Tony Hoagland, Twenty Poems That Could Save America (Graywolf, 2014)

…[T]his book begins with a generalist essay on American poetic diction, and it ends with a broad exhortation for poetry’s relevance and vitality in our country’s school systems. In between, not so hidden among other appreciations and critiques, I find, to my own surprise, a recurring complaint about the lack of adulthood represented in much new American poetry. The presence of this theme surprises me because I am an ardent believer in poetical irreverence, spontaneity, informality, and subversion of decorum – qualities not usually associated with maturity.
Though it was not a conscious agenda in writing these essays, I nonetheless stand by my complaint. I believe that poetry has a role to play in contemporary American culture, and that it has lately retreated from that risk, that faith, and that opportunity. …The avant-garde continues to make its dubious claims of political credentials; the uber-theorists and technicians create their Rubik’s cubes of difficulty; and the charming but superficial disco-dance of Personality has crowded into the verbal foreground of many poems, displacing the enterprise of sustained thought, emotional intensity, ethical agency, and even subject matter itself.

Tony Hoagland, Preface

One of the poems I very much enjoyed in the last Pushcart was Hoagland’s “Into the Mystery”. I’m always looking for ways to improve my embarrassingly low poetry reading ability, so when I saw this collection of essays on contemporary poetry, I jumped at it.

Some of the essays review poetic techniques: diction, something he calls poetic housing, and composite poems. Others look at individual poets: Sharon Olds, Robert Bly. Others talk about specific categories of poetry: the New York School, spiritual poems. And the title essay, saved for last, bemoans the teaching of poetry and makes some suggestions for a core curriculum, and what life lessons that curriculum might teach.

Hoagland is critical of a great deal of contemporary poetry, seeing it as populist and fun but not really poetically significant. This made me feel a little less forlorn about my constant refrain of “I don’t know what to say about this” every year as I work through Pushcart. Maybe it isn’t entirely my incompetence; maybe the poems just don’t use what I’m able to recognize.

He takes some swipes at Big Guns, dismissing Steven’s “Emperor of Ice Cream”, though the poet finds redemption in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Hey, Paul Simon got pissed off whenever anyone requested “59th Street Bridge Song” (aka “Feeling Groovy”) and more people know Bobby McFerrin for “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” than any of the truly brilliant genre-spanning work he has done; an occasional trip to Goofytown doesn’t define one’s art.

He’s also rather negative about John Ashbery, who I just struggled with but still feel fondly towards, as he was a mainstay of ModPo:

What’s missing from [John Ashbery’s] Marivaudage and many other such textual experiments, are two related poetic values: emphasis and reciprocity. Without a discernible emphasis, without some hint of authorial allegiance assigned to some moments in the poem over others, we cannot begin the process of response. We need to be able to identify what and where the stakes are in a poem ; where the gravity, or weight, is located. …Without such a stake or declaration, regardless of style, the poem will lack substance.
Similarly, without a reciprocal relationship between a poem and a reader, that is, a relationship that deepens through responsiveness and rereading, one of the most basic reasons for poetry has been inexplicably abandoned. At that point, virtuosity, verbal facility, and intelligence are beside the point. If the poem does not need the reader, the reader does not need the poem.

My problem is, I can’t tell if what I determine is a lack of emphasis is my problem, or the poet’s. For example: in the “Poetic Housing” chapter, he talks at length about two poems by Jean Follet, and while I come away with greater appreciation for them after reading his remarks, I don’t think I would be able to apply anything new to future reading. His housing checklist…

What kind of poem is this?
How big is the whole?
Where is the center? What is the central element?
Am I reading for sound, sense, story, or image?
Is this image centrally significant?
What is the general perspective or tone?
What are the extraneous or secondary parts?

…tempts me greatly, but I’m not sure what the questions mean, or if I would be able to answer any of them in regard to any new poem. And that’s the issue, isn’t it; each poem needs to be approached on its own, and any greatness therein can take any number of forms. So many people – poets, mostly, I guess – seem to have this instinct for grasping what is significant in a poem; it’s usually fairly subjective, described by words like “powerful” or “nimble” or involves images that resonate or contrast, or uses languages in ways that “uplift” or “disorient”. I seem to have lost the rule book for what is powerful, uplifting, etc. At one point he rewrites one of Follet’s poems to make it a “lesser” poem, and I have no idea if I’d be able to tell which was which in a blind test.

The final essay proposes that poetry, the right poetry, teaches all sorts of useful things: “the ethical nature of choice…. respects solitude…. stimulates daring…. rehabilitates language…. rehearse the future.… aesthetics of broad application.” This essay appeared in the April 2013 online edition of Harper’s, but poetry was already being cast in the wastebin in favor of more marketable skills. There were periods of Chinese history during which applicants for government jobs had to display poetic proficiency, but that was a long time ago. His main point in this final piece is that the wrong poetry is being taught badly, mostly by teachers who are insecure about poetry themselves.

Addendum: As I was deleting my notes for this post, I realized I’d left out something important regarding “poetry teaches the ethical nature of choice” – not something important about poetry, but about the highly romanticized vision Hoagland seems to have of our legislative process. As an illustration of this particular poetic effect, he asks his reader to imagine a Congressional committee meeting in which legislators are discussing a bill that involves short-term results or long-term gain. One lawmaker quotes “Travelling Through the Dark” by William Stafford; the committee discusses the two points of view, and a couple of minds are changed on what to do with the bill. First, any representative/Senator who discusses poetry in a committee meeting would be shamed mercilessly for all time. Second, maybe he thought it was different in 2013 when he wrote this piece – I don’t think so, not at all – but it’s my impression that legislators decide their positions on bills depending on a) reactions of campaign donors, and b) effects on re-election polls; every other brain cell is devoted to crafting an explanation in the face of pretty much any objection how that position is right. Bless Hoagland for his naivete. But it’s the kind of “application of Poetry” that further distances the art from any real purpose.

In my mooc travels among mathematicians (will I ever learn integral calculus, differential equations, or continuous probability? I doubt it) I’ve heard many stories about how awful it is to announce oneself as a math teacher and immediately get a response of, “I HATED math!” Hey, try telling people you’re a poet, or teacher of poetry. I’m guessing at least as many people hate poetry as math, and just like in algebra class, the problem isn’t necessarily the subject but the approach to teaching it. The objective in many English classes is to get the answer right on a test, not to feel anything or see anything new in a poem. And for that matter, history is another subject ruined by high school; we come out of it with names and dates (if we’re lucky) and have no idea how things came to pass. I wonder if our present predicament combines all three deficiencies.

Hoagland died last year, so there will be no more poems from him; yet his words can still speak to us. I enjoyed this collection, even though I’m dubious I can apply it; I want to get a used copy for my next trip through Pushcart. I don’t know that it will help, but at least it might give me some encouragement.

I picked a very bad time to read this volume. I’d already packed my books for my move, so I went through the list of library books I’d marked, and picked this rather randomly. I should’ve picked one of the easy-reading fictions, because my concentration has been horrible, and time has been an issue. I’m still not back to reading-weight, let alone writing-weight, but it’s time to start working out.

6 responses to “Tony Hoagland, Twenty Poems That Could Save America (Graywolf, 2014)

  1. Hi Karen!

    Just the title of the book rubs me the wrong way. Why not twenty recipes, chain saws, or bras? Twenty Bras That Could Save America. Wouldn’t you want to know? I can’t recall now, but I think this is one of several books or essays in the last few years that has opened with the “Why Poetry Matters—And It Really Does” argument.


    And 25 years later, the Atlantic again:

    It’s only in 2018 that we hear that Poetry is suddenly popular again, but check out the headline:

    “Poetry is more popular than ever – but not all poets are happy about it”

    All the old guard, who have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for their day in the sun, for their brilliance (and weighty contributions to the history of poetry) to *finally* be recognized, discover that a bunch of snot-nosed kids writing “Instapoems” (heavy quotes) are selling books by the millions. This isn’t exactly what they had in mind.

    I can’t quit laughing. Every time I think about it.

    Like you, I appreciate that Hoagland doesn’t pay lip service to the anointed ones (like Ashbery); but if your extract is representative of the rest of Haogland’s book, his writing sounds insufferable. What a lot of fuss, verbosity and academese to simply say: Ashbery doesn’t write about anything. Why is it that so many poets and readers of poetry are constitutionally unable to write lucid prose? I recently picked up a book by James Matthew Wilson “The Fortune of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking”, and it was so full of academese and pomposity as to be unreadable.

    You write:

    ” And that’s the issue, isn’t it; each poem needs to be approached on its own, and any greatness therein can take any number of forms.”

    To which William Logan responds:

    “If we took poets at their own valuation and judged them by their own methods, every scribbler would be a genius.”

    I’m of the mind that while anyone can like any poem for any reason, that doesn’t make the poem a good poem. It only makes it a poem that that person likes. A good poem has a quality that it shares with other good poems, and that makes it liked by many.

    • Hi Patrick – nice to see you around these parts! It’s been a while.

      First, let me emphasize that you shouldn’t assume anything about the book based on my post. I put some disclaimers in there, but let me underline them: I’m distracted, tired, a nervous wreck, and I wouldn’t depend on this post as an accurate representation of anything. I hope to refer back to it when Pushcart time comes around in January.

      “Just the title of the book rubs me the wrong way. Why not twenty recipes, chain saws, or bras? Twenty Bras That Could Save America. Wouldn’t you want to know?”

      I guess the simplest answer is: because it’s a book about poetry, written by a poet? Maybe a fashion designer should write that book about bras. No doubt it’d be a best seller, depending on the designer.But seriously, you know very well that poetry is in a different category than physical objects. Recipes actually might come closer to invoking the emotional, cognitive, and spiritual potentials that poetry strives for. As for the title – well, I’ve read enough “Best American Short Stories” and “Best of the Small Presses’ (Pushcart) to know these claims come with their own disclaimers, often articulated in prefaces.

      “All the old guard, who have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for their day in the sun, for their brilliance (and weighty contributions to the history of poetry) to *finally* be recognized, discover that a bunch of snot-nosed kids writing “Instapoems” (heavy quotes) are selling books by the millions. “

      I think there’s something more sinister at work: [wow, I just did a 2-page rant on everything from the University of Alaska and the rich getting us distracted with toys and apps and fun poetry while they screw up the world in the way that profits them most, to the danger of a truly educated populace, and I realized I sound a little crazy. But I think that’s because this is a crazy time.] Anyway, I’ll let it stand at “there’s something more sinister going on here than bruised egos and desire for the spotlight”.

      The William Logan thing – no, I don’t mean every poem is good, I mean, taking Hoagland’s point, some poems focus on image, some on sound, etc. The poem of his I liked did stuff with meter that emphasized meaning, and lthat’s what appealed to me – but there are other poems that appeal to me for other reasons.

      “I’m of the mind that while anyone can like any poem for any reason, that doesn’t make the poem a good poem. It only makes it a poem that that person likes. A good poem has a quality that it shares with other good poems, and that makes it liked by many.”

      Ah, that word “good”. Who decides what is “good”? I’m (slightly) familar with Kantian aesthetics, and for that matter Aristotle’s drama guidelines, and every once in a while I get all up in Edmund Burke’s face about the sublime and how I don’t particularly feel it for the night sky or the Grand Canyon but boy am I awestruck by how life manages to figure out ways to keep living. So do we convene a council to decide what qualities a “good” poem has? Or do we count the number of people who like it? Somewhere along the line, a subjective decision has to be made, and that’s where it gets messy. It’s like the thing we talked about earlier this year: Why did the poet write the poem this way? Your reply was, because that’s how she saw/heard it, that’s how it seemed to him. You can’t score stuff like that. That’s why I’m so frustrated. Give me a scorecard, and clear parameters – not this “the language is fluid” or “harmonious”, but objective measurements on what makes it fluid or harmonious – and we can talk about “good”.

      I wanted to read this book because I liked Hoaglund’s poem, so I thought he might have a point of view that was worth seeing. I’m not sure that happened, but I’m not sure it didn’t. At my stage of reading, I see “good” as either a technique that enhances meaning (as I found in “Into the Mystery”) or some undefinable quality that makes me go “aahhhh”, like I’m falling in love with someone who really shouldn’t appeal to me at all. I’m trying to figure out what everyone else sees as “good”, but it’s not easy.

      I’d love to figure out how to tempt you to do the Pushcart poetry in January. You can hate it all if you want. Jake, my blogging buddy, only does the fiction (though I’m going to try to tempt him, too – a regular serpent I am these days) so I’d love someone to bounce ideas off of. How about it?

      Hope your summer’s been pleasant. I keep hearing about horrible heat waves – we’ve been very lucky so far. Tomorrow will be the first really nasty hot day. This new apartment of mine has been doing very well so far at allowing me to stay reasonably cool, we’ll see what it does tomorrow. And of course then there’s winter. But I’ve got tons of sweaters to wear, and cold doesn’t upset me the way heat does.

  2. I’m going to read this book now that you’ve reviewed it. I think you know my history, how I went to grad school to be a poet and quickly shifted to fiction because I didn’t read a poem in over a year from anybody that I thought was about anything. This book might not be perfect, but I like that it exists. I like that just this blog post exists. And you did it while still buried in your own stuff!

    • lol, I hope you’re not disappointed, because given my state of mind, it might be completely different from what I’ve said about it. Hey, any way I can get you to consider doing the poetry in Pushcart next year? I know your schedule is going to be tight, but maybe you can squeeze in a couple? If nothing else, we can go “What the hell is this?” over and over again as poems float over our heads.

  3. Hi Karen, I hope your move is going (has gone??!!) as well as possible. I fear the heat wave may be approaching you . . . sorry! (Not that I have any control over the weather, beyond trying my best to help stop all the damage already done to our poor planet.) I don’t have a blog or I’d offer to comment on the Pushcart poetry in January – I had three fabulous poet-mentors in school (Carrie Etter, Tim Liardet, & Caron Freeborn) from whom I learned almost everything I know about poetry. I promise I’ll leave comments after your/ Jake’s/ Patrick’s blog posts in January! Cheers, Louise

    • Hi Louise – hey, that’d be great, no need for your own blog, just read stuff and put in your two cents, point out what I’ve missed or any aspect that matters to you, as always. It’s so helpful to me to see other points of view, especially on poetry, but also on stories.
      I’m almost done with all the moving stuff – even have my books shelved. Now I’m in the putting-furniture-together phase now (if there isn’t some kind of freelance furniture-putter-together business, there should be, they’d make a fortune). My favorite new hobby is looking out the window; my old window used to overlook a parking garage, but now I have all kinds of things to look at. I’m really quite pleased with how things worked out. Everyone I’ve dealt with has been really great, the movers were wonderful, on time, and came in well under budget, so it’s really gone quite smoothly.
      A lot of people think Maine is terrible because winter lasts 6 months, but I’m happy to trade long winters for short summers! Then again, I’m weird. I think everyone just likes complaining about the weather, whatever it is.

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