Terrance Hayes: fighting to stay in the Tourney against Penguin Anthology editor, Dove
Poetry can now be about anything, and poetry can now be prose: this is what the ‘modern’ revolution in poetry wrought.
If you can’t write good prose, maybe you can line-break your prose into what might pass as good poetry.
This is the devil’s pact the poets made.
In the 20th century, the poet: uniquely skilled to write poetry was replaced by the topic: what is the poem about?
This occured on both high-brow and middle-brow levels: scholars determined that Byron and Keats and Shelley and Wordsworth were all “Romantic poets” who wrote about “Nature,” and publishers of anthologies divided up their books into categories or topics: Nature, Children, Modernity.
The scholars gradually turned publishers (poetry was soon sold out of, and to, academia) in a self-fulfilling prophecy: poets became less and less interesting to the public as topics took over—the one poet star, Frost, was enveloped by ‘New England Nature Poet’—and academia stepped in to sort out the mighty influx of topics and topic-ism: poets were no longer important; the topics they were writing about were. Ezra Pound, the poet, and Wordsworth, the poet, no longer existed: all that mattered was ‘Nature poet’ and ‘Modern poet’ and to ‘modern people’ why shouldn’t the ‘Modern poet’ because of the vastly interesting ‘topics’ he addressed, be as interesting? And why shouldn’t topic-ism also be interesting: let all sorts of interesting topics bloom! And topic-ism needed prose, since prose is better at covering all sorts of nuanced topics, and topic-ism also needed experimental speech, since the topic of a poem was naturally elevated by scholarship to a highly self-conscious level. The old poets, in this New Order, not only did not exist, they were clumsy and uncouth, old-fashioned, and trapped in topics like ‘Romanticism.’ The unique poet disappeared beneath the avalanche of ‘topic.’
Books of poems are now sold as books on a certain topic, not as books of poems by a poet who writes good poetry. Good poetry is not even permitted as a term; the topic is all in the eyes of both scholars and publishers.
This is what Helen Vendler was trying to say when she strenuously objected to Rita Dove’s anthology in the New York Review. Vendler complained there were too many blacks in Dove’s book and also that there were too many poets—that the 20th century did not contain that many good poets. She was wrong because she put it wrongly: the issue is topic-ism, which haunts us all.
Topic-ism is why poets choose topics with fanatical care and then write dully on them in the safety of lineated prose. A certain pertinancy-of–topic triumphs—and little else.
In the following contest, between black poet Rita Dove (b. 1952) and black poet Terrance Hayes (b. 1971), the Penguin anthology editor and her youngest poet duel in Scarriet March Madness with poems in the Penguin anthology.
Hayes writes of a 1970s movie starring Diana Ross, which, according to his mother, does not adequately portray Billie Holliday—described by this supposedly insightful poem in a highly cliched manner:
LADY SINGS THE BLUES
Satin luscious, amber Beauty center-stage;
gardenia in her hair. If flowers could sing
they’d sound like this. That legendary scene:
the lady unpetals her song, the only light
in a room of smoke, nightclub tinkering
with lovers in the dark, cigarette flares,
gin & tonic. This is where the heartache
blooms. Forget the holes
zippered along her arms. Forget the booze
Center-stage, satin-tongue dispels a note.
Amber amaryllis, blue chanteuse, Amen.
If flowers could sing they’d sound like this.
This should be Harlem, but it’s not.
It’s Diana Ross with no Supremes.
Fox Theater, Nineteen Seventy-something.
Ma and me; lovers crowded in the dark.
The only light breaks on the movie-screen.
I’m a boy, but old enough to know Heartache.
We watch her rise and wither
like a burnt-out cliche. You know the story:
Brutal lush. Jail-bird. Scag queen.
In the asylum scene, the actress’s eyes
are bruised; latticed with blood, but not quite sad
enough. She’s the star so her beauty persists.
Not like Billie: fucked-up satin, hair museless,
heart ruined by the end.
The houselights wake and nobody’s blue but Ma.
Billie didn’t sound like that, she says
as we walk hand in hand to the street.
My lady hums, Good Morning Heartache,
My father’s in a distant place.
So we learn that Diana Ross was not a perfect Billie Holiday. (I’m sure she wasn’t.) Who to thank? Hayes’ mother?
For her own poem, Dove, the editor, has chosen a good topic, gets herself inside it, and sympathetically expresses in prose what we would expect. There is a certain skill in painting/depiction in the poem, and the feeling is not too overwrought:
CLAUDETTE COLVIN GOES TO WORKAnother Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person. This is the second time since the Claudette Colbert [sic] case...This must be stopped. ---BOYCOTT FLIER, DECEMBER 5, 1955
Menial twilight sweeps the storefronts along Lexington
as the shadows arrive to take their places
among the scourge of the earth. Here and there
a fickle brilliance—lightbulbs coming on
in each narrow residence, the golden wattage
of bleak interiors announcing Anyone home?
or I’m beat, bring me a beer.
Mostly I say to myself Still here. Lay
my keys on the table, pack the perishables away
before flipping the switch. I like the sugary
look of things in bad light—one drop of sweat
is all it would take to dissolve an armchair pillow
into brocade residue. Sometimes I wait until
it’s dark enough for my body to disappear;
then I know it’s time to start out for work.
Along the Avenue, the cabs start up, heading
toward midtown; neon stutters into ecstasy
as the male integers light up their smokes and let loose
a stream of brave talk: “Hey Mama” souring quickly to
“Your Mama” when there’s no answer—as if
the most injury they can do is insult the reason
you’re here at all, walking in your whites
down to the stop so you can make a living.
So ugly, so fat, so dumb, so greasy—
What do we have to do to make God love us?
Mama was a maid; my daddy mowed lawns like a boy,
and I’m the crazy girl off the bus, the one
who wrote in class she was going to be President.
I take the Number 6 bus to the Lex Ave train
and then I’m there all night, adjusting the sheets,
emptying the pans. And I don’t curse or spit
or kick or scratch like they say I did then.
I help those who can’t help themselves,
I do what needs to be done…and I sleep
whenever sleep comes down on me.
Dove 67 Hayes 55