The Jackson Poetry Prize was formed in 2006 and comes with the pretty big check of $50,000. Since no one goes into poetry hoping to be rich, prizes like the Wallace Stevens (double the Jackson) and more modest dollar prizes such as Guggenheims or the many state arts council awards really augment the quality of life of those in our midst who have undertaken this commitment to not avert the eyes. This year, the Jackson award recipient was chosen by three of the masters in the contemporary American poetry world, Phillip Levine, Robert Pinsky, and Ellen Bryant Voigt who chose the rapacious and tender Tony Hoagland.
Hoagland is currently part of the Graywolf stable and is the author of three volumes of poetry: What Narcissism Means to Me (2003); Donkey Gospel (1998) which won the James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets. His first full length collection, Sweet Ruin (University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), won the Brittingham Prize in Poetry.
In addition, in 2006, Graywolf published Hoagland's collection of essays about poetry, Real Sofistakashun. He has a number of chapbooks, including Hard Rain published by Hollyridge Press in 2005. Hoagland currently teaches in the poetry program at the University of Houston. He is also on the faculty of the Warren Wilson low-residency MFA program.
In Narcissism, Hoagland strums this textural practice that he began in the preceding collection, Donkey Gospel, of importing language, friends, nodding to progenitors, but more overtly, down-right in your face, courting the living artists around him.
Tony Hoagland has won lots of awards including a Guggenheim, an O.B. Hardison Jr. Prize, and the Mark Twain Award, which recognizes humor in poetry. Humor and pith abound in Hoagland's work, but so does angst, anger, and tenderness. If anything, it's short on forgiveness, tending toward excoriation, but finally, Hoagland, who seems unable to ignore any detail of human frailty and failing, is full of curiosity and a kind of ruthless and scrupulous attention. There's nothing, not a body part, not an historic episode that is too embarrassing or taboo or touchy from which Hoagland would avert his gaze.
What began as a kind of luminous "lucidity and sweetness" (a phrase borrowed from Howard Nemerov's poem, "Maestria") in his first book, Sweet Ruin, turns to a kind of metacognitive meditation on the organ of love, the mind, in Hard Rain. To be cursed with one, all tangled up with what it means to be human, one's humanity a kind of non-ticking, non-digital, bomb. We've all got one, and we're about to blow.
In the July/August, 2008 issue of Poetry, a poem by Dean Young, famously buddies with Tony, "Selected Recent and New Errors" begins, "My books are full of mistakes/but not the ones Tony's always pointing out…" The "mistakes" range from not knowing that the speed of death for a worm in a bottle of tequila indicates the liquor's proof. Later in the poem, the word echoes in the lines, "We have absolutely no proof/god isn't an insect…" and the final lines of the poem considers what kind of bug she might be, ending in one that might be "…squatting over us/shoving a proboscis" into our chests. The poem ends with the doleful line, "How wonderful our poisons don't kill her." Here Dean shares the textural ground of his bud, Tony, and it's no accident TH is evoked at its beginning. Dean is tying knots in the weave Tony started in his award winning "What Narcissism Means to Me" a collection that took Tony out of his "habit of art," as Flannery O'Connor might have it, and into the world of the professional poet.
In Narcissism, Hoagland strums this textural practice that he began in the preceding collection, Donkey Gospel, of importing language, friends, nodding to progenitors, but more overtly, down-right in your face, courting the living artists around him. The poem, "When Dean Young Talks About Wine" opens not with wine, but with tequila and the fated worm, and runs through the infamous Hoagland strategies of description, tangent, and irony, holding the hand of the reader as if on a wine-tasting, here sip this, now spit, sip this, spit again – oh you got it on your shoe – but ends with the reveal, this lamenting closing stanza,
But when a man is hurt,
he makes himself an expert.
Then he stands there with a glass in his hand
staring into nothing
as if he was forming an opinion.
The "as if" is the struck minor key here, the tiny twang that hammers home the pathos in this love poem to the wagers of this war on forgetting, poets among them. In Tony's Hard Rain, the poem "Requests for a Toy Piano" is a "holler back" at Young's collection Elegies for a Toy Piano and bangs its keys on private violations as well as larger, historical and economic ones. In Young's title poem, dedicated to Kenneth Koch, the absurd business of being a poet is exfoliated.
Because of the sores in his mouth,
the great poet struggles with a dumpling.
His work has enlarged the world
but the world is about to stop including him.
He is the tower the world runs out of.
When something becomes ash,
there's nothing you can do to turn it back.
About this, even diamonds do not lie.
Hoagland's poem identifies its psyche landscape differently the way many famous poet friends' landscapes overlap, but have different landmarks. Hoagland's offers rejections to several requests for what could be played, but ends with the image of flowers again, an image that recurs in his work, the incongruity of beauty on the edge of its own demise.
No, I must play the one about the single yellow daffodil
standing on my kitchen table
whose cut stem draws the water upwards
so the plant is flushed with the conviction
that the water has been sent
to find it and raise it up
from somewhere so deep inside the earth
not even the flowers can remember.
Is Tony a racist? Oh, good folk on both sides and multiple skin types have had something to say on this ...
In Young, it's toy pianos and ponies and peach pits. Hoagland parries with ducks which leads to Palestine which leads to love which leads to credit cards which leads to the sorry economics of flowers, his answer to the evocation in Young's poem of the sorry economics of diamonds. What wonderful banging the two do together, what a pas de duex of poetry, but the strategy in the Hoagland poem is parry the innocent with the starkly serious, and then to turn this about in the closing of the poem; when he has the requester come on board with his concern about what is serious in the world, he shifts back to the seeming innocence of what is lost being re-found: what is marvelous in the simple, what is, simply, marvelous.
Yet Hoagland's recent preoccupation with the larger and complex world appears to have its seeds in his earliest work, but has found an audience, though a sometimes snarling one, in the more recent poems. In the poem, "Hinge" first made public in the March/April, 2007 issue of The American Poetry Review, Tony takes on other historical shames, in this case matters of race, specifically the still too sharp boundary between Black and White America, a boundary perhaps all the more confounding as the notion of race and racial conditionalities has grown wider in the last decade, but Tony takes it on. The poem, along with a couple of others, started a bit of an Internet storm, and was the subject of great debate at the famous Bread Loaf Writers Conference, 2007. Is Tony a racist? Oh, good folk on both sides and multiple skin types have had something to say on this, but the sticking point seems to be the inability of some to pay close attention to the poem all the way through. It is the closing tercet that collects this poem into the emotional weave that is signature Hoagland.
The merchant raising a tiny oil can, and tilting it
to squeeze three drops
into the hinge to keep it quiet.
What is hidden, what is forgotten, what the poet, what the poet along with his compatriots in the habit of art won't ignore, won't avert their gaze from. Here, it is the shame of exploitation and of the commodification of human beings, the building of an empire on the backs of bodies, and here, specifically, with a woman on her back, and the ways in which we become comfortable with how we have storified such things, claimed our roles in them. How we are revealed, a la a Flannery O'Connor-esque moment of grace (in this case when the "African-American Professor" discovers his genetic makeup while being taped for TV), in our camouflages, and in our various shames. The poet indicts himself in the merchant's night escapades, in the keeping of things, over time, quiet, and yet, Hoagland's poems, the parrying with Dean Young, are efforts not to avert the eye.
What the poet hears is the world humming about him, the details of which are normally ignored, falling into the great unsynthesized manifold, but here synthesized in the poet's close attention.
What other living poet, not on drugs and making decent wages, could pull off the line, in the aforementioned issue of APR "and I look at her demure little asshole," followed by the tonally juxtaposed line, "and am sorry I didn't spend more time with it" in the poem titled "Visitation
"? It's a kind of tone on tone texture, a paint can that's mixed humor and tenderness, and, too, a little bit of bitter. It might be that drop of nostalgic bitter that makes us willing not to flinch. In another of the poems in the eleven in that APR issue, "Lost Keys
," after the setting and occasion for the poem has been established, a restaurant, post dinner, lost car keys, the speaker says, "Maybe our silence was the smotheredness/that sometimes follows a mistake/but the quiet gave us the chance to hear…" What the poet hears is the world humming about him, the details of which are normally ignored, falling into the great unsynthesized manifold, but here synthesized in the poet's close attention. Later in the poem, the speaker says, "I could feel the moment turning into story…" and then the discovery that the lost keys are in a damnable inaccessible, ironic place: the car's ignition, "shining like a star."
Who the companion was doesn't matter; it could have been Dean or Kathy or Marie or any one, but in this case, the blame goes to Jason, but there is the sense that we're all in this together, locking our stupid keys in the car or using the moment to descend into poet-mind which is a kind of no-mind, the zone, the habitual state of art, pained and pain-producing, but cleansing like an infected wound (such as that lanced in Hinge) poked until it oozes satisfactorily, mesmerizing now that the pressure is off, no longer the potential cause for an amputation.
The first of the Hoagland poems in that APR was the earnest and earnestly ironic "I Have News For You" which begins "There are people who do not see a broken playground swing/as a symbol of ruined childhood…" and continues through a series of descriptions of what people "unlike me and you" don't see or intuit. The you here is not identified; it could be Dean or Jason, but it sure enough includes all of us serious readers and writers of poetry, the "deep feelers." And here the angst and burden of being a public, professional poet is keenly felt.
I have news for you:
there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room
and open a window to let the sweet breeze in
and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies.
The sexual metaphors have given way to sensual revelation, and the frog evokes the prince that usually only girls are asked to kiss ...
The doubleness of the poem is part of its pleasure, and it requires the self-indictment of the poet/speaker in order to not offend, to shift the reveal into a higher gear: we all ache, even those of us who have cultivated this addiction to poetry as a way of surviving the hurt that our intelligence imparts. It is not bitter, but it is a little lonely. Who are all these people the poet suddenly speaks of, a bunch on one side, a bunch on the other? No one's named here; the poet navigates this one without his buddies.
The final poem in the APR grouping, "Nature" is an elegy, not precisely for innocence, but for the moment of the fall, the willingness to tip something up and be surprised. It opens, "I miss the friendship with the pine and the birds/I had when I was ten" locating us in the metaphoric woods of pre-initiation, but why is the poet missing this relationship with the world of nature? Hoagland flirts with us with his sexy metaphors ("I pushed my head/under the wild silk skirt of her waterfall.), but what he misses is that "what [he] had with them was tender and private." No longer possible for the public poet. The poem continues and concludes:
Now I want to turn back the other way
barefoot into the underbrush,
getting raked by thorns, being slapped in the face by branches.
Down to the muddy bed of the little stream
where my cupped hands make a house, and
I tilt up the roof
to look at the face of the frog.
The sexual metaphors have given way to sensual revelation, and the frog evokes the prince that usually only girls are asked to kiss, and yet, here is the sexless frog, all wonder, and surprise, like finding a mouse in your swimming pool, nothing too grand about that, a tiny insertion of the fragile, and your response the only thing in question. Do you lift it with a net and release it? What does the poet do in his discovery that he is both the frog and the witness? The shift from nature being described in female terms to the frog, one that evoked the frog as prince archetype is interesting; many more frogs, oh, so many more, are pithed in labs and biology classes then are ever going to be kissed.
And what happens to those who fall in love? They have, as the famous Francis Bacon quote goes, given hostages to fortune. There is no way to escape grief. And for the poet, and this poet in particular, the web of grief spins out in as many directions as his attention can be turned, in all the tight woof and warp of the landscape he weaves, the shuttle he uses constructed not of wood, but of the poets he stands in line with.
So what is endangered here, lost, that Hoagland's poet/speaker longs to recapture? In his second full length collection, Donkey Gospel
, Hoagland's poem "Honda Pavarotti
" illustrates his penchant and predilection for odd couplings, for marrying the sacred and the mundane. There in the title, it begins, with smashing together a great operatic singer and the far from sacred idolatry of car culture. In it, Hoagland laments, "…I know I have squandered/most of my own life//in a haze of trivial distractions,/and that I will continue to waste it" (contrary to the James Wright moment that evokes) as if this business of paying close attention, of being a poet is, as suggested in "I've Got News for You
," is a wrenched, mournful vocation. And yet, this poem closes with, "And that dark and soaring fact/" of nowhere the speaker could be going being greater or grander than this private moment alone in the modern 4-wheeled church listening as the "rich flood of the baritone/strains out against the walls of the esophagus," and "is enough to make me renounce the whole world//or fall in love with it forever."
And what happens to those who fall in love? They have, as the famous Francis Bacon quote goes, given hostages to fortune. There is no way to escape grief. And for the poet, and this poet in particular, the web of grief spins out in as many directions as his attention can be turned, in all the tight woof and warp of the landscape he weaves, the shuttle he uses constructed not of wood, but of the poets he stands in line with. Take, for example, "Lawrence" also in Donkey Gospel referring, of course, to the DH most famous for his fiction and, in fact, often ridiculed for his poetry, poems of soulful yearning toward something greater than self. The occasion for the poem is a party and the speaker's consideration of his lack of coming to the defense of Lawrence two separate times – Hoagland always indicts the speaker, hence our willing suspension of raised brow, when, we, his readers, are nailed to the wall again and again for…oh, so many inadequacies. He says, "it's a sorry thing when certain other people/don't defend the great dead ones/who have opened up the world before them." The poem moves through the party, the speaker distant from others, as he is so many times from the generic "other" unless one of the named cohort (Jason, Marie, Dean, etc.) who have proven themselves in some way, until he considers just punching
…someone in the face,
because human beings haven't come that far
in their effort to subdue the body,
and we still walk around like zombies
in our dying, burning world,
able to do little more
than flight, and fuck, and crow:
something Lawrence wrote about
in such a manner
as to make us seem magnificent.
So much of his work concerns itself with illness and the dis-ease of disease.
If it's an achievement to pull off the word "asshole" demure or no, it's even more so to be able to end a poem, in this, the age of the ironic, with the word "magnificent," and we buy it because of so many small moves: the threat of the punch, the party's details, the "fight", "fuck," and "crow." The management of the line between the sacred and the mundane, even profane. Hoagland sublimates irony in the service of beauty.
And perhaps that is because he understands the betrayal of the physical, the body in particular. So much of his work concerns itself with illness and the dis-ease of disease. Yet it's the effort to shuck out what is magnificent, such as in the poem "Beauty" that considers the poet's sister's experience of illness and the treatments that ravage us.
My sister just stood still for thirty seconds,
amazed by what was happening,
then shrugged and tossed her shaggy head
as if she were throwing something out,
something she had carried a long ways,
but had no use for anymore,
not that it had no use for her.
That, too, was beautiful.
This is a recurring theme for Hoagland, and appeared in his first book, Sweet Ruin. In the poem, "Threshold" the speaker describes an old woman on a check out line, "When I see the thick blue cable of a vein," and goes on through liver spots and thinning hair, averring "…to make sure," "I check the way…" "I make certain…" "then I know…" what he sees and what the accrual of these bodily diminishments means. The speaker says he is
…standing in the presence of the stain
of death on life,
and I hold still and inhale deeply
as if mortality
were a kind of fancy French perfume.
Perfume, fancy French no less, is jammed against the image of the elderly woman, causing a kind of torque in the reader's mind, so the Madonna, whore, hag trinity historically applied to the phases of female life become joined, again the obsession with the ugly in the beautiful, the beautifully ugly, a kind of perversion and paganism of the perceptions.
Tony Hoagland's brush with another world is the world within this one, the foreign lands of body, self, family, country. The moment is both full of loneliness and possibility.
In the title poem, Hoagland reveals the sins of the father he assimilates and transmutes. In "Sweet Ruin
" the father has allowed his adultery to be discovered "because he wanted to live" even though this involved a "joyful kind of dread." The speaker is not exactly forgiving, but he understands the trajectory, senses in himself that "there is always the desire" which, for right or wrong, is why he "would/break [his] happiness apart/simply for the pleasure of the sound." Even on the most sunlit day, there is "always the cloud, suddenly present/and willing to oblige."
And yet Hoagland knows the value of riding his many razors' edges. In the poem, "The Word" sunlight appears on the speaker's To-do list, and "resting on the page, the word/is beautiful. It touches you/as if you had a friend." The introduction of light though he claims the importance of the cloud is another example of his long term affair with paradox and incongruity, the hooking together of strange chain-links. Where sunlight appears on a list that includes thread and cruciferous vegetables, personal relationships and the collective relationship of statehood are bedfellows as well, beginning in Sweet Ruin, when the speaker reveals, "When I think of what I know about America,/I think of kissing my best friend's wife" in the poem "My Country."
Later poems, such as "Hinge" and "America," the latter famous for the unforgettable image of a Jacuzzi full of boiling ballpeen hammers, both bringing the online poetry blog and forum buzz to a boil, interrogate this early impulse to conflate the private and public. Across his published work, Hoagland has flayed the body, embraced the thorn, admonished his own habit of art as insufficient, praised it as insufferably necessary, poked into the broken teeth of family history, and eye-balled up close the larger historicities with which he's called to concern himself.
Tony Hoagland's brush with another world is the world within this one, the foreign lands of body, self, family, country. The moment is both full of loneliness and possibility. In "Maestria" (an homage to Ezra Pound), Nemerov writes, "there remains/A singular lucidity and sweetness, a way/Of relating the light and the shade" the confluence of which is where Hoagland's poems grow best, not quite in full sun, not in a luminous night-garden either. The work "sings itself out to the end,/ And like a running stream which purifies itself/ It leaves behind the mortality of its maker,/ Who has the skill of his art, and a trembling hand."
The bitterness of "sunset like a burning wagon train" gives way to the discomfiting self-knowledge that "in one of the chapters I was blinded by love/and in another anger" as if he were speaking about his own development as a poet.
This trembling hand is clear in the closing poems of all four of Hoagland's published works. In Sweet Ruin
, "A Change in Plans
" begins "It's tiring, this endless revision," and ends with reptiles evolving into birds: "Remember how the reptiles/after generations of desire/to taste the yellow flowers,/thrust out their wings one day and lifted from the ground?/Being birds by that time, their appetites had changed./But they kept on flying."
This notion of evolution, of transmutation, returns in the final poem, "Totally" in "Donkey Gospel"which sympathizes with the "dividedness" that "makes our species great" and brings into confluence Darwin and Keats in the same stanza. It closes with, "but me, I have this strange conviction/that I am going to be born."
Born into what? Or continuing in a state of trembling curiosity about the many varieties of life's grief and pleasure? "Time Wars" closes shut the collection, What Narcissism Means to Me with the collision of personal and cultural mortality, the exquisite and funny awareness that "the sun came 93 million miles/to make these flowers that I killed…" while considering more ancestors of this addiction to art-making, Virginia Woolf and how "endearing" is the "mixture of weather report and vanity" in something she'd written about how her work was perceived by the public. The poet-speaker, though, is no longer an "I" at the close of this poem, but a "we," what they're not thinking about, what they want.
What we want is to calm time down, to get time in a good mood,
to make time feel wanted.
We just want to give time many homemade gifts,
covered with fingerprints and kisses.
Here, the early wise-voiced young poet of Sweet Ruin speaks in the metaphors of innocence, of childhood – fingerprints evoke fingerpaint, and the kisses one might plant all over the mother who's made cookies with you on a grey afternoon. In Hard Rain the tone closes more harshly in the poem "Voyage" and the poet speaks of finding himself "in a novel without a moral but one in which/all the characters who died in the middle chapters/make the sunsets near the book's end more beautiful." Here, the tongue is so sharp it nearly cuts the page. The bitterness of "sunset like a burning wagon train" gives way to the discomfiting self-knowledge that "in one of the chapters I was blinded by love/and in another anger" as if he were speaking about his own development as a poet. Again, late, the first person gives way to what the "we" is uncovering, discovering on the journey.
The sea was no longer a metaphor.
The book was no longer a book.
That was the plot.
That was our marvelous punishment.
From Sweet Ruin to Hard Rain (the cover of which reads PLEASURE in the neon of a carnival ride), Hoagland holds a trembling hand to his internal ear, listening, listening, but like a reptile himself, he is also a creature of taste, and the work begun by appreciating the sweet, has changed as he's acquired a taste for bitter. Like chocolate, the best of his poems contain both, find a balance between flavors, the tolerable edge. Tony Hoagland's most recent poems are our marvelous punishment.
It is easy to think, in comparison to such heavy source, rich, smothering human soil, that the work of contemporary poets, such as Tony Hoagland, might just be lighter fare. This is untrue.
To marvel is to wonder; if something is marvelous it causes a kind of astonishment. Adam Zagajewski's famous poem, "Try to Praise the Mutilated World
," published in The New Yorker
right after 911, looks with wonder and astonishment at a world in which very many bad things happen, 911 not least of it; this poet writes out of a rich tradition of Polish poetry in which there is no division between the personal and the political. They are locked in a helix, the genetic map of which is seemingly unknowable: what lies at the heart of human behavior that causes exiles, refugees, executioners. It is easy to think, in comparison to such heavy source, rich, smothering human soil, that the work of contemporary poets, such as Tony Hoagland, might just be lighter fare. This is untrue.
Hoagland's oeuvre explores the betrayals of body, of self, in relationships, in economics and cultures and races and nations.
Where Zagajewski's poem begs us to "Praise the mutilated world/and the grey feather a thrush lost,/and the gentle light that strays and vanishes/and returns," the poems in Hoagland's Hard Rain ask us to think "about dialectical materialism at the supermarket," and how "convenience can turn/into a kind of trouble you never wanted." Hoagland has seen how the body can hurt, how women can, how friendships fail, and a culture turns in on itself like an immune system waging war on the body, like the lover who bites too hard; he courts the grayness of the cloud, and he's sorry, suddenly, for all of us, but knows we deserve what we get. His father, in Sweet Ruin, was as close to forgiven as a poet can profer, but we are, in Hard Rain, breathing, with the poet, "the oxygen of memory," all of us complicit, the poet right at the head of the parade, in a culture of greed as in his poem of the same title. And still, there he is, in "Visitation" bearing it all, the incongruity, the loss, the pleasures. He's "like an angel/drifting over the face of the earth,/brushing its meadows and forests/with the tips of [his] wings,/with wonder and regret and affection."
Luckily, there'll be another dinner party, more friends, a moment requiring storification. You're invited along, with hugs and kisses. The favor of a response is not requested.