. . . you feel the faint grit
Tony Hoagland is, among other things, a salutary contrast to Billy Collins. Both use humor, but in Tony's poems, you can't miss the underlying seriousness. In fact, at his best, he is one of the poets who, like Robert Cording, teach us seriousness and grappling with large issues (though I admit it’s only at times that Tony is at his deep and startling best). Where Billy Collins monotonously undermines each poem by turning it into a joke, Hoagland knows how to use humor to say shock us into thinking and feeling. He also knows when not to use humor, since you can go only so far that way. Some of the best poems in this slender and near-perfect volume are perfectly straight, dark and sad and painfully honest.
As in all memorable poetry, there are surprises here, especially the surprises of affirmation, of finding our messy lives actually worth living. These are the last lines of “Totally,” the last poem in the book:
The defoliated trees look frightened
That is how one earns a name
like Jason the Real.
—From “Jason the Real”
All that talk about love, and This
is what that word was pointing at.
That was part of the composition.
That was the only kind of freedom
we were ever going to know.
That was the plot.
That was our marvelous punishment.
Oddly, this is the very narratorial distance that Hoagland isolates and questions in his fine essay, “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” when he discusses a certain type of contemporary poem dominated by irony. The trouble with such a poem, he explains, is that it remains safely told by a narrator who operates at an altitude above plot, narrating from a supervisory position. . . . It is distinctly externalized. Distance is as much the distinctive feature of the poems as play; distance, which might be seen as antithetical to that other enterprise of poetry—strong feeling.
What makes Hoagland’s rhetoric feel so “rhetorical” in the pejorative sense, is the almost total lack of music. This absence contributes to the ease with which these poems can be summed up by pat phrases. It’s not just that those formulas of argument become monotonous. When you turn, for example, from “Hinge” to the next poem in the book, “Foghorn,” you encounter this opening:
came towards me in the fast-food restaurant
with his blue plastic cafeteria tray
and stood next to the table where I sat alone
(there was no place else to sit),
I looked up at him in welcome.
I almost, almost said that something is missing in Hoagland's work, something that prevents it from being great poetry, and that something is music. But somehow I had a failure of nerve: I simply didn't want to say anything negative in a review meant for Amazon. Now I see it more clearly: there isn't enough interweave with the limitless. Music is a particularly powerful limitless factor.