February 2023: Terrance Hayes’s “You don’t seem to want it, but you wanted it” & Van Halen’s “Get Up”

The poem I’m discussing this month is from Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin (2018). It is heavily influenced by Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets and the book is notable because it takes the sonnet form in new directions lyrically and formally. I have reviewed Hayes’s American Sonnets in conjunction with his biography on Etheridge Knight; I also had the opportunity to assist Hayes in a workshop in 2016 that dealt with a concept he came up with called Lyric Time, which I discussed in the review and in a recent Poem & Song of the Month essay on John Murillo’s “On Confessionalism.” I think Terrance Hayes is an incredibly important contemporary poet because of the positioning of his voice. Stylistically, he’s a very fluid poet, but if I were to give him a specific description, I would say he walks a nice line between lyric and narrative poetry.

What I like so much about this collection is the speaker’s experimentation with the lyrical voice. I think this is something that poetry needs more of, poets who want to push the limits of what lyrical poetry can do. I also like that he chose the sonnet form, because it is a form that lends itself well to experimentation. The poem I chose employs repetition as its main source of lyricism; it’s the sonnet on page 13 and here it is in its entirety:

You don’t seem to want it, but you wanted it.
You don’t seem to want it, but you won’t admit it.
You don’t seem to want admittance.
You don’t seem to want admission.
You don’t seem to want it, but you haunt it.
You don’t seem too haunted, but you haunted.
You don’t seem to get it, but you got it.
You don’t seem to care, but you care.
You don’t seem to buy it, but you sell it.
You don’t seem to want it, but you wanted it.
You don’t seem to prey, but you prey,
You don’t seem to pray but you full of prayers,
You don’t seem to want it, but you wanted it.
You don’t seem too haunted, but you haunted.

I remember reading this poem for the first time and really being captivated by it. I like its playful, repetitive nature, but I also like how the poem leaves the “you” up to interpretation. The speaker could be talking to himself, or he could be addressing a “you.” I like that it’s ambiguous. I also like how the end-words are playful. There is “admittance / admission,” “haunt it / haunted,” and “prey / pray.” Another aspect of the poem I enjoy are the contradictions: “You don’t seem to want it, but you wanted it,” “You don’t seem to get it, but you got it,” “You don’t seem to care, but you care,” “You don’t seem to buy it, but you sell it.” “You don’t seem to prey, but you prey” and “You don’t seem to pray, but you full of prayers.” What I like even more is the “You don’t seem to” part of the line. This puts the emphasis of the poem on the speaker’s perspective. He’s making observations, but it’s from a place of speculation that feels accurate. This is also because he might actually be talking to himself.

For me, the last line holds a lot of weight even though it’s a repeated line. This is because when the speaker first brings up “haunted,” it feels merely playful. The language play stimulates the creative side of the psyche. However, when the line is repeated at the end, more serious language play has been established. Especially when he mentions “You don’t seem to prey, but you prey,” and “You don’t seem to pray, but you full of prayers.” This reads to me as the place where the speaker pinpoints a bit of an identity crisis within the “you.” It reminds me of a lion that hunts in secret, or a criminal who goes to confession on a regular basis. It complicates the poem in really compelling ways because it suggests that the speaker himself, or the person he’s addressing, hasn’t quite figured themselves out on a fundamental level yet, but they might be good at hiding it from others—except the speaker. And with the opening line, “You don’t seem to want it, but you wanted it,” there’s this sense of ambiguousness, as if the reader has wandered into the middle of an intimate conversation. The “it” that is wanted or not wanted is a mystery.

Another thing I love about this poem is that it doesn’t require the reader to reach too hard to understand what’s being communicated even though the language has an ambiguous nature to it. This is because the “you” could also mean the reader itself. The speaker could be addressing anyone who happens upon the poem. This creates another layer of meaning that is even more personal and varied in the kinds of interpretations that surface. The reader has to ask themselves, “What do I seem to not want, but actually want?” “What do I seem to not get, but actually get?” “What do I seem to not care about, but actually care about?” The speaker turns the sonnet back on the reader, so that the last line, “You don’t seem too haunted, but you haunted” becomes an opportunity for the reader to examine the shadows of their own lives. Not only is this a brilliant lyrical poem for all of its language play and twists and turns, it’s a brilliant sonnet because it could also be addressing a beloved in a very personal way. The romantic element that sonnets embody exists within the poem as well, which makes it refreshingly erotic.

The song I’m discussing this month is Van Halen’s “Get Up.” I’ve always liked Van Halen a lot. They were one of the bands my dad listened to when I was little, so they were always around; I was always aware of them. I’m a big admirer of Eddie Van Halen, who I consider to be one of the best guitar players of all time. However, it has also felt like a bit of a contradiction to like Van Halen as much as I do. The band’s considered to be in that realm of seventies rock music that isn’t exactly compatible with punk, which is the genre I took too most. Punk became prominent around the same time Van Halen did—late seventies, early eighties—and it was against what was happening musically that time in rock music. I recently started to ask myself what it was specifically about Van Halen that stood out to me, what about them I liked so much more than other rock bands from that time, and I came to an interesting conclusion: they are a rock band that exhibits punk rock sensibilities. What I love so much about Eddie Van Halen as a guitarist is the fact that his guitar playing is not just bluesy, but fast, aggressive, and energetic. As technically strong as he is, his music is ultimately driven by instinct and speed, much like with punk music. I’ve always listened to Van Halen alongside metal and punk bands and found that it just made sense to me.

The reason why I chose “Get Up” is because it’s a song that exemplifies exactly what I’m talking about. It’s a fast-paced song that operates very much like a punk song. It’s not one of Van Halen’s more popular songs, but it should be, even though it’s outside of the box musically—it has a punk sensibility about it that I really love. The song is off of the group’s seventh album 5150 (1986), which featured Sammy Hagar on vocals for the first time. Lyrically, Sammy Hagar is very different from David Lee Roth. However, the one thing they have in common that does make them compatible with punk music is the playful nature of their lyrics. Vocally and lyrically, they both employ a kind of edgy playfulness that punk vocalists also embrace. “Get Up” has three verses, three pre-choruses, and a chorus. And the guitar work by Eddie Van Halen is wild and adrenaline-inducing. The song begins with a musical introduction that is all guitar: Eddie Van Halen’s guitar sounds like it’s winding and tightening up for an explosion. The pounding drums come in and the repeating guitar riff is tense and coiled and winding (and has a bit of a punk vibe to it as well). As soon as Hagar screams, the music loosens up. When Hagar sings the first verse, the guitar becomes more bluesy. Here’s the first verse:

Feel like throwing in the towel, don’t be a fool
They’re out to knock you out, put you down for the count
Watch the left, watch the right, below the belt
They’ll run you round and round, it’s plain to see
It’s never gonna stop, they’ll run ya till you drop
There ain’t no power around can keep a good man down

This verse is probably the most important part of the song lyrically, along with the chorus, because it establishes the personality of the song. The musical intro of the song is a bit mysterious because Eddie Van Halen’s playing isn’t obvious: it doesn’t signal to the listener that it’s a full-fledged rock song or if it’s going to be something more musically complex. Hagar’s singing is wild and energetic, but also stabilizing. His lyrical sensibility gives the listeners something to grab onto. The most important lyrical flourishes of this verse are where he wails the word “belt” in a suggestive manner, and also the last line: “There ain’t no power around can keep a good man down.” Essentially, that’s what the song is about, masculine empowerment in the face of antagonistic adversity.

The pre-chorus is the place where the lyricist uses himself as an example: “There’s still some fight in me.” It’s also a place where the concept of the underdog becomes prevalent: “Walking down a dead-end street / No mercy at your feet / They’re holding all the cards / Making things so hard / Before it goes too far.” I think this is very much a song about the masculine underdog, which is what makes it work thematically with punk music, which is a genre full of underdogs. Eddie Van Halen switches back and forth between that winding, coiled guitar riff for the chorus and bluesy rhythmic playing for the verses and pre-choruses. The chorus is incredibly simplistic, but powerful: “Get up and make it work,” which Hagar screams wildly and enthusiastically. Here’s the second verse:

You say that love has got you down, well that’s bullshit
If love has got you down then love can pick you right back up
There ain’t no power around can keep a good man down

The song shifts to love as a source of adversity, which the lyricist immediately discounts: “You say that love has got you down, well that’s bullshit.” He also points to love as the solution: “If love has got you down then love can pick you right back up.” Then he brings back that final powerful line from the first verse—“There ain’t no power around can keep a good man down”—as a way to further prove his point: a good man can always empower himself no matter what.

After the second pre-chorus and chorus, Eddie Van Halen plays a simple repeating blues riff that transitions into a fast metal-style solo that Hagar screams over and at the end he includes a piece of that winding, coiled riff. This is important musically for a couple of reasons. Eddie Van Halen is elaborating (with his guitar) what Hagar has established lyrically: be an empowered underdog. This is what all elitist guitar players do; they elaborate on the lyrical content and create their own voice within the song. Musically, what Eddie Van Halen is doing is utterly brilliant. In one solo, he combines bluesy rock, metal, and punk (which I consider to be the mysterious winding, coiled riff he introduced at the beginning). Metal and punk rock are subgenres created to give space to those who didn’t fit into the rock genre, and here, Eddie Van Halen is including those styles of music in his playing, which are all influenced by blues music. Blues music is another genre that favors the underdog. This is what makes “Get Up” such a powerful song by Van Halen; it literally explains what the band has always been about: speaking to the little guy (aka the underdog) who listens to rock music, but also expanding to include those who are even further outside the accepted norm: metalheads and punk rockers. Although the song ends in a grandiose Van Halen rock music style with crashing symbols, tons of guitar sounds, extended vocal screams, and a final drum pound, the song is representative of who the band seeks to uplift: young males unable to “make it work” in mainstream society.

When I first decided to write about Terrance Hayes and Van Halen together it seemed to make sense to me. Terrance Hayes is an elite poet and Eddie Van Halen is an elite guitarist. I think the poet and the guitarist are good at fluidity: Terrance Hayes is lyrical, but also a good storyteller; Eddie Van Halen is a blues rock soloist, but also incorporates metal and punk into his playing. This is what makes them both flexible poetically and musically. The Hayes sonnet is brilliant because of the poet’s ability to make the “you” work in a variety of ways; “Get Up” does a similar thing in the way it addresses downtrodden rock music listeners, as well as those in the punk and metal subgenres who are more resistant to societal norms and more comfortable with their underdog statuses. Both the poet and the band are also very playful in their respective mediums; although both can venture into heavy places with their creative work, there’s a lightness to the poet and the band that help uplift readers and listeners. With Hayes’s sonnet, I can read it and feel included; with the Van Halen song, I can listen to it and feel included—even as a female. The concept of the underdog is ultimately genderless. I think what makes Hayes an important contemporary poet is the fact that I can read his work from more than one perspective: the speaker talking to himself, the speaker addressing a “you” or a beloved, and the speaker addressing the reader. What makes Van Halen significant is the fact that I can view the band through multiple aesthetic lenses: rock, metal, and punk. I would definitely encourage anyone who is interested in creating flexibility in their work (inhabiting more than one perspective or incorporating multiple genres) to read Terrance Hayes and listen to Van Halen. Both are aesthetically inclusive, which is what makes them multidimensional and complex in ways that are earthy and accessible.

February 6, 2023