Watch Your Language
reviewed on August 16, 2023
Prefaced by Toni Morrison’s invocation, in her 1992 Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, of “a map […] of a critical geography,” Hayes’s Watch Your Language: Visual and Literary Reflections on a Century of American Poetry offers in its finest moments a compelling re-historicization of 20th-century U.S. poetry, drawing attention especially to overlooked Black poets like Margaret Danner and Essex Hemphill, and appraising anew the legacy of titans such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Yusef Komunyakaa.
Those moments, however—of insightful genealogical excavation, of fresh rethinking—are relatively far between in a collection which otherwise reads like a salmagundi of prose fragments, assembled from across two decades of Hayes’s career. Part literary history, part craft book, part collected reviews, Watch Your Language never quite calibrates its various generic commitments, to the point that the collection as a whole lacks a sense of thoroughgoing analytic argument—these are “reflections,” as its title announces.
To be sure, its eclecticism will charm some readers—and one can muster little respect or patience, in 2023, for genre absolutism.
But much of Watch Your Language feels like filler, occasional pieces included to pad out what Penguin is marketing, along with Hayes’s collection So To Speak, as a “stunning double album.” Reprinted here are Hayes’s introduction to a Cornelius Eady reading from 2003, a Poetry Foundation blog post from 2006, introductions to collected and selected works from Amiri Baraka and Wanda Coleman respectively, a blurb of Afaa M. Weaver’s A Fire in the Hills, and reprints of Hayes’s own poetry. Such pieces, it seems, were lying around on a hard drive—why not monetize them?
Far more impressive is Hayes’s work to trace the relationship of Gwendolyn Brooks, for instance, to Black poets of Brooks’s era and our own, from Margaret Walker to Weaver himself. “Does Gwendolyn Brooks,” Hayes asks, “who published her landmark debut in 1945, overshadow Margaret Walker [whose For My People won the Yale Younger in 1942] because we have overlooked Walker or because Walker has a different talent?” Regardless of how one might answer that question, Hayes’s attention to Walker—to my eye, one of the most underappreciated poets of the 20th century—is certainly to be commended, especially when that attention finds Walker in Brooks’s ambit. Likewise, Hayes writes of Weaver that “[y]our roots in Black working class [sic] and Black arts aesthetics make you one of our truest sons of Gwendolyn Brooks,” an insight important not only because of its genealogical mapping but because it helps us to see Brooks’s own work anew; she is, Hayes reminds us, “mind-blowing for the attention the poems pay to the everyday,” part of Brooks’s work which—like all matters related to class—literary scholars too readily ignore.
Perhaps most invaluable in Watch Your Language, though, and the aspect of the collection which will certainly cast the longest shadow, are Hayes’s short profiles of lesser-known Black poets from the late 20th century, among them Danner, Hemphill, Barbara Chase-Riboud, and Mari Evans, the latter of whom hosted from 1968 to 1973 an Indianapolis local-access show called The Black Experience, just one suggestion of the rich literary terrain which Hayes is mapping. At a moment—at the risk of “man-yells-at-cloud” generalization—when many young writers believe American poetry began in the year 2000, Hayes’s excavation of this fascinating history seems not only deeply needed but, to me at least, thrilling to behold.
Sometimes, Hayes’s historicization relies on false binaries and easy-to-stereotype villains, as when the now trailblazing Allen Ginsberg is posed against the now outré Robert Lowell. “If you write a poem like ‘Howl,’” Hayes asks, “do you really need to write anything else? […] Couldn’t we debate whether Robert Lowell or Ginsberg is more confessional?” The questions remain, of course, at two or three rhetorical removes from the claim—ludicrous, it seems to me—that Ginsberg is the greater writer.
Sometimes, too, the “exam questions” that structure Watch Your Language descend into the silliness of mannerism, as when Hayes asks “107. What is Time?” or “6. What would you find if you looked for yourself in poetry every day?” the latter of which assumes—ludicrously, it seems to me, who has quite enough of myself as it is—that one turns to the arts to find ones own life re-presented.
Hayes’s “exam questions”—and their accompanying timelines of U.S. literary and social history—are often more thought-provoking, though, establishing felicitous or tragic connections between Black poetry and contemporaneous social and political events. It is instructive, for instance, to recall that the assassination of Malcolm X and the founding, by Amiri Baraka, of the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School took place within mere months of one another. It is instructive to recall that Baraka attended Howard University at the same time as Lucille Clifton. It is instructive to consider, as Hayes asks us to consider, “[w]hat makes any poem or poet the definitive poem or poet of an era?”
Watch Your Language is a mixed bag, then, padded with occasional pieces but studded with moments of genuine literary historical insight.
It means something for Hayes to write that “the late-great Tony Hoagland rests in peace.”
And it means something, for different reasons, to know that the first poetry book Hayes himself ever purchased was the 1990 edition of The Best American Poetry, edited by Jorie Graham and in which Hayes encountered Komunyakaa’s legendary “Facing It.” Like Richard Ellmann noting that Joyce’s description, in “The Dead,” of snow “general all over Ireland” derives from Homer, the fact will no doubt prove of note when poets and scholars begin to assess the vital effects of Hayes’s own biography on 21st-century American poetry.