The Last Poem I Loved: “Snow for Wallace Stevens” by Terrance Hayes


The only time I had the privilege to meet Jake Adam York was after a panel he participated in at the 2012 AWP Conference. The panel was called “In White: White Poets and Race,” and I was hooked. For so long I had yearned to write blues poetry, to sit down and dialogue about race and history (as James Baldwin discusses in his essay “Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes”) with other people and through poetry.

Some time before this panel I purchased Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead—an enthralled reader and student, loosely termed, of the poet. I came to a rather spare poem in the second half of the book. Not spare like a frozen tree, and not all that different in length than five or six other poems in the collection, but having read so many pecha kuchas, multi-page poems, and pieces that used stanza and layout so acrobatically, this poem seemed strikingly naked: “Snow for Wallace Stevens.”

The poem’s speaker, undoubtedly Hayes, is moved by anger and awe to publicly wrestle the 20th century poetic giant. Hayes makes frequent reference to poems of Stevens’s in this piece, employing the ancient debate archetype of using one’s own words against him/her, the most famous of which are “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” “The Glass of Water,” and “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman.” And as he grapples with Steven’s racism, his steely insurance tycoon demeanor, Hayes can’t help but collapse at the skill, the devastating dexterity of Stevens’s verse. What it is to deeply admire the poet but not the man, to “have a capacity for love without / forgiveness,” Hayes writes.

Only 22 lines, one strophe, lines no longer than five metric feet, “Snow for Wallace Stevens” modestly, tactfully lays Stevens out and puts to rest, in the hands of his readers, Hayes’s confliction. He asks,

How, with pipes of winter
lining his cognition, does someone learn
to bring a sentence to its knees?

He dedicates,

This song is for my foe,
the clean-shaven, gray-suited, gray patron
of Hartford, the emperor of whiteness
blue as a body made of snow.

Baldwin says, in his essay, “the black man can scarcely dare to open a dialogue [with the white man] which must, if it is honest, become a personal confession which, fatally, contains an accusation.” Terrance Hayes’s poem embodies this. It is opening a dialogue, through his own poetic blues, that expresses his appreciation for Stevens the poet, but necessarily contains an accusation. Can the poet be flawed, bigoted, morally unsound, and still command language and something in his or her readers?

Baldwin also says, “[the white man] can scarcely dare to open a dialogue which must, if it is honest, become a personal confession—a cry for help and healing, which is really, I think, the basis of all dialogues.” In short, Baldwin asks us to take responsibility (different from simply blame) for history and what it has passed on to us. I am a white, blue-eyed man with southern roots. History has given me so much to face, for which to take responsibility. And to continue the dialogue opened by Hayes, picked up by Jake Adam York and the AWP panel (Tess Taylor, Michelle Boisseau, Martha Collins, and Kate Daniels), I have written the poem “Deep Blue,” calling back to Hayes and Stevens, my own two cents in the dialogue, some semblance of a confession, the beginning of a cry for help and healing. But the dialogue only begins with words and poems, it must be a conscientious, existential owning of history, of what it actively gives and does to us. The dialogue is about identity and taking hold of it. Hayes poses questions perfect for this:

Who is not more than his limitations?
Who is not the blood in a wine barrel
and the wine as well? I too, having lost faith
in language, have placed my faith in language.

Wesley Rothman serves as senior poetry reader for Ploughshares, a member of Salamander’s Board of Directors, an editorial consultant for Copper Canyon Press, and was an assistant poetry editor for Narrative. A recent Pushcart Prize nominee and finalist for the 49th Parallel, McCabe, and Consequence Poetry Prizes, his poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in journals including Bellingham Review, Salamander, Rattle, On the Seawall, Ruminate, and Newcity. He teaches writing at Emerson College and the University of Massachusetts Boston. More from this author →