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.

Pushcart XLIII: Tony Hoagland, “Into the Mystery” (poem) from The Sun #500

Of course there is a time of afternoon, out there in the yard,
an hour that has never been described.
There is the way the warm air feels
among the flagstones and the tropical plants
                                                                                with their dark, leathery green leaves.
There is a gap you never noticed,
dug out between the gravel and the rock, where something lives.
There is a bird that can only be heard by someone
who has come to be alone.
Now you are getting used to things that will not be happening again.

Complete poem available online at The Sun

I always approach the poetry in this volume with a touch of anxiety, since I have little background in poetics. This poem was doubly intimidating, since I was aware that Tony Hoagland died a few months ago. He has appeared on these pages before, and I wanted to do him justice. I also wondered if the poem was prescient, or, for that matter, if all the poems in his last volume from which this comes, Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God, were likely written with an awareness of time. Maybe, maybe not. He’s known for including humor in his poetry; Meryl Natchez describes his work as having “a wry tone, a genius for the appropriate detail, and an underlying sadness about the state of the world” in her review for ZYZZYVA. There is a sense of living in the moment in the content of the poem, a relaxation of the compulsion to analyze.

Ironic, then, that I should, by listening to the audio of Hoagland reading his work, that I should be lead to analyze, and in so doing, increase my appreciation of the poem (which is, of course, the only purpose of poetic analysis, or should be, right?).

I more clearly noticed anaphora in the opening lines: the four lines beginning with “there is a [x]”, followed by the line about getting used to things that will not be happening again. The poetic structure strengthens the poignancy of the moment as he lists what will not be happening again, and I wonder anew if this was written with foreknowledge that it would be the last poem of his last volume on this earth.

But the biggest revelation came with the last lines of the poem:

Now you sit on the brick wall in the cloudy afternoon and swing your legs,
happy because there never has been a word for this,
as you continue moving through these days and years
where more and more the message is
                                                                                not to measure anything.

The poem has, until these last two lines (and let’s call them two, at least for the moment) been fairly unmetered, or mixed-metered, as far as I can tell. But in the poet’s reading, I suddenly heard a very strong /x/ pattern over and over in those last few lines. Warning: I’m venturing onto shaky ground, please be merciful in your judgments. But one way to think of it is like this:

The first line is strict iambic hexameter, the meter of Homeric epic, of the Iliad and Odyssey, stories of long battles and longer journeys home, for a line about moving through the days and years.

Then comes a combined line that begs to be the same, except… there’s a missing unstressed syllable between “is” and “not”, where, coincidentally, the line break occurs; the line break can be seen as replacing the unstressed syllable. The meter, literally the measurement of poetry, breaks down, just as we’re advised not to measure anything, a lovely example of form matching content.

I also played around with the cretic foot, a three-syllable pattern of strong-weak-strong, since that was the rhythm I heard most clearly in Hoagland’s reading. But that gets complicated, since it requires dropping some leading unstressed syllables. But it was tempting reading, since the cretic foot is most often seen in Greek paeans; this poem could be seen as a song in praise of the unnamed, a celebration of the unmeasured. It doesn’t hurt that the Annie Hall “la-di-da” is given as an example of the cretic foot. But in the end, Occam’s razor would favor the prior reading.

It’s also interesting – and this is something I would never have noticed, had I not needed to figure it out for formatting in this blog – that both indents are 80 spaces, not related to the lines that precede the indents. I don’t see any content relationship between the two lines, but it’s a whimsical touch that the line “not to measure anything” is, indeed, measured on the page.

In spite of my initial anxiety, I had a great deal of fun looking at this poem. As someone rather obsessed with measuring, getting things right, never being wrong, I think maybe I should listen to the words more, relax a little, and live in the moment. Sometimes the moment gives you a much better sense of things than any measurement.

Pushcart XL: Tony Hoagland, “Song for Picking Up” (poem) from The Sun, #461

Every time that something falls
someone is consigned to pick it up.
Every time it drops and rolls into a crack,
blows out the window of the car
or down onto the dirty restaurant floor
— a plastic bag, a paper clip, a cube of cheese
                                                                     from the buffet —
there somebody goes, down upon
                                                               their hands and knees.
What age are you when you learn that?

~~ Complete poem available online at The Sun

It’s not just the image of someone on hands and knees – a deeply rich symbol, being down on one’s knees – that makes this powerful. It’s not just the reminder that moms and janitors pick up after us (and, by the way, they could be one and the same). It’s not just that we need reminding sometimes, that whenever we make a mess – whether it’s throwing strawberry hulls on the sidewalk, or trapping the vulnerable into no-win mortgages or drone-bombing some country that has despots and assassins but also farmers and babies and grandmothers just trying to survive – that mess will need cleaning up. We can clean it up ourselves, or we can just walk away knowing it will be cleaned up some day by someone, though perhaps not in a way we like, and maybe in a way that’s worse than the original mess.

It’s all that, this poem is, but it’s more because of that last stanza that snapped me to attention:

After that, then, no more easy litter. No more towels
on the hotel bathroom floor. You bend over
for even tiny bits of paper,
or, bitterly, you look back at your life — like Cain
upon the body of his brother.

Cain is another of those deeply-rich symbols, like being down on your knees. And, like knee symbology, we have many ways to go with it. Bended knee can refer to worship, to fornication, to the romance of “Will you marry me” or to hard, dirty labor, but all have their roots in subservience. We can dissect the mark of Cain as a symbol of evil or as a protective measure, see him as the bearer of evil into the world or look at him through the lens of forgiveness and atonement (I’m taking a mooc about the Talmud at the moment, and we just had a great discussion about the Jewish concept of T’shuvah, which, in my elementary understanding, encompasses concepts of atonement, forgiveness, and return from exile). He didn’t clean up his own mess, and look what happened.

But why should Cain be bitter? He was the cause, not the victim. Maybe, even causes suffer. Maybe even Cain deserves compassion. Now I’ve got a rabbit hole to explore.

It’s even possible some damn fools will come along and try to proclaim the mess to be the way it should be: embrace the mess. Watch out for those people. Chances are, they sell the mess, but never have to step in it.

Take-home: Imagine your mom on hands and knees picking up the mess you’re thinking about leaving behind. Makes it easier to live neatly.