In a poem about a spring day in the suburbs, Tony Hoagland wrote “A little dogwood tree is losing its mind;”
overflowing with blossomfoam,
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,
dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,
so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
It’s been doing that all week:
and throwing it away,
and making more.
I thought he was one of the best American poets alive. Last spring I sent him an e-mail, asking if I could come to Santa Fe, N.M., where he lived most of the year, to talk to him. To my surprise, he said yes. But then other obligations intervened – work, holidays, news events deemed more important, the usual roster of stupidities – and by the time I called again, last October, he wasn’t answering e-mails. For good reason: On Oct. 23 of last year, Tony Hoagland succumbed to pancreatic cancer, three years after being diagnosed.
I didn’t know him. I had no claim to memorialize him beyond my amateur enthusiasm for his poems, which are daring and show-offy and therefore distinctly American, but also precise and subtle and always surprising. Unlike Charles Bernstein, one of the founders of the language poetry movement who won the $165,000 Bollingen Prize for poetry last week, Tony Hoagland wrote in a demotic voice – using everyday words and common images – for which parts of the critical establishment sneered at him. He also wrote about subjects many poets avoid – racism, the war between men and women, hatred (all of which got him into a lot of trouble) – and about other subjects many poets cover (physical sensation, happiness, emotional complexity), but without his distinguishing sense of humour and irony and uncompromising diction.
When Mary Oliver, another poet from Hoagland’s demotic tribe, died in January – people who knew her work seemed to feel the news as a blow – I started thinking about Hoagland again. She, too, was demeaned as “the peoples’ poet,” and Hoagland often defended her. He seemed to be one of a disappearing kind – not just an aging white male boomer, which of course he was, but one of the best writers of a generation that described what it saw clearly and unsentimentally. Hoagland knew the difference between being truthful, on the one hand, and selling an agenda, on the other. He was not afraid to point out that difference.
He was a heck of a writer. There are so many examples of his genius that it’s hard to choose from his six books of poetry and two (brilliant) collections of essays. A posthumous book of essays, The Art of Voice, comes out next month from Norton. A poem called The News in What Narcissism Means to Me – he had a talent for titles – starts this way:
The big country beat the little country up
like a schoolyard bully,
so an even bigger country stepped in
and knocked it on its ass to make it nice,
which reminds me of my Uncle Bob’s
philosophy of parenting.
In his last collection, Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God, which he wrote knowing he was dying, a poem called I Have Good News starts off with the phrase, “When you are sick for the last time in your life,”
It doesn’t matter if you end up isolated and alone,
pulling the trigger of the morphine feed
repeatedly; it doesn’t matter if you die
whimpering into the railing of the hospital bed,
refusing to see visitors,
smelling your own body in the dawn.
The dark ending does not cancel out
the brightness of the middle.
Your day of greatest joy cannot be dimmed by any shame.
He could be mean and cutting (“would you really get five sayings from The Lion King/tattooed on your forearm for practical reference/as you ship out to Iraq?” in Ten Questions for the New Age) or mean and smart (at the funeral of his brother-in-law, after running into his ex-wife and “her future second ex-husband,” a protagonist escapes upstairs and finds a TV on, volume off, displaying protesters throwing stones. “I thought that I could understand/what they were protesting about,/what had made them so angry:/they wanted to be let out of the TV set;/they had been trapped in there, and they wanted out.”)
Most of all he was funny, even in the direst circumstances. He compared a fading friendship to the way a three-quart jug of milk sags a plastic bag on its way home. He tagged sparrows as “a kind of people/Who lost a war a thousand years ago;/As punishment all of their color was taken away.” He had mixed feelings of longing and shame about the United States (“When I think of what I know about America, I think of kissing my best friend’s wife”), and he wasn’t that fond of materialism, either: “After I heard It’s a Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall/played softly by an accordion quartet/through the ceiling speakers at the Springdale Shopping Mall,/I understood: there’s nothing/we can’t pluck the stinger from.”
He mistrusted judgment and described it as a set of steep cliffs through which free-flying birds had to thread their way, daringly. He recalled his teen years at a cottage where “the lake was practically my girlfriend.” There is a Hoagland poem about a father of a young suicide who, in his grief, burns all the pictures of his son, which makes his family furious. “It is the old intelligence of pain/that I admire” Hoagland notes, “how it moves around inside of him like smoke;/how it knows exactly what to do with human beings/to stay inside of them forever.” In a poem called In Praise of their Divorce, Hoagland likens a newly separated couple to “a great mysterious egg in Kansas/that has cracked and hatched two big bewildered birds./It is two spaceships coming out of retirement,/flying away from their dead world,/the burning booster rocket of divorce/falling off behind them,/the bystanders pointing at the sky and saying, Look.” He revered mercy but not toward himself. He no sooner remembers an ex-lover’s body (“the basilica/of her high, Irish-American butt”) when he starts mocking himself for his fixation, “a sad astronaut living/deep in space, breathing the oxygen of memory/out of a silver can.” He had a poet’s sensibility and a clever adman’s way with a phrase, and vice versa.
Tony Hoagland had a lot of friends and they still talk about him. They are keen to offer details to the regretful fan.
He grew up as an Air Force brat and dropped acid at 14 (“he was no stranger to substances”: Peter Harris, long-time friend, retired professor at Colby College); had a sister and a brother (who reportedly died of a drug overdose as a teenager). He dropped out of fancy Williams College – his pals claim this was inevitable – and eventually earned a brace of degrees at the more earthbound University of Michigan and University of Arizona. His talent and his seriousness about poetry were evident in the first poetry class he took, in 1974: Chase Twichell, his first instructor and a poet in her own right, remembers “he already had a voice of his own. It wasn’t anything he had tried to build, and it was not tethered to his personal life.”
Inspired by the poet Frank O’Hara and revering Walt Whitman, from whom all plain-spoken American poetry derives, Hoagland spent the next stretch moving around. He cared for his dying mother, married, divorced (“He had a high need for privacy” is Harris’s explanation for the failure of that particular union) and remarried novelist Kathleen Lee, his widow. They were a good (and more literary) match, and she is still grieving. He eventually became an award-winning teacher of poetry himself, both at the University of Houston and elsewhere and in his free weekly poetry workshops, where 60 people packed the local Unitarian Church to hear him talk about how poetry worked and why it mattered. He could quote verse endlessly, from memory.
“He was one of the most improvisational thinkers I’ve ever met,” Robert Boswell, the novelist who lived across the street from Hoagland in Houston, says. “He was like no one else in the world.” Hoagland composed a lot on a manual typewriter, claimed no one could properly read poetry on a screen. He didn’t watch TV, though he did once ask neighbour Boswell if he could come over and watch the opening of the Super Bowl. “He just wanted to see the beginning of the Super Bowl. He didn’t want to see the whole thing. Just the beginning. He thought there was something American about the beginning.”
He liked to send his friends corny postcards with snippets of other writers’ poetry affixed to them with Scotch tape. The author Robert Wilder, who teaches high school English in Santa Fe and met Hoagland as his professor in graduate school in the late 1990s, has 100 of them taped to his kitchen wall. “He was always trying to get people to wake up,” Wilder remembers. “In fact, in his last days, his wife said he tried to get up. And she said, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘I want to be awake.’ He wanted to be awake and alert for his dying.” He needed to witness all the moments of the span we call a life. The writer Laura McCullough saw in Hoagland the same addiction to poetry he inspired in others – “the addiction of poetry as a way of surviving the hurt that our intelligence imparts.” He had an optimistic opinion of peoples’ capacity for wonder and sadness.
Rob Wilder often invited Hoagland to lead his class at Santa Fe Preparatory School, the co-ed private high school where he works. One year, having invited the poet for the afternoon, the teacher was informed that U.S. Olympic gold medalist Misty Hyman, a butterfly-stroke specialist, was addressing the school that morning. The school suggested cancelling Hoagland’s talk; Mr. Wilder refused. Ms. Hyman made the presentation a lot of Olympians make, displaying her medals and talking about striving and improving and competing and winning.
Runty Hoagland showed up in the afternoon, wearing his hearing aids. (This was in his 40s). “I hear you’ve had a talk about the importance of winning and competing,” he said to the class. “And I’m here to be the antidote. Because you are going to fail a lot more than you succeed. Because that’s what makes you human.” He won the day.
“Tony made you feel like you should be writing poetry,” Wilder says. “He would get angry when he saw people leading less-than-human lives.”
Hoagland’s inability to avert his poetic eye from what was happening got him into trouble.
In a poem called The Change in What Narcissism Means to Me (nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2004), Hoagland described someone watching a televised tennis match between what sounded very much like Serena Williams and a lesser European player – “some tough little European blonde/pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,/cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,/some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite.”
I couldn’t help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,
because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips
and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,
like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.
The narrator of the poem goes on to realize a moment of change has come to the United States, and that he is now past tense. The poem’s admirers – who include, for instance, the African-American poet Terrance Hayes, nominated last week for two National Book Critics Circle Awards – tend to interpret it as a subtle poem about the unseeable depths to which the roots of white liberal racism can run.
At the 2011 annual convention of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, which 12,000 people attend, the award-winning African-American poet Claudia Rankine gave a talk about The Change. She called the poem racist. (You can have an argument about this in the poetry community to this day.) “Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that I am present,” Rankine said, speaking as a woman of colour. Ergo, the poem and the poet were racist. Her talk went viral, and Hoagland’s reputation was slightly, but permanently, stained.
To her credit, Rankine also publicized Hoagland’s response. “The poet plays with the devil,” he replied. “That is, she or he traffics in repressed energies.” He went on. “When it comes to the subject of American race, it is a set of conditions we all suffer, whether in our avoidance or confrontation. We will need to be rousted for another 50, or a 100 years. I would rather get dirty trying to dig it out of the ground, than make nice. I am easy in my conscience.” Personally, his friends say, he was “crushed.” Publicly, he never stopped writing about race. The conversation he started continues to this day, even civilly.
Here’s the disturbing question: Does poetry even work any more as the cross-cultural goop Hoagland hoped it could be? In a world crowded with ever more distinct and outspoken sensibilities, can any one sensibility be universal? The poetry world, especially online, is more diverse than ever – there are north of 204 master’s programs producing poets in North America alone; 20 per cent of published American poets are reportedly now African-American; Rupi Kaur, a 27-year-old Punjabi-Canadian, is a bestselling poet via Instagram, though not to everyone’s liking. As a result, the world of poetry is – and this could be a good thing – more confrontational and factional: Alice Walker was recently accused of writing an anti-Semitic poem. But up to now, as a guiding principle, the old canonical hope has prevailed: writers die, but their art lives on to connect humankind forever.
But what if nothing lives on? The current issue of the highly regarded magazine n+1 claims that the now unavoidable calamity of climate change has rendered poetry (and most literature) pointless. “When human civilization ends," the editors claim, "whether in the sudden collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet or with a giant methane fart or both, wet and smelly, it’s unlikely that whatever comes after will have much interest in shoring fragments against our ruins.”
A surprising number of poets feel that way these dark days. The accomplished and brilliant Twichell often writes about the fate of the planet, but she is beset by doubts as to why. Her father memorized poetry as part of his education, as an essential tool of anyone trying to live a decent human life. But “the idea of embedding a human voice in the mind is kind of lost now,” she says. Furthermore, “I’m so glum about the future of the planet, even though I still write poetry, I know longer feel that I’m writing for the future. I don’t know who I’m writing for.”
Hoagland was dying, and understandably as concerned with his own parting as with the Earth’s – though that latter calamity was the subject of the final poem he published in the New Yorker, last fall. (“I am hoping the humans will be calm in their diminishing.”) Had he lived, he would still be recording every sinking step of our embarrassed fall and would refuse to look away or even stop laughing. “I just look at the fact that he was working all the way through to the end,” Wilder says. “I think he still hoped that poetry could make a difference. Just for the chance to stand outside and appreciate beauty – to pay attention to everything, from the beginning of the Super Bowl, to making love to his wife, to the bizarre experience of two cars pulling up to an intersection and the drivers rolling down their windows and having an argument. He found that strangely beautiful too.” Someone once said the purpose of poetry is to remind us how hard it is to be just one thing. Hoagland understood that.
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