A version of the following was delivered by Terrance Hayes as the Blaney Lecture, “Survey of an American Century,” on February 13, 2020, at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House in New York City.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTIONS ON A CENTURY OF AMERICAN POETRY
1. Is it possible to survey which artists and musicians and poets and movements matter for anyone other than yourself?
2. Would you agree, for example, that “American Poetry” begins with Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson?
3. If you assume all my questions are wrong, are you still able to devise a few answers that feel right for you?
4. Would you agree that Whitman and Dickinson offer a neatly balanced classical versus romantic, wild versus domestic, public versus private split for thinking about something we could call a uniquely American poetics, or no?
5. For you is it Walt, the wild haired American Adam roaming battlefields in a beard of daffodils and Emily, the demure American Eve by the window with her books; is it Walt, the sea-bound Ulysses shrouded in sails and sirens and Emily, the housebound Penelope shrouded in shawls and suitors; is it Walt, the bawdy Orpheus, and Emily, the bird-like Eurydice; Walt the queer bachelor and queer spinster; Walt, the xenophobe and Emily, the agoraphobe; Walt, the white dude and Emily, the white lady?
6. What are your adjectives?
7. Is it a help or hindrance to think of literary history as a kind of genealogy?
8. Can any truly diverse audience gathered in America agree on anything?
9. How would you distinguish what’s Modern from what’s Contemporary in this last century of American Poetry?
10. Would you believe all the answers will come to you just before bed?
11. Are you able to recite any poems by heart?
12. Are there any poems on your phone or body?
13. Is the poem always our best evidence of what we think and feel?
14. Why would schools still make third graders memorize Robert Frost’s 1923 poem, “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening”?
15. Should we all carry in our hearts: whose woods these are I think I know?
16. Do you think Whitman is, historically speaking, considered the father of American Poetry because he was unique or because he was early?
17. Would you rather be the first or the best at something?
18. Is influence a matter of nature or nurture?
19. Do you feel you dwell in possibility too, or no?
20. Who was reading Emily Dickinson before World War II?
21. She’s not mentioned in the letters or poems of Gertrude Stein of Edna St. Vincent Millay or Marianne Moore, is she?
22. Who are Dickinson’s peers?
23. Who, if not Emily Dickinson is mother of the Modern and Contemporary American lyric poem, a poem that can sound like a letter from and to the self, a measure of consciousness?
24. Could you use a year like 1968 as a marker for distinguishing what’s Modern from what’s Contemporary?
25. Do you have time to think of the present moment when questions are perpetually afoot?
26. Are we sold on Emily Dickinson’s authenticity of spirit because she articulates her spirit so well in her poems?
27. Would you say Jorie Grahm, Louise Glück, the great late C.D. Wright and great late Lucie Brock-Broido are evidence of Emily Dickinson’s influence on a generation of contemporary women poets or would you say “white” women poets?
28. Is there no real sense of Dickinson’s influence until after the poems her editor, Thomas Wentworth Higgins, manhandled and published after her death, were replaced with a complete, and reportedly less manhandled version sixty-five years later in 1955?
29. What if that had happened earlier?
30. Are there any dissertations on Dickinson’s relationship to the Baby Boomer generation or to the women’s liberation movement?
31. Has anyone other than Adrienne Rich discussed the influence of Dickinson on Adrienne Rich?
32. Have I also been a) wooed or b) hoodwinked by the poetry and politics (which might be a portmanteau of “poetics”) espoused by people who never imagined a reader like me?
33. Do you think reading poems or writing poems is the better empathetic practice?
34. Would you agree it’s possible to be both enlightened and in the dark?
35. You ever wonder why Missouri native, T.S. Eliot, seemed to speak with a British accent?
36. Who said the truth is easiest when you wear a mask?
37. Who else stopped watching jeopardy when Alex Trebek shaved his mustache?
38. Can one make a distinction between a great poet and a great poem?
40. Which is more important: T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” or Marianne Moore’s Idiosyncrasy and Technique or Hart Crane’s “General Aims and Theories”?
41. Is it still possible to build a career on a handful of decent, frequently anthologized poems?
42. Is there a poet whose biography tracks better with the movement of these last one hundred years better than Adrienne Rich, born nearly a century, in 1929, to a pathologist and concert pianist between world wars, a young suburban wife and mother who Auden selected as the first Yale Younger Poets Prize winner in 1951 and a lesbian, activist, feminist, scholar poeting the country until her death in 2012?
43. Would the poem “Diving into the Wreck” be on your list of top ten most influential poems of the last century?
44. Have you ever read it before bed?
45. Did you when know Adrienne Rich won the National Book Award for Diving into the Wreck in 1974, she shared the stage and read a speech she co-wrote with her two other nominees, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde?
46. Where does Audre Lorde go?
47. Did you know Gwendolyn Brooks paid out of her own pocket to have Broadside Press print Audre Lorde’s National Book Award nominee, From a Land Where Other People Live?
48. Did you know Rich actually shares the 1974, National Book Award Prize with Allen Ginsberg’s, The Fall of America: Poems of These States?
49. Where does Ginsberg, born nearly a century ago in 1926, the gay Buddhist, Jewish son of a poet, Ginsberg who had William Carlos William as a pediatrician and had Leroi Jones as a best friend even after Jones changed his name to Amiri Baraka and who poeted all across America until his death in 1997, where does Allen Ginsberg fit in when it comes to the definitive American poet of the twentieth century?
50. When was the last time you read him before bed?
51. If you write a poem like “Howl” do you really need to write anything else?
52. Is “Howl” an example of a poem that actually changed things?
53. Have you read anything about the influence of Ginsberg on Contemporary American Culture?
54. Have you listened, for example, to “Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg)” by Sonic Youth, or “Elegy for William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg” by Brad Mehldau or heard Ginsberg read the entirety of his poem "When the Light Appears” in the song “When the Light Appears Boy” on the album When I Was Born for the Seventh Time released by Cornershop the year of his death?
55. Did you know that was his voice on “Ghetto Defendant” by the Clash: Starved in metropolis / Hooked on necropolis / Addict of metropolis / Do the worm on the acropolis / Slamdance the cosmopolis / Enlighten the populace…?
56. Do you sort of think of the Beat Poets in the same way you think of the Grateful Dead with members wandering New York and San Francisco like several hairy, high Walt Whitmans?
57. Have you heard that Ginsberg read his poems a few times in the nude?
58. Couldn’t we debate whether Lowell or Ginsberg is more confessional?
59. Is it possible to name any generation’s key poets without omitting someone?
60. What about Sylvia Plath?
61. Isn’t she one of the most recognizable names in American poetry of the one hundred years?
62. Is she safely notched in American poetry because of her brilliant poems, her tumultuous life or because Gwyneth Paltrow played her in a movie?
63. Why did no one tell the anthology makers, “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” are not Plath’s best poems?
64. Where do we put Jean Toomer?
65. Would you say Langston Hughes is more popular, but Jean Toomer is more modernist or would you say Hughes is more social, but Toomer is more pastoral?
66. Wouldn’t it be great if the filmmaker Terrence Malick made a movie based on the lush humid foliage in the work of Jean Toomer, who writes in “Storm Ending” about those “Full-lipped flowers / Bitten by the sun / Bleeding rain / Dripping rain like golden honey-- / And the sweet earth flying from the thunder”?
67. What about Gertrude Stein?
68. Am I the only one who feels Gertrude Stein remains one of the most overlooked and undervalued poets in the American literary canon, that she is still undertaught and underthought despite becoming more original and more pertinent and prescient with each passing year?
69. What makes the language of LANGUAGE poets different from the language of poets using the same language?
70. Am I the only one who hears the tremendous shade thrown at various poetic factions in Stein’s observation: “it is always a mistake to be plainspoken”?
71. Is it better to be judged by your peers or by the general public?
72. Do you know what I mean when I say, The Black Mountain Poets are to the Abstract Expressionist movement as the Black Arts Poets are to the Black Power Movement?
73. Don’t the LANGUAGE POETS and the New York School Poets claim John Ashbery, or am I making that up?
74. Who believes there was ever something called the FLARF Movement?
75. Is “make it new” essentially the enduring motto of America?
76. Isn’t whatever comes next in this passionately schizophrenic country bound to surprise us?
77. Does Ezra Pound’s anti-semitism disqualify him as an essential American Modernist or does it make him our quintessential American Modernist?
78. What about Amiri Baraka and Anti-semitism as a dissertation chapter?
79. Hasn’t he appeared in a couple songs and movies?
80. If Rich and Ginsberg are not you picks for bridges across the last century, how about Baraka?
81. Doesn’t he reach from Langston Hughes to Tupac Shakur, from Dubois to Baldwin to Barak?
82. Doesn’t he cover just as much cultural ground as Rich and Ginsberg?
83. Did you know Lucille Clifton went to Howard with Amiri Baraka when he was known as Leroi Jones?
84. Doesn’t Fred Moten place Baraka at the forefront of what he calls the Black Radical Tradition?
85. Isn’t he also, (86. by “he” I mean Baraka, but couldn’t I mean Moten too?), at the forefront at the entire American
Radical and Experimental Tradition?
87. If the poet representative of the last American century is, like the century, a mess of contradictions, isn’t Baraka a pretty good representative poet?
88. Couldn’t someone also write a terrific essay about the ways Lucille Clifton brings intimacy and toughness to the canon?
89. Where does Lucille Clifton, whose poems debuted in 1969, and whose work looms so large over the last fifty years, go in the century?
90. Can you believe Baraka’s 1968’s Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, featuring essays by John Henrik Clarke and Harold Cruse and poems by Sun-Ra, David Henderson, A.B. Spellman, Sonia Sanchez, Henry Dumas, Jay Wright, Stanley Crouch, Lorenzo Thomas, and Victor Hernandez Cruz, did not include poems by Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Bob Kaufman, Etheridge Knight or Audre Lorde?
92. Is it true Bob Kaufman took a vow of silence to protest the Vietman war?
93. Doesn’t Audre Lorde’s Coal throw beautiful shade and open light at Black Fire’s blackness?
94. How does that poem end: “I am black because I come from the earth's inside / Take my word for jewel in your open light"?
95. Did you know Audre Lorde’s first book The First Cities was published in 1968?
96. Where does immensely original, rhetorically and lyrically gifted, political, poetical, personal poet, Audre Lorde, fit in the last fifty years of American poetry?
97. Is it crazy to consider everything after 1968 contemporary?
98. Who remembers that "In the Heat of the Night" won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1968?
99. Do you think things like Oscar movies or Grammy winning songs or prize-winning poems tell us anything about the era in which they were made?
100. Did you know 1968 is the year RFK said, just before MLK and then he himself was assassinated, that he believed America would elect a Negro president in forty years, which is to say 2008, and that when RFK made this amazing accurate prediction, James Baldwin said, with even more accurate foresight, “why the hell do you think that would change anything”?
101. Did you know one of Gwendolyn Brooks’ best books, In the Mecca was published in 1968, with Harper & Row Publishers, one of her last with a major publisher?
102. Is it good or bad that Brooks left a major publisher for a small, black Chicago publisher?
103. Who thinks Brooks' body of work continues to be undervalued?
104. Is the desire to see her stature rise in the canon, acknowledging the uses of the canon, a means to put excellence in historical perspective?
105. Do technologies like the television, the computer, and the internet have more influence on cultural movements than writers and artists do?
106. When will someone make a movie about Elizabeth Bishop abroad?
107. Wouldn’t you like to see Meryl Steep starring in Questions of Travel?
108. Have you enjoyed many Mary Oliver poems but have never discussed her in an academic setting?
109. If you heard there was a place people sat around writing and talking about poems, wouldn’t you kind of want to be there as much as possible?
110. Are you in need, Brothers and Sisters?
111. If soldiers, politicians, and athletes had to take poetry workshops as a part of their training, how do you imagine it would change them?
112. Is it foolish to ask which poems written in any era impacted public opinion?
113. Is it possible to grasp a word’s etymology, connotations, semantic relationships and pragmatic usage and still not grasp its poetry?
114. What’s the one thing you can never do?
115. If Wallace Stevens can be of “three minds” and still be fairly narrow-minded, how many scores of blackbirds do you suppose populate the trees of Gwendolyn Brooks' mind?
116. Did I ever tell you how encountering Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “the mother,” one lonely afternoon in college brought on tears that moved me to the path of a poet?
117. Don’t we all hope a poem that prompts tears can withstand the sobering, scrutinizing gaze of time?
118. You’re not one of those people who confuse Gwendolyn Brooks and Gwendolyn Bennet, are you?
119. Can you name any women poets of the Harlem Renaissance?
120. Does Denise Levertov get swallowed by Rich’s shadow the way Kenneth Koch is swallowed by O'Hara?
121. What do you love most about Jack Gilbert?
122. You’re not one of those people who confuse Jack Gilbert and Jack Spicer, are you?
123. How about a movie about Sonia Sanchez, born in Birmingham, Alabama between World Wars, reared in Harlem as the atomic bomb drops, educated at Hunter, this tiny black girl from Birmingham, raised with no mother, a graduate student at New York University in the fifties, a black single mother and professor and activist poet in the 1960's and for the next half-century?
124. Did you know Sonia Sanchez studied with Louise Bogan at New York University?
125. When was the last time you read Louise Bogan before bed?
126. How about Melvin B. Tolson?
127. Where would Robert Creely go in your timeline?
128. Is it better to be a great poet or make a great poem?
129. What should we say about Maya Angelo and Nikki Giovanni?
130. Where do the Sterling Browns go, the Margret Walkers?
131. When was the last time you read a poem by James Dickey, James Merrill or James Schuyler?
132. How about Denise Levertov, May Swenson, Diane Wakoski?
133. Do you sometimes confuse whether Yeats and Auden and maybe Philip Larkin are from America or England?
134. Should we also give shouts to Richard Wilbur whose most anthologized poem is “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” and who I sometimes confuse with Richard Hugo, whose most anthologized poem is “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburgh”?
135. Who remembers when Ishmaeal Reed, Gary Snyder, and Robert Bly were in all the anthologies?
136. Who decided Mark Strand’s “Keeping Things Whole" should be his most anthologized poem?
137. Where does Gil-Scott Heron go?
138. Are his poems less important than his music?
139. Are you someone who thinks all black poets are spoken word poets?
140. Do you think Charles Bukowski isn’t thought of as part of the canon because he made more enemies than friends?
141. Did Mary Oliver live too long in the woods?
142. Has any one written an essay about her relationship to Robert Frost?
143. Would you believe I once saw Robert Frost reincarnated as a black bear vomiting clouds of bees and honey on a road near his farm?
144. Do you suspect the poems of e.e. cummings don’t yield enough challenges to be of interest to scholars?
145. Would your timeline include Paul Laurence Dunbar, two years younger and several shades blacker than Robert Frost, but not as dark as Frost?
146. Would it feature Carl Sandburg whose most anthologized poems is “Chicago,” or Vachel Lindsay, who I sometimes confuse with Carl Sandburg?
147. Would it include Claude McKay, who I sometimes confuse with Countee Cullen, Charles Olson, who I sometimes confuse with George Oppen, or Randall Jarrell whose most anthologized poem is “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner?”
148. Is the “Poetic Canon” essentially a poet’s hall of fame, where members are voted in by peers and scholars, not the fans?
149. Can a gatekeeper also be a caretaker?
150. Don’t you find it interesting that Rich’s father was a doctor and her mother a concert pianist?
151. If William Carlos Williams was a doctor, Stevens was a vice president at an insurance company, Frost was a landowner, Eliot was a banker, and Stein had enough money to live in Paris, how many poets in the canon were poor, technically?
152. Which canonical poets wrote best about class?
153. Which canonical poets wrote best about sex?
154. Which canonical poets wrote the best about war?
155. Is it better to discuss whose best or who's first?
156. Shouldn’t a good question prompt a little research?
157. “If a man is funny, shouldn’t he try to be funny all the time?”; do you suspect this is what Frank O’Hara asked when he got to heaven?
158. Of all the Nobel Prize poets, isn’t Pablo Neruda probably definitely most beloved?
159. Where do poets like him and Seamus Heaney, and Wislawa Szymborska, and Czeslaw Milosz go in your century of Global/Human/World Poetry?
160. Do you think reading a poem in translation is like chewing gum while it’s in its wrapper?
161. Have you heard that’s what some say about sex with a condom?
162. Where does Walcott go now?
163. Is it possible for a poem to be better than the poet?
164. Is it better to be a poet of the blood or poet of the mind?
165. Do you think if trees could talk they would mostly talk about the weather?
166. What are your verbs?
167. Which would have the better chance at enlightenment: making Donald Trump rigorously read the greatest poems ever written or making him rigorously write a poem for himself once a week during the long duration of his time in prison?
168. If a young white poet raised in the deep south by a father who names the family dog a racial slur writes a complicated lyrical critical elegy about the father when the father perishes in a horrible Biblical accident, is the young white poet allowed to include the name of the dog?
169. Can the young white poet care for the dog?
170. Wouldn’t you like to read the poem Donald Trump spent weeks rigorously revising because he was promised only a true poem would reduce his time?
171. What is a heroic couplet?
172. What’s your favorite three-word sentence?
173. Do you consider Sesame Street or Hill Street Blues a greater poetic influence; Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer or Deer Hunter; Purple Rain, The Color Purple, or the wonderful Color of Money starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise?
174. Would you agree the price you pay for telling the truth is never as high as the price you tell for telling a lie?
175. What was your favorite childhood meal?
176. What was your grandmother doing at the hour of your birth?
177. What sounds do you hear before falling asleep?
178. What if you could only enter the pearly gates if you had washed the hands of an enemy when you were alive?
179. What are three warnings you have received?
180. What’s the answer to a question you might have asked yourself ten years ago?
181. What’s the question you may still ask yourself ten years from now?
182. Can we devise some ideas about what’s been going on these last twenty years, if we tally up what’s been going on the last one hundred or so, or no?
183. How are you feeling?