Poetry, as it stands in modern society, is undervalued. It’s relevance has been eroded from all sides, diminished by the accessible and self indulgent nature of the medium while at once coming across as psychically and intellectually overwhelming due to the attention and consideration a good poem requires of the reader. Few other artistic mediums ask of the observer the fortitude poetry demands, but that very need for attention is what imbues poetry with its unique power and has made it the resonant vehicle for change, awareness and understanding it has always been.
Terrance Hayes’ sixth collection, “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin”, published in mid 2018 and written in the first 200 days of Donald Trump’s presidency is, by far, one of the most powerful, poignant and relevant works of contemporary poetry I have read in recent memory. In a collection of 70 sonnets, all bearing the same name as the collection which contains them, Hayes challenges the limitations of the requisite 14 lines and iambic pentameter that define the form. While paying homage to the lineage of the American Sonnet pioneered by Wanda Coleman in the early 90’s, Hayes harkens back to the form’s oldest iterations, manipulating rhyme and rhythm in a way that melds the classical and contemporary into something that resembles both while at the same time transcending them.
Transcendence permeates the pages of this collection. Each poem transcends the assumed identity of its shared name with the same tact and sincerity with which they transcend the assumed parameters and expectations of a sonnet. While these poems are didactic, dense and layered with allusion the emotive honesty of each line transcends the ridged, overly verbose barrier academia and the poetic vanguard have ensnared poetry behind and resists the simplicity and definitive tone of popular pulp poets. Most importantly, this collection transcends this moment while concretely capturing it.
The navigation of life, of black life, of Terrance Hayes’ own life in the time of Trump is approached in American Sonnets with a proclivity toward subversive beauty that illuminates the doubt, pain, fear, confusion, rage and uncertainty that have come to define today with a literary light so desperately needed in the age of meme literacy. These distinctly American sonnets are political love poems to one another, and while they can be read individually, the dialogue that is developed between them touches on something far greater than the sum of its individual parts, synthesizing from it’s components a vehicle not only for the advancement of poetics and the written word, but for a much deeper fundamental understanding of what it means to confront our would be assassins, whether in the street, our bedrooms, the White House or the mirror.