Terrance Hayes – If You Wake Up, A Poem Will Be Waiting

American Poet Terrance Hayes. Photo from the MacArthur Foundation website.











Yes, I have a pretty good idea what beauty is. It survives
all right. It aches like an open book. It makes it difficult to live.

Terrance Hayes (November 1971 – ) from Lighthead, Penguin Poets, 2010

Terrance Hayes, accomplished Black-American poet, and prof at the University of Pittsburgh, has been getting a lot of press lately after receiving a MacArthur Foundation genius grant for $625,000 last year and making People Magazine’s 2014 candidate list for sexiest man alive!

To read the New York Times Magazine article published in March 2015 click here. For the recent Pittsburgh Tribune TribLive article click here. For the video clip interview with Hayes on the MacArthur Foundation website click here.

Sure, Hayes is getting a lot of attention these days but what has kept my attention on him for more than two years is the line he said at a poetry workshop a few years ago: If you wake up,  a poem will be waiting.

Terrance Hayes is awake. And poem after poem has waited for him to write it. So far, enough poems to fill five full length collections and counting. But what a challenge to those of us  still half awake. To be awake in this world that is difficult to live in is so hard, I know, for me. What a great and needed reminder. First, wake up, Richard. Then wait at your desk for the poem!

The MacArthur Genius Award is not Hayes’ first major recognition as an artist and poet. His books have won, and been short-listed, for major honours and in 2010 he won the National Book Award for poetry for his fourth poetry collection: Lighthead. No wonder. Hayes’  poetic range,  in form, content and tone, is vast. And his recent 2015 collection: HOW TO BE DRAWN just made it vaster!

What a rich palette he paints from in his poems; no less rich than the portraits he paints, some of which  can be found on the covers of his books. Be warned: Hayes’s poems bite and growl, especially at God, howl like a moon-leap out of a body-burdened soul, howl their I love you’s , I hate you’s into lullaby’s that don’t grow old.  Listen to this man paint, write and sing his words as if maybe, just maybe, they could frighten what scares him, away; could maybe, just maybe, call, all he loves and has loved, back.

from The Blue Terrance

………I come from howls  sent up all night and day,
summers below the hoop and board nailed to a pine tree.
I come from lightblubs glowing with no light and no expressions,
thrown as far as the will allows like a night chore, like a god
changing his mind; from the light broken in the back road
leading to my mother. Tell me what you remember of her
now that her walk is old, now that the bone in her hip strains
to heal its fracture? I come from the hot season
gathering its things and leaving. I come from the dirt road
leading to the paved one. I will not return to the earth
as if I had never been born. I will not wait to become a bird
dark enough to bury itself in midair. I wake up sometimes
in the middle of the country with fur on my neck.

Terrance Hayes from Wind in a Box, Penguin Poets, 2006

How to describe the subVERSive verse of Terrance Hayes? A poet who wakes up with fur on his neck, feral. A poet who howls. A poet who refuses to return to the earth/ as I had never been born. How to describe a man who writes with the hands and eyes of a visual artist? Who sings his words into being with the soul of a musician? Who slam dunks some of his poem’s endings like he did as a gifted high school basketball player.

How do I describe the beauty that aches in his poems? How to describe the fallen world of America his poems inhabit? An America at war inside itself and outside as well. How do I describe a narrator making exquisite poetry out of the war inside the wilds inside himself?  How to describe a man who embraces a life difficult to live?  Who can write like this:


I swear a dim yellow light settled around the head
Of the little choir girl who’d stepped forward to sing
‘”More Like Jesus” and almost everyone was moved.

Much later, I watched a boy slap the sin out of a man
Old enough to be his grandfather on the street outside

My window and I was happy for a moment,
That two people could display such shamelessness,
Such a form of love. I would have said something

But my window was shut, the street almost empty
When I stepped out like a man of God.

Who can live like that? We should not have been
Expected to lift the holy choirgirl into our arms,
Though we could have, skinny as she was, light

As the branch of a tree reflected in a river.
I was not one of the women thrashing in the aisle

Like someone drowning. Work me till I drop,
Sweet Jesus, My Rock, I never said that.
But I know if I was a singer, I’d be more godly.

I’d know how to exit a room flooded with grief.
When I called out to the old man as he walked away.

I swear he was singing Whatever, whatever to himself.
God hardly listens when we talk anyway. After spells
Of nothing sometimes I go Shedeadshedeadshedead

To myself three times because that’s how I pray. If you’re a church,
Dear Lord, you’re less than stained glass to me.

I want to take a hammer, I want to hammer, I want
To take a hammer to the mirror on your smallest toe.
Because, eureka, a little prayer don’t doctor shit.

I can almost imagine the look of your scars,
dear Lord when I find you.

Terrance Hayes from HOW TO BE DRAWN, Penguin Poets, 2015

In one of his poems he says I want to be holy. Well, in this poem there is a lot of holy, a lot of holy anger. And also in the poem below which is so timely in light of the spate of tragic racial incidents in his country that have grabbed headlines in the past year:


Attention, African-American apparitions hung,
burned or drowned before anyone alive was born:

please make a mortifying midnight appearance
before the handyman standing on my porch
this morning with a beard as wild as Walt Whitman’s.

Except he is anti-Whitman, this white man
with Confederate pins littering his denim cap and jacket.
(And by mortify, dear ghosts, I mean scare the snot out of him.)

I wish I were as tolerant as Walt Whitman
waltzing across the battlefield like a song
covering a cry of distress, but I want to be a storm

covering a confederate parade. The handyman’s
insistence that there were brigades of black
Confederates is an oxymoronic as terms like
“civil war,” “free slave.” It is the opposite of history.

Good-bye, plantations doused in Sherman’s fire
and homely lonesome women weeping
over blue and gray bodies. Good-bye, coloured ghosts.

I know only one ghost story story featuring a brother
in Carrolton, Alabama, dragged to the centre of town
in a storm for some crime he didn’t commit.

As he was hung lightning struck a window
on the courthouse he’s been haunting ever since.

Attention, apparitions: this is a solicitation
very much like a prayer. Your presence is requested
tonight when this man is polishing his civil war relics
and singing “Good Ol’ Rebel Soldier” to himself.

Hello, sliding chairs. Hello, vicious whispering shadows.
I’m a reasonable man, but I want to be as inexplicable
as something hanging a dozen feet in the air.

Terrance Hayes from HOW TO BE DRAWN, ibid

I hope these poems and these excerpts from his poems begin to fill in what I find so hard to describe. I hope they capture some of the range of a poet so well educated in art and music and other poets that this inventory seeps through his words like indelible stains. He claims the influence of Bach, Coltrane and Hendricks and the heritage of jazz; when it comes to the poets I hear Komunyakaa O’Hara, Collins, Fairchild and Hass.

I hope you catch a glimpse of the soul ( a word he is unafraid to use a lot in his poems) of this poet who I once spent a week with at a generative poetry retreat he led at the 2013 Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Whose use of music, cartoons and poems of other poets like Levis, Stone, O’Hara, Fairchild (and his delight in them) showed that to be the great teacher he is, he still remains a great student, as well. Poets reading this: find a way to work with this poet!

Hayes in the MacArthur Foundation video says he purses in his poetry a kind of language which is just as complicated and as transparent as human experience. I can say for sure that he pursues and captures this kind of language. I can marvel at and admire a poet who juggles multiple stories and ideas in a poem, keeping them all up in the air, until somehow they fall at the end into a unity, breath-removing in its surprise and impact. Watch how he does in this poem (hang in, its worth the ride) from HOW TO BE DRAWN:


The trouble with living like thinking is feeling is it’s not
Really living. I think, for example, these are good times
Save the mornings I want to say “Shame on you mother-

Fuckers” to the motherfuckers trafficking homemade posters
Of death on the corner between my home and the cemetery
That holds among its dead the bones of the great pianist

Mary Lou Williams, the mother of jazz. Music was her child
Because she had no child. For Mother’s Day my children
And I took my wife to visit Mary Lou’s headstone (May 8, 1910-

May 28th, 1981). We found it unmoored and untended,
Unattended on a hillside. People who say don’t live in the past
Don’t have a real sense of the past, would you agree with that?

Life is not about what you learn, really, but what you remember.

I was in a diner once when I saw a young mother passed out
With her face in her plate. I have been thinking about the horrified

Expression of her little boy as a waiter approached the booth.
Near me a lady in a business suit sighed, ” For that kind
of woman, abortion should be free.” Think about the theory

That crime rates have declined since Roe vs wade versus
The theory that sexually transmitted diseases have increased.
Think about about identity versus ideology versus idiocy, the Center

For bio-Ethical Reform versus the sinners of the bio-unethically
Formed. The Center for Life and Hope versus the center for Death
And Despair. Because thinking is feeling, I think about death

All the time: the food under my nails, the nails underfoot,
The skullish sockets packed with dirt. Maybe the soul is tethered
To the body like an embryo even when the body is no longer alive.

The poem roars on! He gives full proof to his assertion further on in the poem:

…..Because thinking is feeling there are thousands

Of compartments and pigeonholes in my brain, there are polemics
And porn flicks and utopian blueprints, court briefs, sketches,
Graphs, philosophical theories like “Cruelty is a form of laziness,”

But there is only one version of death. ………

A few stanzas later he begins to make the slide to home with the poem; he begins to make an argument not just with others ( that is rhetoric Yeats says) but with himself (that is poetry Yeats says):

……………………………………I can no longer grasp the logic

Of conflicts. In the pro-life versus the pro-choice debate, for instance,
It’s the versus that’s of interest to me. Remember Fred Williamson
Saying to the friend who became his enemy at the end of Bucktown,

“I don’t want to kill you, I just want to beat the hell out of you”?
I love the lovely restraint in that. Cruelty is pretty damn lazy, actually.
It take more effort to earn someone’s love than it does to punch

Someone in the face. May you be be punched in the face, may you weep
Until your nose is fat and crumpled as the hood of a child’s raincoat.
That’s my curse for the self-righteous. That’s the “Thug Life for Life”

In me, a former self versus a self who wants to change, Cassius Clay
Versus Muhammad Ali, who said, ” A man who views the world
The same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”

The trouble with thinking thinking is feeling is sometimes
There is no feeling. Twenty years ago I would not have believed
My unborn child would still be here pushing a cry out of me.

Terrance Hayes from HOW TO BE DRAWN, ibid

Oh, what an argument this poem is and what a self revelation and understanding at the end. All his thinking about pro-life and pro-choice, about wanting to punch out the self-righteous when he has already admitted that’s the easy way out, and then the shocking ending. How he puncfhes out his own self-righteousness.

What a steal. What a reversal. What a slam dunk: Hayes’ admission that The trouble with thinking thinking is feeling is sometimes? There is no feeling. His admission that he has a total stake in this  discussion about pro-life versus pro-choice; that his unborn child is still pushing a cry out of me. No more rhetoric. Pure poetry. The poetry of Terrance Hayes. Read it. Please!

And one more link: for a recent interview with Hayes in the Huffington Post click here. And read his New York poem included there. See his love of language, the musicality of his words!




  1. Liz
    Posted August 22, 2015 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    I got the sense you had a hard time ending this post, as though you could have written so much more.
    You have spoken of Hayes so often and I now have a deeper understanding of why.
    Yes, I will be adding him to my library.

  2. Richard
    Posted August 22, 2015 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Yes! For sure! I could have added so much more. His poetry is transparent but dense! It gets better with each reading. So textured and constructed so well. The joints are seamless!

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