The lag between the ostensible year of the Best American Poetry anthology and the actual original publication dates of the poems throws me off. So, here I am 1/3 of the way into 2012, reading poems published in 2010 for the 2011 anthology.
The first poem that caught my eye during my disorganized reading of Best American Poetry 2011 is “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Terrance Hayes. This is a bit of a cheat since Terrance Hayes is a favorite of mine, and I featured this poem as one of a selection of his poems for the Sevens section of this site (where you can also hear him reading it).
I’ve been reading a lot–a lot, a lot–of poetry lately. And the more I read, the less I understand it. I look back at my own writing about poetry–some going back 20 years–and I can’t believe that little punk’s audacity, making declarations about an art he was a country mile away from even minimally understanding. The same goes for pretty much everything I’ve written about poetry a year or two ago too.
So it’s challenging to figure out what more to do with poems I like than point to them and say “Me like! You like?” or, well, the like.
“Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy” encapsulates pretty much everything I enjoy about Hayes’s poetry.
It feels good in my mouth; its music makes it fun to read:
…I’d rather have what my daddy calls
“skrimp.” He says “discrete” and means the street
just out of sight. Not what you see, but what you perceive:
that’s poetry. Not the noise, but its rhythm; an arrangement
It’s laced through with humor:
I’d better not be too explicit. My night is careless
with itself, troublesome as a woman wearing no bra
in winter. I believe everything is a metaphor for sex.
It’s insightful in straightforward ways:
You can spend your whole life
doing no more than preparing for life and thinking.
“Is this all there is?”
And in the ways that make me go hmmmm:
All species have a notion of emptiness, and yet
the flowers don’t quit opening.
Topping on the cake: it has monkeys:
I am carrying the whimper
you can hear when the mouth is collapsed, the wisdom
“Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy” reaches into a world and its wisdom that seems otherwise to be just out of reach on the tip of my tongue or tantalizing and unreachable in the part of my mind that I can touch only in dreams. It makes me wonder if that isn’t the universal stuff of good poems (and for a while relieves me of doubting my poetic affections in the face of so much pressure pushing me toward experimental and “post avant” poetries.
Reading a poem like this out of context makes it harder to appreciate how this poem is just one of a variety of styles that can be found in the book Lighthead. Other experimental forms include “pecha kucha poems,” based on the popular Japanese presentation style, anagram poems that use lines from other poems, and a poem composed entirely of (clever) imagined slogans for t-shirts. The impulse toward experimentation can be fun for the poet, and sometimes lead to some great poems later, but the experiments themselves are often dreadful. The difference with Hayes’s experiments are that they are less like experiments than they are sound choices. Where many poets’ experiments are like trying on clothes, Hayes seems to be choosing the right outfits for each different occasion. This makes for a poetry that is usually recognizable, but with a style that is hard to pin down.
It’s also useful to know that “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy” is the first poem in Lighthead and so is in some ways setting up the themes and tones that are to follow, which might account for it’s mix of various strong elements that will become more individually pronounced later.
More about Terrance Hayes
- Source: Best American Poetry 2012
- Original: Lighthead
- More poems and info at: the Poetry Foundation and Poets.org
About this BAP12 Series
Occasionally Jared Stein and I will banter about the Best American Poetry anthology. We did it in 2004. And we did it in 2009. And some other times in between that have vanished down the interweb tubes. And we are doing it now.