R.I.P. Tony Hoagland (1953-2018) – Second in a Series

American poet and professor Tony Hoagland (1953-2018). Teaching at the University of Houston. Photo Credit: Michael Paulson, Houston Chronicle


So much depends

a red multi-

glazed with
tax credits

beside the white

Tony Hoagland (1953-2018) from Application for Release from the Dream, Graywolf Press, 2015

Ah, Tony. Your 24/7 gumption. In this example, to take perhaps one of the best-known of American poems of the past one hundred years (The Red Wheelbarrow by W.S. Williams) and turn it into a piece of political commentary! That was you. Always poking cultural complacency with it’s own cultural jargon and accessories. Using familiar words but turning them into smelling salts. Using laughter to catch us up after with an Oh God, yes, or an Oh God, no. All these poetic wake up calls!

In this poem Update I particularly like the use of the echo with Williams’s poem in the last two lines. Willams: beside the white chickens. Hoagland: beside the white politicians. And with the slant rhyme between chickens and politicians what a great juxtaposition: politicians and chickens.

Oh Tony, I miss you! Your barbed wit. For those not so familiar with Tony he was the author of seven full-length poetry collections and two collections of essays on poetry and writing. He also wrote a forceful essay in September  in The Sun Magazine on diversity in hospitals from the perspective of a cancer patient. Tony died of pancreatic cancer in October 2018.

I am a great fan of the African/American poet Tim Seibles. And I think of Tim Seibles when I read Tony Hoagland. I hear Seibles’s words from his foreword to Buffalo Head Solos published in 2004:

What the hell happened to the notion of poet as town crier, rabble rouser, court jester, priestess, visionary madman?….Writing poems in SUV-America can feel like fiddling amidst catastrophe, but if one must fiddle shouldn’t one play that thing until it smokes? And, in stirring the words with our tongues, our paws, our long nights, and the smoldering tangle of our brains, maybe we could move our general kin to listen.

Well, I think Hoagland was a town crier, a rabble rouser! And his was not what Seibles calls hobbled poetry – a poetry that doesn’t want to be too conspicuous, a poetry that knows its place, that doesn’t mean to trouble the water, that is always decorous and never stomps in with bad breath and plaid boots. Hoagland’s poems had lots of bad breath and wore a lot of plaid boots. Lots of ouches! Like the ones in this next poem:

Hard Rain

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,

nothing we can't turn into a soft-drink flavor or a t-shirt.
Even serenity can become something horrible
if you make a commercial about it
using smiling, white-haired people

quoting Thoreau to sell retirement homes
in the Everglades, where the swamp has been
drained and bulldozed into a nineteen-hole golf course
with electrified alligator barriers. 

"You can't keep beating yourself up, Billy,"
I heard the therapist say on television
                         to the teenage murderer,
"about all those people you killed—
You just have to be the best person you can be,
                           one day at a time—"

And everybody in the audience claps and weeps a little, 
because the level of deep feeling has been touched,
and they want to believe that 
the power of Forgiveness is greater
than the power of Consequence, or History.

Dear Abby:
My father is a businessman who travels.
Each time he returns from one of his trips,
his shoes and trousers
     are covered with blood—
but he never forgets to bring me a nice present;
Should I say something?
                         Signed, America.

I used to think I was not part of this,
that I could mind my own business and get along,

but that was just another song
that had been taught to me since birth—

whose words I was humming under my breath,
as I was walking through the Springdale Mall.

Tony Hoagland from Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, Graywolf Press, 2010

Our consumer culture is a favorite target of Hoagland’s. That’s clear in this poem. But what is also clear is Hoagland’s complicity. He too, is caught in its thrall. And that’s what makes him so searing and believable. And in this poem the Dear Abby letter is what cuts me off at the knees. The wars we are all complicit in. The deaths we indirectly finance. America as a father coming home with blood on his cuffs. Ouch.

In the poem below I am struck by Hoagland’s deft hand. How he argues with a character in the poem only to later admit: I am asleep in America too. Brings the poem into a sharper and more poignant focus. And as always the vintage Hoagland humour: Which was when I knew it was a dream, since my dad/ Would never speak in rhymed couplets.And I like the SUV reference which ties back so well to Seibles comment about writing poems in SUV America!


Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud
Says that America is for him a maximum-security prison

Whose walls are made of RadioShacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes
Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials,

And as I consider how to express how full of shit I think he is,
He says that even when he’s driving to the mall in his Isuzu

Trooper with a gang of his friends, letting rap music pour over them
Like a boiling Jacuzzi full of ballpeen hammers, even then he feels

Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds
Of the thick satin quilt of America

And I wonder if this is a legitimate category of pain,
or whether he is just spin doctoring a better grade,

And then I remember that when I stabbed my father in the dream last night,
It was not blood but money

That gushed out of him, bright green hundred-dollar bills
Spilling from his wounds, and—this is the weird part—,

He gasped “Thank god—those Ben Franklins were
Clogging up my heart—

And so I perish happily,
Freed from that which kept me from my liberty”—

Which was when I knew it was a dream, since my dad
Would never speak in rhymed couplets,

And I look at the student with his acne and cell phone and phony ghetto clothes
And I think, “I am asleep in America too,

And I don’t know how to wake myself either,”
And I remember what Marx said near the end of his life:

“I was listening to the cries of the past,
When I should have been listening to the cries of the future.”

But how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable
Or what kind of nightmare it might be

When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you
And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river

Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters

And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher?

Tony Hoagland, from What Narcissism Means to Me, Graywolf Press, 2003

Here is Tim Seibles again from Buffalo Head Solos:

These are rough days. Desperate times. Times when our language is publicly tortured and forced to mean so much less than it means. There must be a way to stop this dying, a way to make a literature that does more: a poetry with the kiss of a shark and the feet of a sparrow, a poetry at intervals beautiful then ruthless, frank but full of quickening delusions.

I celebrate the literature Tony Hoagland made in his far too brief time here. I celebrate his poems that had the kiss of a shark and the feet of a sparrow.

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