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Poetry Moment: Terrance Hayes and 'American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin'

WPSU Poetry Moment Terrance Hayes
Kathy Ryan
/
Poet Terrance Hayes

Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Shara McCallum is this year’s Penn State Laureate.

Today’s poem is “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin” by Terrance Hayes.

Terrance Hayes is the author of six prize-winning collections of poetry and has received numerous accolades for his work including a MacArthur Fellowship and a National Book Award. Today’s poem comes from his most recent book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Hayes has had a long connection to the city of Pittsburgh, studying poetry there as a graduate student, then returning to teach at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.

I chose “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin” as today’s poem for several reasons. The obvious one is today is MLK day—when we reflect not only on the life of the man but on what his life represents: the ongoing pursuit of full civil rights for Black Americans. The sonnet is the quintessential poetic form of argument, and with Hayes’ innovative use of the form he lays out a powerful argument indeed: that King’s assassination led to change. As the poem advances, Hayes expands this argument. He reminds us that the fight for equality extends beyond King and that change is larger than any one person. He invokes figures like W.E.B. Dubois who preceded King and Jesse Jackson who continued the struggle after King’s death as well as several unnamed, ordinary individuals. He also highlights the role of art in the struggle, bringing into the poem the great jazz musician Charlie Parker, colloquially known as Bird. This speaks to another reason I’ve selected Hayes’ poem. For decades, Terrance Hayes has unpacked the psyche of race and masculinity in America, with images that are as transformative as they are haunting. Through his poems, Hayes makes perhaps his most convincing argument of all: for art’s capacity to profoundly alter how we view ourselves and our world.

Here’s—

American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin

When MLK was shot his blood changed to change
Wherever it hit the floor. Like the others,
Jackson & Abernathy gathered a few of the coins
For themselves. A few sank into the pockets
Of the detectives & forensic scientists, reporters.
A maid sold the penny she found for a pretty penny
On the black market. It is in a display case beside
The bullets Dubois kept in the gun under his bed.
Bird got so high on horn, he disappeared. X grew
Large as a three-hundred-year-old tree colonizing
The landscape. In the game of “chicken” two drivers
Speed towards each other & if the one who is chicken
Does not swerve, both drivers may die in the crash.
This country is mine as much as orphan’s house is his.

Thank you for sharing this moment of poetry with me today.

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