Ugly, Ugly, Ugly – Terrance Hayes’s Gorgeous New Year Poem!!!

A New Year Is Here! And a poem to go with it!

American Sonnet for the New Year

things got terribly ugly incredibly quickly
things got ugly embarrassingly quickly
actually things got ugly unbelievably quickly
honestly things got ugly seemingly infrequently
initially things got ugly ironically usually
awfully carefully things got ugly unsuccessfully
occasionally things got ugly mostly painstakingly
quietly seemingly things got ugly beautifully
infrequently things got ugly sadly especially
frequently unfortunately things got ugly
increasingly obviously things got ugly suddenly
embarrassingly forcefully things got really ugly
regularly truly quickly things got really incredibly
ugly things will get less ugly inevitably hopefully

Terrance Hayes from The New Yorker, January 14th, 2019

It may seem strange to begin new year 2022 by featuring this poem with an insistent and adverbial call out to ugly but I like what this poem is: a salute to the reality of messiness in human living, extremes, contradictions, maybe sos, maybe nots, and then some hope at the poem’s end, maybe! This uncertainty, this messiness I know will be part of 2022 without a doubt. But I also will grab on to the last line like a lifebelt! …things will get less ugly inevitably hopefully. Thank you Terrance Hayes. And thank you for all those gots! And one get. Delightful!

Terrance Hayes (1971- ), gifted poet and artist, has developed an admirable stature in American poetics. He won a National Book award for poetry in his thirties and a McArthur Genius Grant in his early forties. He is fearless in poems that tell of the painful histories of being an African American in the United States. And his fearlessness doesn’t end there. Particularly in his 2018 book, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, his voice feels unwavering in its necessity, in its clarities for justice and truth. For my 2015 blog post on Terrance please click here.

American Sonnet for the New Year, written after his 2018 book, captures a bewildering isness of ugliness. And it’s determined to celebrate its use of abstractions to portray ugly. An unexpected move! I feel as if I am being drowned inside the poem, its fourteen uglys, thirteen gots and one get and countless abstract ly adverbs. But I keep breathing as the poem’s insistent current carries me to the end and throws me on the shore of its surprisingly upbeat conclusion after all the confusions that preceded it.

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

How quickly it all got ugly the speaker repeats in the first three lines then changes his mind in the next three lines when the ugly is more confusing. Maybe it wasn’t frequent, maybe it was ironic, maybe ugly didn’t get ugly. And then in the next three lines ugly is back as ugly but nuanced. It’s painstaking, it’s beautiful, it’s sad. Then Hayes reverses course again and ugly is just ugly again but suddenly, then really ugly, then really incredibly ugly before the final turn where suddenly we are given the future tense inside this hopeful and unexpected few words: things will get less ugly inevitably hopefully.

As much as that last line buoys my spirits I have to notice that he ties the bow on tight, then loosens it again. Maybe, maybe not. How he modifies the strength of the declarative statement things will get less ugly inevitably with that dangly hopefully!

Seriousness and yet a playfulness too, in this poem. His playing with language and its ly sounds! Those sounds that rush me through the poem helped by lack of punctuation and capitalizations! And in this he captures a breathlessness that feels to me like the breathlessness I feel in this time of history. This poem captures the first few Trump years in the US. That ugliness, at least from my perspective and Hayes’s perspective. But it also reflects the continued ugliness of the last years of Trump and then Covid.

As I look out at the coming year this poem challenges me as well as delights me. I love its unabashed boldness of language and his repetitions inside the sonnet form and its hope at the end. But by his omission of what is beautiful, what is good I want to not forget these realities in the days and months ahead. Yes, Terrance, I got it, I get it, it’s ugly, disgusting, abhorent out there in many confusing ways but determinedly, forcefully, committedly I want to celebrate the goodly, the gorgeously, the ravishingly beautiful around me as well!

Thank you to all my readers who followed my somewhat intermittent and less frequent blog posts last year and I wish you a year where what is ugly does not trump (sorry) what is joyous and beautiful!

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