Too Soon, Tony, Too Soon – R.I.P. Tony Hoagland (1953-2018) – Poet as Wounded Citizen

American Poet, Teacher and Essayist, Tony Hoagland (1953-2018)

At the Galleria

Just past the bin of pastel baby socks and underwear,
there are some 49-dollar Chinese-made TVs;

one of them singing news about a far-off war,
one comparing the breast size of an actress

from Hollywood to the breast size
of an actress from Bollywood.

And here is my niece Lucinda,
who is nine and a daughter of Texas,

who has developed the flounce of a pedigreed blonde
and declares that her favorite sport is shopping.

Today is the day she embarks upon her journey,
swinging a credit card like a scythe

through the meadows of golden merchandise.
Today is the day she stops looking at faces,

and starts assessing the price of purses;
So let it begin. Let her be dipped in the dazzling bounty

and raised and wrung out again and again.
And let us watch.

As the gods in olden stories
turned mortals into laurel trees and crows
                           to teach them some kind of lesson,

so we were turned into Americans
to learn something about loneliness.

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

This blog post is the first in what will be a series. A series remembering and honouring the fabulous and inappropriately-so-appropriate American poet Tony Hoagland, who died this past October aged 64. Too damn soon Hoagland. Too damn soon! With love I say damn you for going so soon!

After reading Hoagland’s remarkable essay in the December issue of the Writer’s Chronicle, parts of which, I have copied below, I now think of his poems as remarkable CO2 alarms alerting us to what we can’t see that has become the air we breathe. As he says in his essay: Media surfeit, infinitely addictive consumerism, and lack of proportion are our carbon monoxide—maybe we are the canaries dying of the fumes of Facebook.

His poem above, At the Galleria, is vintage Hoagland – irreverent, funny and then heart-stabbingly poignant and painful. I haven’t even stopped laughing at the image of Lucinda wielding a credit card like a scythe when Hoagland scythes me with: Today is the day she stops looking at faces… Ouch. Ouch. And then the awful clincher that is not limited to Americans, any consumer nation will do: So we were turned into Americans/ to learn something about loneliness.

Hoagland’s poem epitomizes what he says a poet should do: the poet might be one whose complaint can trigger widespread recognitions…Here are excerpts from his essay. Worth memorizing, I think!

The artist is not a freak or an oracle or a genius. In fact, the artist is at the epicenter of normality. Poets are wounded in the same ways as everyone else, but with one particular distinction—they are not wounded to the point of speechlessness. Instead, they are wounded into speech. Their job, unlike the roles assigned to most of us, is not to conceal or to disguise their woundedness, but to make it glaringly evident. Poets are useful to the culture precisely to the extent that their experience is representative—representative, and murderously frank. With the precision and frankness that is cultivated by poetic craft, the poet might be one whose complaint can trigger widespread recognitions…….

More than ever, the function of the wounded poet is relevant to us now, in the 21st century, when we are experiencing more transformation, voluntary and involuntary, than ever before. We live in a time, an era and a place which seems designed to drown wakefulness in hypnotic superabundance. The hyperactive striving and distraction generated by contemporary information is marvelously effective at obscuring our awareness of our own estrangement. Media surfeit, infinitely addictive consumerism, and lack of proportion are our carbon monoxide—maybe we are the canaries dying of the fumes of Facebook. The amazing adroitness of our technological disassociations, and of political and commercial misrepresentation, are, sorry to say, the supreme human achievement of our time.

The poet’s pestering, plaintive reminder that alienation and disconnection are real and urgently significant forms of suffering is important. It is the artist’s function to remind us that to be disconnected from your own biology and emotional life is an authentic kind of pain. Our age, with its endlessly sophisticated trash, expects us to eat junk food and say thank you. The wounded poet, suffering from indigestion, may remind us that to eat such shit ultimately is an insult to our humanity. As Tomas Tranströmer says in the end of his poem, “Streets in Shanghai,” “We all look so happy out here in the sunlight; but each of us is dying from a wound he knows nothing about.”………..

Poets must continue to live close to the wound, and poems to speak from the edge of what the culture at large is unwilling to know. And quite possibly, they need to shriek at the top of their lungs, and even to exaggerate. What is this feeling I feel?, we ask. What is the name of this dis-ease? What word for this breathless, speedy, anxious feeling of barely being able to bear this psychotic and trashy man-made world? What is its cause, and what might be its cure? When we ask these kinds of seemingly naïve questions, and ask them loud, it may be we are standing up in protest to articulate the ailment—not just our own, but everyone’s.

Tony Hoagland from his essay The Poet as Wounded Citizen in The Writer’s Chronicle, December 2018


  1. Posted January 30, 2019 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    Thanks for my morning meditation today.Your memorial and reflection are powerful and I will forward your blog to my poet’s group, The Applegate Poets Association. Be well, Richard.


  2. Richard Osler
    Posted February 7, 2019 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for being a reader of this post Christen. I am always so encouraged when I hear from readers. That people take time to read the posts. I so like having these conversations about poems!

  3. Posted January 30, 2019 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    I’ve been thinking a lot about his poem “The Change,” which landed him in so much hot water. The problem with that poem, I believe, is that he does not go deep enough into the idea of tribalism– when he mentions he roots for the girl from Finland (or wherever) because she is White over the Black American. We ask Why Tony? Explain a little. And then at the end, he states that we are changed. The poem would have been better if he had said…We are NOT changed. Because clearly, post-Obama, we see how little America has changed. The poem is not racist so much as it simply does not go deep enough into thinking about race. It isn’t enough to reveal his White entitlement and misguidedness (although How I respect that he does) he needs to take a few more turns and reveal the darkness of this kind of thinking. I speak in the present tense because his poems still live! He gives me courage to enter the darkest parts of myself, but i see how deep I have to go.

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted February 7, 2019 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Dion. You have given me much to ponder. I really like your line: He gives me courage to enter the darkest parts of myself. That seems to me to be my work as well.

  5. Mary Nelson
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Wow! Thanks for this powerful poem, Richard.
    Best, Mary

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