken parts that don’t go together.” And that is like the “turn” of the sonnet, or indeed any good poem, transforming one situation or thing into an entirely different one, “cutting” us out of time and place and seeing something unexpected in a new way. Chandler works in rhyme and meter, almost exclusively. But she “cuts” with exceptional subtlety.

To see how Chandler incorporates both concepts into her poetry, read this poem in an unusual form:

Rush Hour Sonondilla

I celebrate the great sardine,
and count the ways I love it: dried,
in cans, smoked, salted, deep-fat fried,
filleted in soup and fish terrine.
I love it’s pre-cooked beauties, too—
its sleek and shiny silver skin,
its single tiny dorsal fin—
before it hits the barbecue.

Young herring, swimming in the sea,
awash in your Omega-3,
soon you shall pay a hefty price
and end up on a bed of rice.
For now, take heart in that you’re free,
not packed inside this train, like me.

We are told that it’s rush hour by the title. Then swiftly taken into an ode to the sardine with subtle humor. “I celebrate the great…” implies a grand speech, then “cuts” into the unexpected image of a sardine. Like a master illusionist, she draw us into “I count the ways” from a Shakespearean sonnet everyone knows, then into a list of methods of food preparation. The final stanza is so comic and improbable that we forget the title until the last line suddenly “cuts” us back. To what? A cliché! Nice. This shows the use of words with strong common associations to take us out of a place and then plop us back in with everything changed, like a punchline. Oh, and another name for the form “Sonondilla” is “The Sardine.” Another little cutaway for the lucky nerd who reads footnotes, like me.

In a sonnet, I believe the prelude to the turn is of equal importance. Skillful placement of words and the creation of sonics and rhythm is what “floats” the reader in one environment before suddenly being “cut” into another.

The first part establishes a normalcy of action in which there’s an element of expectation but also of convention—hence the “convention” of forms, the sonnet in particular. This idea dovetails perfectly into Chandler’s sonnet to the Sonnet, “Sonnet Love.”

I love the way its rhythms and its rhymes
provide us with a promise, a belief
familiar voices at specific times
may modulate unmanageable grief.

I love the way we’re called to referee
the mind-heart matchup in its scanty ring;
how through it all our only guarantee
is that for fourteen rounds the ropes will sing.

I love the way it makes us feel at home,
the way it welcomes fugitives and fools
who have forgotten all roads lead to Rome
from shared beginnings in the tidal pools.

Life’s unpredictability defies
clean dénouement. I love the way it tries.

After a smooth, lilting progress through the poem, suddenly the final sentence cuts into the middle of the last line, ending on the verb “tries,” the only action we or the Sonnet can take to achieve resolution. “It” has been set up in the poem to refer to the sonnet. Yet despite the pronoun, we are led to feel it is us. We are the ones who try to create “clean dénouement.” And the verb “tries” hangs there, as if searching for the verb “resolve” to make this a clean reply to the “defies.” The “emotional charge” comes not from the repeated word “love,” but from “tries.” It hangs, as we do, never actually finished trying…

Her oft-quoted sonnet that shows how to “modulate” the “unmanageable grief” of the loss of an unborn child, Nemerov prize-winning “Coming to Terms,” takes the reader through the “after” scene in all its emptiness and attempts at resolution to “the artful look of ordinary days,” a powerful phrase that captures how we try, through the art of what must ultimately be a sort of deception, to create continuity in a life that cuts us to the heart, a life that must end. Her poems cut to her own heart to give us the art of resolution in ours.

Her subject matter traverses the emotional “glad and sorry seasons” of aging, loss, illness, both on an individual or mass scale, suicide, the need for love or companionship, the “seven deadly sins” (with modern applications) and, subtly included, the need for God. These days God is discreetly left out of all public discourse, replaced by “nature.” Chandler bucks the trend, her faith and doubts honestly expressed. The poem “When” uses a list poem to gently remind us, in a few strongly associative words, of something higher.

A review of this book wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the translations of French Canadian and Latin American poets, one of whose moving poems, “The Wonderful Boat,” is the title of her blog. These are languages Chandler has lived in; she is Canadian and spends much of her time in South America. Even so, I can hardly imagine how she managed to create such elegant, perfectly rhymed metrical poems in translation. Translation has been described by J.G. McClure as a kind of ekphrasis: “to celebrate the new artistic possibilities of the conversation between two writers.” It helps that her love of these writers shows through in the work. And judging by the final poem (her own) of the book, “Edward Hopper’s Automat,” which has a Hitchcock or Rod Serling cinematic quality and conclusion (think “cut!”), ekphrasis is one of Chandler’s strong suits.

In fact, “formalist” may be a redundant moniker: all poetry is by definition “formal,” but in different ways. “Free verse” employs line breaks. Even prose poetry, as well as free verse, uses the haiku characteristics of specialized associative language, cutting, and a sonic relationship with the language. In short, one can judge all poetry by these criteria, and the rest is a matter of style and taste.

In this larger sense, Chandler succeeds not merely as a writer of poetry in traditional forms and metrics, but of poetry that works to create an “emotional charge” in the reader. Poetry satisfies in ways prose can’t. Done here by one of the best.

Yowza! A Prize in the Maria W. Faust Sonnet Contest

Every year the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota, also hosts the Maria W. Faust sonnet contest, the subject of a post on this blog. I submitted several sonnets to the contest, one of which won a prize in the “Laureates” category.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I just received a letter of notification and have been spending serious time on Cloud Nine, definitely a nice cloud to be on. The winning sonnet is “Rain Trance,” which was published on String Poet awhile back, but which I’ll post here too, since a few years have passed.

There will be a Reception and Reading at the festival in Winona on August 2 at 11:00 am when Shakespearean actors will read the winning poems (there are a number of them in different categories).

Rain Trance

I love this constant thrumming on the roof,
wrapping me inside its thick cocoon
of sound, a monastery in the rough.
Percussive chants, these waves refresh the bone,
carry in their very pulse a silence –
not an eye, but a collective calm
whose soft crescendo beckons with its cadence.
Through swells of chattering I hear a psalm.
My sense of place dissolves, the clouding hours
disintegrate, my thoughts – mere whisper-heft –
form solo islands in a sea of choirs.
And who or what am I? And what is left
of this world as I drift away, aloof?
Just a constant thrumming on the roof.

Irresistible! Hot off the press

Irresistible Sonnets is out, with a fantastic collection of sonnets from many truly amazing poets, and including one of my sonnets about a strange supernatural connection with this bird of prey that came out of nowhere.  If you thought sonnets were for “old professors,” think again.  This is a collection I’m overwhelmed to be a part of.

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Now available from Amazon here.