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.