Seeded in Stone: The Poetic Optimism of “Carp Poem”

As legendary poet and hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur once said, “The seed must grow regardless of the fact that it’s planted in stone.” Those who live in impoverished neighborhoods are prone to a life empty of education and full of crime. From the very beginning of their lives, these disadvantaged people are often set on the path towards incarceration due to their strained environments. Although they may have the potential to become successful, they are inherently ‘seeds’ trapped in ‘stone,’ seemingly unable to grow past the limitations of a jail cell. However, as Tupac Shakur notes, regardless of the dire predetermined circumstances, the seed is able to break the stone barriers that enclose it and seek the light of day. In his work “Carp Poem,” Terrance Hayes evokes a similar theme, where he describes a moment in which an African-American poet visits a jail to present poetry to a group of young African-American boys. In his poem, Hayes illuminates how the underprivileged can overcome the misguidance of crime with the power of knowledge.

The speaker in “Carp Poem” first illustrates the disadvantaged environment where the jail is located in order to implicate how the underprivileged are misguided in crime. In the first stanza, the speaker describes that he “parked below the spray paint caked in the granite/ grooves of the Frederick Douglass Middle School sign” (1-2). The visual imagery Hayes incorporates with the ‘spray paint caked granite’ immediately suggests the community’s poverty-stricken environment. The granite grooves of the Frederick Douglass Middle School sign are not just said to be covered in spray paint, but ‘caked’ in spray paint, suggesting the excessive vandalism that occurs in the neighborhood. The continual defacement of the middle school suggests how endless generations have fallen victim to the cycle of neglecting education, and turning to crime. Ironically, the vandalized property belongs to a middle school named after Frederick Douglass, a “historical African-American activist who rose out of slavery through education” (Encyclopedia of Southern Culture). The deterioration of the school named after an individual who used knowledge to uplift himself from slavery, mimics the deterioration for the hopes and dreams of the community to break out of the cycle of hardship. Additionally, Hayes vividly depicts how the students in the middle school are “men-sized children [who] loiter like shadows” (3). The juxtaposition of youthful middle schoolers described as grown men, suggests the loss of the children’s innocence because of their romanticization of the immoralities of adulthood. Furthermore, he uses a simile to depict how they ‘loiter like shadows,’ affirming the middle schoolers’ impure characteristics with connotatively felonious diction like ‘loiter’ and ‘shadows.’ The speaker even goes on to describe how Frederick Douglass Middle School is “down the block” from “New Orleans Parish Jail” (6,5). The short distance between the jail and the middle school symbolizes the tendency of the students to become incarcerated in a short amount of time. Usually, another institution, such as the local high school, is nearby the middle school because students are expected to progress their education. In this community, however, a jail is placed near the middle school, indicating that students will instead pursue a life of crime instead of higher education. Despite the harsh surroundings of the community, Hayes is optimistic that the community can end the cycle of crime through knowledge.

Hayes offers a light of hope, as the speaker humanizes the young boys in jail, reflecting how the underprivileged can be uplifted from criminal activity with their willingness to gain knowledge. When the speaker enters the jail, for example, he sees “two dozen black boys” in a classroom (10). Immediately, the audience notices the choice in diction in referring to the people in the jail as ‘boys’ instead of convicts, felons, or prisoners. By doing this, the speaker recognizes the boys’ dedication in progressing themselves, which ultimately humanizes them. The speaker’s humanization of the boys reminds the audience that whether they are criminals or not, they are merely people; they are young boys who make mistakes, and should be given the chance to improve themselves. The speaker then compares the boys to carp, later describing how the carp could help anyone cross the pond so long as they have “tiny rice balls or bread to drop into [their] mouths” (14). The food is able to strengthen the carp, just as knowledge is able to strengthen people to uplift themselves from adversity. Because knowledge is able to strengthen people, like how food strengthens the carp, the ‘tiny rice balls’ and ‘bread,’ are symbolized to be knowledge. Since the carp can help anyone across the water, so long as there is food for them to eat, the speaker indicates how the power of knowledge can help people move forward from their past to their desired goal. In the case of the prisoners, this means escaping from their life of criminal activity to become uplifted by the speaker who is offering them knowledge in his visitation. This is ultimately the reason why the speaker refers to the people in the jail as ‘boys’ instead of criminals. The boys are moving forward from their crime-filled lives and are planning to change themselves for the better, as they realize their mistakes. Their first step toward change is gaining knowledge from the speaker, who notices the boys’ determination to improve themselves by recognizing them as human beings instead of mere fugitives. Moreover, the speaker expands upon the attainability of achieving a crimeless life in a limited environment.

The speaker further illustrates that a life void of crime is possible through the power of knowledge. He first alludes to Jesus, saying that there must have been one fish that was “so hungry it leaped up [Jesus’] sleeve that he later miraculously changed/ into a narrow loaf of bread” (16-17). The carp that is described to leap inside Jesus’ robe because of its determination to eat more food, is symbolic of the prisoners’ incredible motivation to attain knowledge. Just as the hungry carp who leaps towards Jesus, the prisoners who are hungry for knowledge, seek knowledge by awaiting the presence of the speaker. In fact, the speaker even describes the carp, who leapt into Jesus’ sleeve, to transform into a ‘narrow loaf of bread.’ The carp’s determination to attain more food, reaches to the point where the carp becomes the actual source of food, thereby being able to benefit other hungry carp. That being said, the transformation of the extraordinarily hungry carp to a loaf of bread is representative of the ability of any individual to rise from their given circumstances and become the source of inspiration and knowledge which, in turn, benefits and helps others in the process. Furthermore, the speaker affirms his belief in knowledge’s uplifting power when he says, “I’m a believer too, in the power of food at least,/ having seen a footbridge of carp packed gill to gill, packed tighter” (19-20). Here, the speaker’s belief in the ‘power of food’ to create a ‘footbridge of carp’ is symbolic of his belief in the power of knowledge to help people through adversities. The ability for ‘food,’ or in this case knowledge, to create a ‘footbridge,’ which is an infrastructure that helps people cross over obstacles, is symbolic of knowledge’s ability to help people overcome their adversities. In the case of the prisoners, knowledge will be able to help them break out of their dark and confining pasts and seek a future unhaunted with crime. Fortunately, the young boys in the classroom are aware of this ‘footbridge,’ as indicated by them “waiting to talk poetry with a young black/poet,/packed so close” (21-23). The prisoners, being young and black, are enthusiastic to hear from the speaker who, like them, is young and black as well. The speaker is living proof to the boys that a young African-American male can seek a life outside the confinements of a jail cell with the willingness to gain knowledge.

The young boys the speaker visits in Terrance Hayes’ work, “Carp Poem,” are representative of how seeds planted in stone have the ability to shatter its enclosures and seek the light above the dark world. Hayes’ vivid description of the disadvantaged community, and the tendency of the people within it to submit into crime, reveals the dark realities many impoverished areas suffer from around the world. However, he also offers hope, proposing that these underprivileged people, whether they be convicts or not, can escape the cycle of crime through the willingness to attain knowledge. Hayes then highlights the strength, persistence, and determination of the young boys to change the course of their lives in a spectrum of ways, reminding audiences that no matter a person’s past or current affiliations, they are human beings who deserve a chance to improve themselves. Because of Hayes’ ability to bring light and humanity upon these troubled people, the audience no longer sees them as mere prisoners, but as regular people who are determined to better themselves by gaining knowledge. Ultimately, “Carp Poem” suggests that that no matter the limited options the world may only seem to offer, it is possible to discover and create new paths to a brighter future with the power of knowledge.

Bird from Bone: An Analysis of Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnet

American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes suggests that the experience of black Americans is a constant self-love and self-destruction, a separation of “the song of the bird from the bone.” Through the expert use of speaker/auditor relationship, metaphor, and structure the poem paints a picture of the complicated and often contradictory relationships that black American’s are caught up in with themselves and with the culture they live in.

The title of the poem, American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin immediately sets up a reader expectation that this poem’s speaker and auditor will be at odds. The reader naturally assumes that the “My” in the title must reference the speaker while the “Past and Future Assassin” is another entity entirely, presumably one who wants to hurt the speaker. This expectation is at once confused in the opening line, “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,/ part panic closet” (Hayes line1-2). Suddenly, the one doing the harming is the speaker, while the auditor is the one being harmed. This forces the reader to reconsider the dynamic at play in the speaker/auditor relationship. The speaker is clearly addressing a black American, as evidenced by the metaphors and allusions present later in the poem like “song of the bird” (Hays 4) and “I make you both gym & crow here” (Hayes 7) This begs the question, then, of who the speaker is. The poet Hayes is himself a black American. However, it could be that the speaker is not Hayes, but America or the American sonnet itself, i.e. the thing that is trapping the auditor. However, this wouldn’t explain the contradictory speaker/auditor relationship present in the title, wherein the speaker is the one having harm enacted upon them. It seems likely, then, that Hayes is both speaker and auditor and that each role represents some part of himself, some attitude that he holds.

To be both the one harmed and the one harming is self-contradictory. However, this contradiction serves the message of the poem by showing the conflicting feelings Hayes holds about his status as a black American. This should not be taken to mean that his situation is self-imposed. Quite the contrary, Hayes’ situation arises from being forced to be a part of this American sonnet and his struggle of trying break free of its influence while also remaining bound to it on some fundamental level. The form of the American sonnet represents structure and tradition. There are certain rules to sonnets, frameworks by which they operate. An American sonnet, then, would exemplify American structure, tradition, and ideals. And what is more traditional in America than the systematic oppression of black people? While Hayes, as the writer of the poem, is entirely aware of the structure and the rules of sonnets and operates within this structure, he also dares to push at the boundaries of what constitutes a sonnet, thereby refusing to adhere totally to the values traditional structure implies. Though his sonnet consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, it lacks a rhyme scheme. Towards the end, it rejects iambic pentameter as well, striping itself almost entirely of its status sonnet and making it, at the last minute, more akin to free verse poetry. This is not accidental.

Hayes’ poem is, quite literally, struggling against itself. The free verse is attempting to break away from the sonnet, the sonnet attempting to reign itself in. It is not coincidental that this happens at the end of the poem where it reads, “It is not enough to love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed” (Hayes 14). It is as if the poem is arguing with itself, both in words and in structure, about what it wants. This is simply another metaphor for Hayes’ internal struggle. The poem is rife with metaphors that further illustrate the self-contradiction that Hayes deals with as a black American. The first, and most obvious, among these is the line, “I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat/ grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.” (Hayes 3-4) The mention of birdsong (which is also referenced later in the poem) seems to be a nod to the famous poem Caged Bird, written by black poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. In Angelou’s poem the bird, which is a metaphor for black Americans, sits in a cage and “sings for freedom” (line 22). This cage is not dissimilar to Hayes’ American sonnet and his mention of birdsong is a clear reference to Angelou and her bird’s song of freedom. Through the metaphors of the music box and the birdsong, Hayes also seems to be a referencing the desire for freedom and the long history of black Americans pushing back against what binds them, while also elevating black culture to a celebrated status by referencing Angelou’s iconic work and by identifying with her as a black poet with a shared language, culture, and history. This is one aspect of the metaphor; the other aspect is the “meat/ grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone” (Hayes 3-4). The words “bone” and “meat grinder” evoke a more visceral tone, a tone that juxtaposes the hopeful message of freedom. Bone, again, references the idea of structure. The meatgrinder attempts to pull apart the bird (which represents the black American) because of the inconsistencies it holds through its bone (the structure and adherence to American ideals) and its song (the desire for freedom from such structures.) The meat grinder could also simply represent a destruction of self, identity, and culture. If the bird is a celebration of black culture and identity then the meat grinder is the desire to kill that connection, a kind of self-hatred—or internalized racism—that is ingrained within black Americans via the structures of American society.

Hayes further expounds upon this idea of separating American cultural ideals and black cultural ideals from one another in the line, “I make you both gym and crow here” (Hayes 7) The use of the words “gym” and “crow” together is an obvious reference to Jim Crow, a reference that could be alluding to either the laws or the racist caricature. Hayes then elaborates, “As the crow/ you undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night/ in the shadows of the gym. As the gym, the feel of crow-/ shit dropping to your floors is not unlike the stars/ falling from the pep rally posters on your walls” (7-11)Again, Hayes uses the bird imagery to refer to the desire for freedom or the heart of black American culture. The “gym” is yet another box which holds the bird in. While “catharsis” (or release) may sound hopeful, even positive, the reader soon finds that it is no divine experience. Instead, the bird is simply shitting on the gym floor. This could mean one of two things. Either the bird shit signifies the defiance and rebellion that black Americans engage in through their culture (the bird is taking a shit on the gym, thus defiling it) or it represents the gym’s attitude toward the bird. The gym holds such an apathy toward black American struggle that it doesn’t pay it any special attention to it. Instead, it is a normal fixture of the gym, “not unlike the stars/ falling from the pep rally posters” (Hayes 10-11) This self-contradictory relationship is summarized when Hayes writes, “I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart” (12) Though it is the bird trapped inside the gym struggling to escape and though it is the gym trapping and stifling the bird, they are really one and the same, a single entity locked in an unending struggle with itself.

Through an expert use of speaker/ auditor relationship, structure, and metaphor Hayes paints a vivid picture of the convoluted, difficult, and often contradictory relationships that black Americans have with themselves in the context of American culture. He ends the poem by saying, “It is not enough to love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed” (Hayes 14). Thus, Hayes summarizes in two the sentences the massage of the entire poem. For the bird, for the American sonnet, and for Hayes himself, existence is self-love and self-destruction. It is separating the song of the bird from bone.

Works Cited

Hayes, Terrance. “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin [‘I Lock You in an American Sonnet That Is Part Prison’] by Terrance Hayes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/143917/american-sonnet-for-my-past-and-future-assassin-598dc83c976f1.Angelou, Maya. “Caged Bird by Maya Angelou.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48989/caged-bird.