Terrance Hayes is a wonder. He is also a POET in every cell of his body. Poetry isn’t a compartment of his life, it IS his life. But that doesn’t mean he’s writing poems in isolation. He’s a husband and father, teacher and activist, using poetry to think and feel his way through the world. I just saw him at Hugo House in Seattle, talking about Linda Hull’s poems and reading some of his own, and it was electrifying to listen to him. Even though he’s a virtuoso, he isn’t after a gleaming finished product, something static. All his poems are a process: asking questions, thinking aloud, making hypotheses, trying out possibilities. Everything is at stake, and he’s willing to try on one possibility after another, to get it wrong, to fail. He’s a master craftsman, and it was a pleasure to hear him focus on that. He’s devoted to working hard–something that comes in part from his days as a basketball player. I came home energized, challenged, rededicated to working harder and better. Read him, listen, watch him online and in person.
Here’s the first poem of his I read that set me on fire. Makes me think of Frost: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.”
WIND IN A BOX
This ink. This name. This blood. This blunder.
This blood. This loss. This lonesome wind. This canyon.
This / twin / swiftly / paddling / shadow blooming
an inch above the capet–. This cry. This mud.
This shudder. This is where I stood: by the bed,
by the door, by the window, in the night / in the night.
How deep, how often / must a woman be touched?
How deep, how often have I been touched?
On the bone, on the shoulder, on the brow, on the knuckle:
Touch like a last name, touch like a wet match.
Touch like an empty shoe and an empty shoe, sweet
and incomprehensible. This ink. This name. This blood
and wonder. This box. This body in a box. This blood
in the body. This wind in the blood.
Stevens said this was his favorite of his own poems. I’ve always loved it, first for the sounds and lush words, gradually for the scene that began to emerge. My grandparents, just a little younger than Stevens, shared his sense of ice cream as something new and magical. My grandfather smiled at its mention in the same way he did when he described seeing women’s ankles for the first time as hems began to creep up. My mother remembered hand-cranked pineapple ice cream as her favorite childhood dessert, and made a note in my baby book when I had my first taste of ice cream–then finished the bowl and wanted more. Stevens’ poem captures the thrill and delight and sensual pleasure of ice cream, and its evanescence: death is just in the other room. I found this great account at the Poetry Foundation.
Feel free to add your own thoughts about the poem, ice cream, and other hot weather favorites.
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Auden said that, not as a criticism of poetry but as a defense of it against ideological pressures in the 1930s from both the right and the left that poets take sides. When it comes to writing my own poetry, I am with Auden, and with John F. Kennedy, who declared that “Society must make the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him [or her].” And I agree with Yehudi Amichai that “all poetry is political. This is because real poems deal with a human response to reality and politics is part of reality, history in the making. Even if a poet writes about sitting in a glass house drinking tea, it reflects politics.” Following a number of recent tragedies people have posted Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” just as the New Yorker did after the nine-eleven attacks. He didn’t write the poem to address any specific event, but it speaks to our hearts and minds about many of them. I’m interested to hear your thoughts about how poetry speaks to tragedy, and whether it’s most moving to you if it does it deliberately or indirectly.
Welcome to The Poetry Conversation with Sharon Bryan. I’ll be posting weekly thoughts on poetry, and I hope you’ll join in. I think of this site as a big room with comfortable chairs where we can gather to talk about poems and poets, craft, translation, what it is to be a poet, what others are reading and listening to, whatever interests you. I’ll be inviting other poets to do guest posts, so please feel free to make suggestions.