When I teach contemporary poetry to the young, I tell them to pay attention to everything about the book–its back cover copy, the design, the art on the front, the quotes, the notes–everything the poets and their publishers put around the poems. But still I have to remind myself to follow my own advice. For instance, the dedication to Terrance Hayes’ How to Be Drawn (“for the ones like us”) rang a bell, but I had to get to the last poem, and on to the references the poet has put on his website, to remember that it comes from Leonard Cohen’s song “Chelsea Hotel,” a song so deeply imbedded in me it must be part of my DNA: “for the ones like us / who are oppressed by the figures of beauty.” That last clause helps open one part of this remarkable book.
Hayes is known for his exploration of different poetic forms and for his ease of reference, both into the past, through much of art and literature, and across the range of popular culture. It is part of the reason for his success and for his many awards, including a National Book Award and a MacArthur Fellowship. He is also a poet shaped by his early training as a visual artist; How to Be Drawn is fronted by what must be a self-portrait of a young Hayes looking intensely out at us, serious, with a comb in his hair. A ways into the book the title becomes clearer when we come to the poem “How to Draw an Invisible Man.” Here he imagines the corpse of Ralph Ellison burst open to reveal among all the disparate facts of African American history “the raw and unsaid pages / with their plots and propositions, with their arcs / of intention and babbling.” That ease of reference in Hayes is always rooted in the personal, and it is never far from the political.
Though Hayes ties the poems to very specific moments and people, he is also comfortable with discovering powerful aphorisms that put situations in a larger context. In his “New Jersey Poem,” a story of a man grieving for his dead wife or lover, he writes: “A man can be / so overwhelmed it becomes a mode of being, / a flavor indistinguishable from spit.” And: “Grief will boil your eyeballs if you let it. / It is possible to figure too much, to look too much, / to be too verbal, so pigheaded nothing gets done.”
The final poem, the one that made the connection to Leonard Cohen, is an ars poetica, a statement of artistic intention. It begins:
I like the story about the man who talks
God into letting him live until he is done
With his masterwork. In some versions
He is a painter, but in this one he is a singer
Who then sings every sentence, whose song
Becomes a poem that does not end
Because it is eternally revised.
Terrance Hayes reads from How to Be Drawn at UMMA on Tuesday, February 14.