Poem Sampler

Canon Fodder

Nine poems that should be required reading.

by Terrance Hayes

[Note from the editors: Maybe some poems just don’t get the respect they deserve. We've asked nine poets to recommend nine poems that they think should be added to the canon: poems that should be taught, anthologized, revered. We will be adding their recommended poems to our archive as we obtain permissions for them.]

1. “Black Mare” by Lynda Hull
The opening sentence (“It snakes behind me, this invisible chain gang— / the aliases, your many faces peopling // that vast motel, the past.”) is just the tip of Hull’s luscious syntactical iceberg. Her couplets court a neo-Romantic self-destructiveness (which was probably connected to her early demise), but they are controlled in this poem by a sly internal rhyme that makes the poem echo elegantly, makes it almost a broken pantoum.

2. “The Story” by Michael Ondaatje
A perfect model for how to blend literary genres. It weaves an “occasional poem” (for a birth) with an imaginary fable. It uses the subjectivity of a poet’s prototypical first-person speaker and the objectivity of a novelist's storyteller.

3. “Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday” by Robert Hayden
The graceful violence of this poem shocked and thrilled me when I read it at 18. (No one told me you could put bullets in a poem!) It still shocks and thrills me. While most blues poems constitute a circular lyric (as in “I’m blue at the start” and “I’m blue at the end”), this one also uses a linear narrative: it stands still and moves forward at the same time.

4. “Invisible Dreams” by Toi Derricotte
If Billie Holiday wrote a poem, this would be it. A tone of lovely surgical (clinical) discomfort: “My mouth is ugly, human // stink.” Post confessional? Anti-Praise? Don’t call it confessional. It is to confessional poetry as the dunk is to the layup. Enlarged, intensfied.

5. “Operation Candor” by Mary Ruefle
I have a thing for modern fables. Borges. Calvino. The best, like this one, blend playfulness and a fierce political fire. Once, that was the definition of surrealism. In an empty museum, the guide tells a handful of people: "To get an idea of this painting, you must cut off your little finger and place it upright on the floor at an angle, then lie down and let it support your whole body."

6. “Three Sonnets” by James Galvin
It’s a technical marvel. Plus, my students always write their best poems imitating this poem. Something about juggling/weaving narratives.

7. “Feeling Fucked Up” by Etheridge Knight
Read a few of my poems, and you’ll see I’m a fool for repetition. Like the Hayden poem above, this one subverts the old-fashioned blues form (“Lord she's gone done left me done packed / up and split and I with no way to make her come back”). It’s a fairly well-known poem. It would be very anthologized were it not for the fucks.

8. “jasper texas 1998” by Lucille Clifton
A poem of deep empathy and deep outrage. As with the Hayden poem, I find the combination of violence and beauty very compelling. Wedding contradictory things, ideas, impulses: isn’t that at the heart of metaphor?

9. “At the Grave of my Guardian Angel: St. Louis Cemetery, New Orleans” by Larry Levis
1. There is the visionary (hallucinatory) sense of history that has “Lincoln and Whitman, joining hands one overcast spring afternoon / To stroll together through the mud of Washington / at the end of the war. . . .” 2. There is the ending section, which is both nihilistic and spiritual, hopeful and melancholy: “There there now, Nothing. Stop your sniveling. . . . Riding beside me, your seat belt around your invisible waist. Sweet / Nothing. / Sweet, sweet Nothing.” 3. There are the leaps, tangents and juxtapositions. Levis knows that Memory is a form of the imagination.

Originally Published: June 23, 2006


On January 14, 2011 at 6:46am Tony Shields wrote:
Hi, I Heard Terence Hayes read The Same City just a moment ago and I felt that beautiful feeling I felt when my children where born I live in dublin Ireland we love good poetry here this man is better than good.Where can I get a copy of the book this poem is in I love the days I find a new poet and this is one of them I look foward to reading him and introducing him to my friends that share my love of great poetry.Tony


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 Terrance  Hayes


Born in Columbia, South Carolina, poet Terrance Hayes earned a BA at Coker College and an MFA at the University of Pittsburgh. In his poems, in which he occasionally invents formal constraints, Hayes considers themes of popular culture, race, music, and masculinity. “Hayes’s fourth book puts invincibly restless wordplay at the service of strong emotions: a son’s frustration, a husband’s love, a citizen’s righteous anger and a . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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