Wednesday, May 26, 2010


[photo: Angie Vorhies]

I’ve always liked Hoagland and look forward to reading new work from him whenever it appears, but I don’t LOVE him the way I do Hirsch. 

Of course, I see similarities between the two. Both are storytellers who use plain speech and an (often self-deprecating) “I” persona. Both are authoritative narrators and their poems often end looking down from a higher perspective (the rhetorical distance Campion pointed out).  But I think you and he are right about the music—the interplay between the limitless (music, imagery) and structure. I think it’s why I often have trouble with surrealist and language poets. I love those elements in a poem—Hirsch’s “Polish Home for the Aged” has those surreal images of the brother as a mule and cousin Irka as a “poorly planted tree/Wrapping itself in a dress of white blossoms.” But what makes those sensory images so powerful is that they are locked in the memory of an elderly person staring at four blank walls and a bare ceiling.  The context and loss are heartbreaking. 

However, Hirsch, too, is occasionally guilty of the tidy summation.  I liked the playful tone of “Self Portrait” and its comparisons of internal struggle to “a married couple who can’t get along,” a two-party system, Adam and Eve.  But the poem falls flat for me in the last few lines:

I suppose my left hand and my right hand
will be clasped over my chest in the coffin

and I’ll be reconciled at last,
I’ll be whole again.

This strikes me as an obvious, lazy, “concluding sentence.”  (Unless his point was to slam the poem shut like a coffin and kill it, in which case, he certainly achieved that goal.)

I once read an interview with Hoagland where he was asked if he considered himself a cat poet or an ox poet.  He replied: “I’m an ox poet who wishes he were a cat poet.” 

I think of him more as a monkey poet, i.e., the trickster or Court Jester, who is there to humble us and point out our follies.  Hoagland as performer, always going for the laugh or shock value in order to tear away our illusions.  He has said that he wants to write unsentimental poetry, tough enough to be in the real world.

Hirsch, on the other hand, while readily and frequently acknowledging his own (and our) human weaknesses, tends toward the lyrical, lifting his voice up to sing in praise.   Personally, I can take a joke, but on the whole, I prefer being serenaded to being slapped around. 

Hoagland’s “Muchness” (Best American Poetry 2008) starts off as a fairly straightforward descriptive love poem, but then it’s as if Hoagland can’t stand the idea of playing it straight, so he has to step back and remind us who’s in charge here, telling us what’s going on from a safe, ironic distance.


I saw you in the rainy morning
from the window of the hotel room,
running down the gangplank to board the boat.

You were wearing your famous orange pants,
which are really apricot
and the boat rocked a little
as you stepped to its edge.

You were going to work
with your backpack and sketchbook
and your bushy gray hair
which bursts out in weather
like a steel wool bouquet.

That’s how my heart is, I thought –
It lies coiled up inside of me, asleep,
then it springs out and shocks me
with all of its muchness.

But as I was dreaming, your boat pulled away.
Then there was just the gray sheen
of the harbor left behind, like unpolished steel
and the steep green woods that grow down to the shore,
and the gauze of mist on the hills.

It was your vanished boat
which gave the scene a shape,
with its suggestion of journey and destruction.

And the narrative then, having done its work,
it vanished too,
leaving its affectionate cousin description behind;

– Description,
which lingers,
and loves for no reason.

--Tony Hoagland

It almost reminds me of a teenage boy who’s embarrassed to admit he loves his mother and so has to crack a joke about it.   Too bad, because I think he’s right—description does linger and that’s why we love it. 


I love this stanza:

That’s how my heart is, I thought –
It lies coiled up inside of me, asleep,
then it springs out and shocks me
with all of its muchness.

I think a poet such as Hirsch, who seems at ease with feelings, would have continued more along those lines, without the turn to cleverness. Merwin would have gone for timeless wisdom: from what we cannot hold stars are made ("Youth," in In the Shadow of Sirius).

Here the "clever" kind of ending (indeed much of the poem) is almost Billy Collins, especially the penultimate stanza. But the last statement has more feeling than Collins usually expresses. Because Tony's humor is not relentlessly predictable, and because he is not afraid to play it straight whenever he chooses to, he can go much into places that would be a problem for Collins, who can go only so far, given his method of turning everything into a joke.

I loved the perceptive Ploughshares piece by Jennifer Grotz. Let me quote the part about cat poets and ox poets:

I was telling Tony about something I’d read that morning that referred to the distinction Zbigniew Herbert once made between “cat poets,” those who sit indolently and curl their tails and wait for a poem to come to them, and “ox poets,” those who produce poems more prolifically from working every day in the field, as it were. Tony drily replied, “I’m an ox poet who wishes he were a cat poet.”

What’s “ox-like” in Hoagland’s poetry? One answer is that it’s what’s “American” about his poems. They don’t seem to come from anything resembling aristocratic entitlement but rather from a dogged autodidacticism, a kind of voracious but simultaneously pragmatic consideration of poetry and how to write it. Like Eliot’s famous injunction, Hoagland’s poetry--and essays--show signs of having “inherited a tradition by great labor.” 

Delightfully, Hoagland is the first to admit this. After winning the Zacharis Award from Ploughshares in 1994 for his first book of poetry, Sweet Ruin, Hoagland spoke of his early work as being “incredibly untalented.” “It took a long, long time for me just to get competent. When you’re a student of poetry, you’re lucky if you don’t realize how untalented and ignorant you are until you get a little better. Otherwise you would just stop.” If Hoagland associated native poetic genius with being a “cat poet,” his own poems do, nevertheless, reveal cat-like attention, lithe, sometimes nearly gymnastic syntactical ability, as well as the savoring of sensual pleasure.

Although Zbigniew Herbert’s distinction had primarily to do with the manner and rapidity with which poems come, Hoagland extends the analogy: “The ‘cat’ poet is an aristocrat of sensibility; the ox poet, which I am, is the one who tells what the yoke feels like or why it is a representative experience to fail--at love, at understanding, at compassion, at community, at being exceptional, or more generally, at being a human being--and these testimonies seem an important poetic tradition. Think of John Clare’s “I Am” or William Blake’s “London”; the cat sings the aria, the ox sings the blues.”

And speaking of synchronicities, I was just going over my own Herbert translations. But I mustn't start talking about Herbert, or this post will never achieve closure.

Here, for reference, is Hirsch's poem mentioned by Angie Vorhies:

(CHICAGO 1983)

It’s sweet to lie awake in the early morning
Remembering the sound of five huge bells
Ringing in the village at dawn, the iron
Notes turning to music in the pink clouds.

It’s nice to remember the flavor of groats
Mixed with horse’s blood, the sour tang
Of unripe peppers, the smell of garlic
Growing in Aunt Stefania’s garden.

I can remember my grandmother’s odd claim
That her younger brother was a mule
Pulling an ox cart across a lapsed meadow
In the first thin light of a summer morning;

Her cousin, Irka, was a poorly planted tree
Wrapping itself in a dress of white blossoms.
I could imagine an ox cart covered with flowers,
The sound of laughter coming from deep branches.

Some nights I dream that I’m a child again
Flying through the barnyard at six a.m.:
My mother milks the cows in the warm barn
And thinks about her father, who died long ago,

And daydreams about my future in a large city.
I want to throw my arms around her neck
And touch the sweating blue pails of milk
And talk about my childish nightmares.

God, you’ve got to see us to know how happy
We were then, two dark caresses of sunlight.
Now I wake up to the same four walls staring
At me blankly, and the same bare ceiling.

The morning starts over in the home:
Someone coughs in the hall, someone calls out
An unfamiliar name, a name I don’t remember,
Someone slams a car door in the distance.

I touch my feet to the cold tile floor
And listen to my neighbor stirring in his room,
And think about my mother’s peculiar words
After my grandmother died during the war:

“One day the light will be as thick as a pail
Of fresh milk, but the pail will seem heavy.
You won’t know if you can lift it anymore,
But lift it anyway. Drink the day slowly.”

            ~ Edward Hirsch, from Wild Gratitude



Thoughtful essay by Angie Vorhies. I love the photo as I am a beach-walker. And speaking of cats this makes me feel like a cat might with a warm bowl of dream. (Typo: I meant "cream.") Toying with words today.

No comments:

Post a Comment