Listen to Terrance Hayes read “God Is an American” from his National Book Award winning collection Lighthead.
Did you notice the Miles Davis t-shirt he’s wearing? Music, and jazz in particular, has played a crucial role in Hayes’ work as a poet. He has a deep connection to music, and many of his poems seem to be propelled by his listening for a rhythm or melody that he builds and then improvises on. As in “God Is an American,” there are clearly narrative elements to many of the poems, but they rarely progress through a linear narrative. Instead, they seem to be shaped by openness and attentiveness to wherever sound, image, memory, or any fragment of a story might lead him.
Hayes is also a painter, and seems to improvise with imagery as much as he does with sound. But the effect is not the mere laying of one incongruous image beside another as in certain photographic collages whose cumulative impact on the viewer is to briefly amuse us with their cleverness. Hayes’ improvisations lead toward connections, insights, surprises and revelations that seem to sneak up on their author as much as the reader.
William Butler Yeats wrote that the purpose of form and meter was to trick the poet, to keep the conscious mind preoccupied with a mechanical task so the unconscious could come to the fore. This distracts or lulls the censor that usually inhibits our openness. This knowledge did not originate with Yeats: it goes as far back as the first shamans.
As contemporary and experimental as Hayes’ poems are, they are directly linked to this ancient practice. He will employ any technical device, experiment endlessly with form (Did you notice “God Is an American” is a Shakespearean Sonnet?) to follow wherever they lead him. The poems that result remain rooted in essential, ancient questions about identity, history, family, love, society and race. It’s not so much that Hayes has something to tell us as he has questions to ask. He challenges our assumptions by challenging his own, and welcomes to reader to join him on his restless quest.
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