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It seems usual these days for The New Yorker to feature two poems, and so it is here. “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” by Terrance Hayes, certainly has an intriguing title. “The black poet would love to say his century began / With Hughes… but… It began with all the poetry weirdos & worriers…winos falling from ship bows.” Okay, I don’t know where this poem is going — which is pretty much required in poems at this level. And then, “In a second I’ll tell you how little / Writing rescues.” Of course, the previous sentence can already be used as a guide for that. This is not a linear narrative. We skip from thought to thought, from Sylvia Plath to Orpheus. We do get a reference to Orpheus inventing writing, which then becomes a source of confusion between him and his girlfriend. There is no reliance on metaphor here, no epiphany.

So, not finding any easy way into this poem, I go to the Poetry Foundation website, where the poet is quoted as saying, “how close can you get this language to be like music and communicate feeling at the base level in the same way a composition… communicates meaning? … Language is always burdened by thought. I’m just trying to get it so it can be like feeling.” Hmm. Perhaps we do better to think of this as a sort of song, where the noises made by the words form a sort of melody. And surely the words are melodic, rhymes and near-rhymes abound. But the rhymes and assonance fades away by the end of the poem. Right around when the confusion between Orpheus and his beloved is laid out. That just somehow seems right. An interesting poem to chew on.

Then Vona Groarke gives us “This Poem,” a list poem, self-referential. “This is the poem that won’t open / no matter where you press.” An intriguing challenge, and a little intimidating. “This is the poem that cries on street corners…” Now, I’m a fan of poems that deliver emotions, so I go through to see how the emotion is developed. “…that plays itself out / in dives…” And the poem is starting to gain a persona, a list of fun attributes that weave a kind of goofy logic, right up to the end. “…with a teensy tattoo.”

I don’t give endings of poems here, I want you to hunt down the original work, but that said, the ending of this one is surprisingly satisfying. The repetition builds us up, then the poet resolves the images with a certain understatement that fits the rest of the stanzas. I love the fun in the poem, a sort of wary humor that just may turn dangerous, but never quite does.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

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