Sunday, May 9, 2010


. . . you feel the faint grit
of ants beneath your shoes,
but keep on walking
because in this world
you have to decide what
you’re willing to kill

Tony Hoagland points out in “Candlelight,” with his usual in-your-face ruthlessness. He does not aspire to the timeless and the mysterious. He aims for penetrating social commentary, and he does it brilliantly.

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.

My favorites include “Mistaken Identity,” “Reading Moby Dick at 30,000 Feet,” “Beauty,” “Lucky,” “Auden,” and “Lawrence.” “Medicine” and “The Confessional Mode” need to be read for more details about the speaker's mother, whom we encounter first in the masterpiece of this volume, “Mistaken Identity.” “Lucky” is another mother-son poem, astonishing in its daring – savage, terrifying, and true.

I also recommend “Honda Pavarotti,” a wonderful statement about art, and “Replacement,” about the coarsening and cruelty that are the required part of male adulthood. Indeed, cruelty, both toward the self and others, is one of the major themes of this volume; it is a magnificent surprise to find, in the last poem, “Totally,” the statement, “But I won’t speak cruelly of myself.”

I am especially interested in poems of dramatized imagination, such as “Mistaken Identity,” and “Benevolence,” which begins, "When my father dies and comes back as a dog" -- a startling reminder of Jack Gilbert's poem about his dead wife’s coming back as a Dalmatian, but very different in emotional tone and details, dramatic and unforgettable.

I also admire the way that Tony is not afraid to make cultural comments without being paralyzed by the fear of political incorrectness. This is where humor helps a lot -- it's difficult not to like someone who makes you laugh. But, again, this volume is hardly limited to humor. We even get lyricism, for instance in the poem “From This Height,” describing being in a hot tub:

We don’t deserve pleasure
just as we don’t deserve pain,
but it’s pure sorcery the way the feathers of warm mist
keep rising from the surface of the water
to wrap themselves around a sculpted
clavicle or wrist. (p. 50)

-- though it’s later on that we get the full reward, when Hoagland ponders all the labor that went into delivering this experience: “Down inside history’s body, / the slaves are still singing in the dark; / the roads continue to be built” (p. 51).

What deepens these poems is precisely that awareness of the price of everything, of the suffering underneath the thin surface of pleasure, of how much rage and boredom has to be suppressed for daily life to go on. Indeed we don’t often see

a housewife erupting
from her line at the grocery store
because she just can’t stand
the sameness anymore

We may not have ever witnessed this eruption, but that inner scream exists in us all, a silent howl.

There are also some memorable observations about illness:

Daydreaming comes easy to the ill:
slowed down to the speed of waiting rooms,
you learn to hang suspended in the wallpaper,
to drift among the magazines and plants,
feeling a strange love
for the time that might be killing you.
. . .
suffering itself is medicine
and to endure enough will cure you
of anything.

Hoagland has the kind of depth that comes from both intelligence and suffering. His humor is intelligent; it's designed to make us think and actually suffer a little. Because of its humor, this book may at first appear glib. But don't be deceived -- it is full of awareness of human suffering. 

Frankly, given my usual dislike of conversational-tone poems, I am astonished to find myself enjoying Donkey Gospel more and more each time I return to it. It could be because of finding passages of unexpected lyricism (e.g. “and the almond trees/ drop their white petals of applause”). But I think it's mainly because Tony Hoagland's Angel of Reality (or call him the Angel of Ruthless Perception) is moderated by the depth and seriousness of the Angel of Love and Death. There is humor in these poems, yes; but there is also wisdom. 

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
at the edge of the town,
as if the train they missed
had taken all their clothes.
The whole world in unison is turning
toward a zone of nakedness and cold.
But me, I have this strange conviction
that I am going to be born.



In May 2010 issue of Poetry, Peter Campion reviews Tony Hoagland's Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (Graywolf Press. $15.00.) 

Let me quote the second part of the review.

That [rhetorical] plotting is evident everywhere. For example, Hoagland tends to tie off his poems with summations that often sound, despite their hard-won and tough-love tones, like tidy morals. Here’s a nearly random sample of endings:

—But that is how you build your castle.
That is how one earns a name
like Jason the Real.
         —From “Jason the Real”

All that talk about love, and
is what that word was pointing at.
         —From “Love”

That was part of the composition.
That was the only kind of freedom
we were ever going to know.
         —From “Jazz”

That was the plot.
That was our marvelous punishment.
         —From “Voyage”

Hoagland may often advertise his spontaneity with goofy imagery and phrasing, but in these passages he points you to the meanings of his own poems with all the rigid authority of a traffic cop. He may often play the naïf or the anti-intellectual, and yet he’s much more comfortable in the world of categorical signs and markers than in the thick of actual experience. As his commentary piles up and his tactics of argument repeat themselves, you begin to suspect that this poet has never had an experience for seven seconds without beginning to structure it into a clever little speech. 

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.

Reading Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, I found myself wondering: Is the flaw here that Hoagland writes the very same poetry that he complains about in his essay? Is the problem with Hoagland’s rhetoric simply the distance that it creates between the poet and his subjects?  I don’t think so. From Horace through Pope to Auden, great poets have long depended upon rhetorical distance. At times their imagery even seems clearly subordinate to their argument, and the people in their poems appear like those “personifications of abstract ideas” that Wordsworth railed against. And these are still great poets.

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:

When that man my age
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.

The lineation has no tension, the nouns and verbs exert no sway because they have so little particularity, and the voice itself remains one of ingratiating chatter tempered with mild menace, like the voice of Leave It to Beaver’s Eddie Haskell. This is Hoagland’s predominant mode. As a result, and despite the handful of fine poems, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty never offers the depth of feeling, tone, and thought that its thematic ambitions lead us to expect.

*     *     *


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. 

Music and imagery will not work without the limiting factors of story and structure -- that's why so much of Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, or Charles Wright simply glides out of memory, in spite of the momentary delight we may experience while reading an ungrounded, mainly "limitless" poem.

Edward Hirsch certainly has both music and imagery, but he manages to build enough limiting scaffolding (remember, it takes only a wisp of narrative) to provide a deeper satisfaction, especially as his work matures. Few volumes are as satisfying as Lay Back the Darkness, probably Hirsch's best volume to date. But then, even though we might wish for more music, Donkey Gospel is also deeply satisfying, in a different way. 

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