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The Chick: Homage for Tony Hoagland

by Richard Silberg

The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice, by Tony Hoagland with Kay Cosgrove, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2019, $22.95 hardcover.

Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God, by Tony Hoagland, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2018, $16.00 paperback.

Twenty Poems That Could Save America and Other Essays, by Tony Hoagland, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2014, $16.00 paperback.

Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft, by Tony Hoagland, Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota, 2006, $15.00 paperback.

THERE HAVE BEEN RENOWNED poet/critics in the past: Samuel Johnson, Coleridge, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot come immediately to mind. But they don't seem to grow tall in our own early twenty-first century America. Not that they're few; on the contrary maybe even a majority of contemporary American poets have written at least some prose on their art and/or their fellow artists. To name some of the more 'professional' or prolific, we might think of David Biespiel, David Orr, who is the poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review and recently published a debut book of poems, Stephanie Burt, or a poet/theorist like Lyn Hejinian. Of these maybe the best known is Hejinian but more as a Language poet than as a critic. No, if there's a poet/critic for our recent decades, one with a name and a following, it was certainly Tony Hoagland.

I want us to spend some time here in this short essay remembering him and looking into the reasons for his unusual salience in our early twenty-first century poetry: "What went wrong? Somehow, we blew it. We never quite got poetry inside the American school system and thus never quite inside the culture…Let us blame instead the stuffed shirts who took an hour to explain that poem [he is talking here of the inclusion of Stevens's "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" into high school poetry classes], who chose it because it would need an explainer; pretentious ponderous ponderosas of professional professors will always be drawn to the poems that require a priest. Still, we have failed. The fierce life force of contemporary American poetry never made it through the metal detector of the public school system.…"

That's Hoagland excerpted from the first couple of paragraphs of his essay "Twenty Poems That Could Save America," the final essay in his eponymous second critical book. You only need to 'listen' to those few sentences—even without knowing what poems he's going to propose for American CPR, or sampling his readings of them—to begin to understand his importance and appeal. He cared 'fiercely' about poetry, believed in its spiritual power; to take another slant off the excerpt, he really was a kind of poetry priest. But one, again, who blew off any pretention. His tone, as you can hear, was right down, vernacular, I to thou, me to you with his readers. And yet he was sophisticated—his first critical book is titled Real Sofistikashun—complex and many-angled in his taste and readings. And he was funny; both in his poetry and his prose, sardonic and illuminating. Jingling on his ice cream truck, he was our go-to poetry man.

He died on October 23, 2018, at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, there with his wife, the writer Kathleen Lee, eaten up, finally, after some years of treatment, by pancreatic cancer. He was sixty-four years old.

I knew Tony a little, read him a lot, and for me his salient characteristic was his hunger, a kind of poetic overdrive. Here he is in the first couple of paragraphs from the essay, "Three Tenors: Pinsky, Hass, Glück, and The Deployment of Talent," from that first critical book Real Sofistikashun:

The artistic life begins in instinct and moves toward calculation; or maybe, it begins in blind obsession and ends in self-possession. Or does it begin in play and end in ambition? Or, some say, it begins in inspiration and ends in repetition. Whichever version you subscribe to, the loss of innocence is inevitable, and it is indeed a loss—but one that has its compensations. Some of the names for that compensation are skill, perspective, and choice.

The stories of poetic transformation are the legends of the craft: Yeats's renunciation of romance in his fifties; Adrienne Rich's defiant rejection of the polished patriarchal conventions of her apprenticeship; C. K. Williams's poetical conversion from the 1970s idiom of quasi-surrealism to the complex discursive sentences of With Ignorance and Tar. The case histories of repetition are also well known: poets who seem caught, anchored to a subject or style from which they cannot depart.

You can feel how much he wants to explicate, to worry the love beads, how much he's read and savored, pondered his reading, wants to make the deepest, truest sense of it.

Or, to get an almost bodily sense of Hoagland's writerly overdrive from his poetry itself, here's the end of "Which Would you Prefer, A Story, or an Explanation?" from his last collection Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God:

In the next two years, Madeline will have a love affair, visit Bali and return, develop endometrial cancer,

and reconnect with her childhood Catholic faith, worth more to her than anything.

Even at the bottom of the self, even in illness and despair; in hubris, ecstasy and gloom,

the chick can be heard inside the shell, pecking to get out. Pecking and pecking.

Along with the power of that metaphor, I'd like us to note the continuum of his critical and poetic voices: he's not adopting a 'poetic' tone—he's, of course, much too fine a writer for that—rather, he's the same scrupulously honest Tony for all seasons. And his concerns are much the same, to weigh, understand, come to the truth of each issue. The only difference is that as a critic it's poetry and its making he's calibrating, interrogating; whereas as a poet—besides the mystery of igniting the star of each poem itself—he's interrogating life, both his own and ours. And there's a particular urgency here in this last book with its sharpened sense of mortality. Take, in one key, this conclusion of "In the Waiting Room with Leonard Cohen":

In the reflection of the window,

I see his face—his furrowed mouth, the wet black eyes

and that great curved hatchet of a nose:

an expert witness on the death of God;

a master at the art of being broken

in order to be made.

Who would have imagined?

Me in the hospital, with Leonard Cohen,

and still too ignorant to die;

still trying to learn a few of these fundamental things

before the pallbearers arrive:

What Grief is Good For;

What Imagination Can and Cannot Do.

How to work with this suspicion

that I am the one responsible

for letting the dove out of the coffin.

In "Distant Regard" in a very different key, mild and faux naif, he's trying on gratitude, the comic idea of all the thank you notes he'd write if he knew he'd be dead "by this time next year." Picking it up here, mid-poem to the end:

because now that I'm dying, I just go

forward like water, flowing around obstacles

and second thoughts, not getting snagged, just continuing

with my long list of thank-yous

which seems to naturally expand

to include sunlight and wind,

and the aspen trees which seethe and shimmer in the yard

as if grateful for being soaked last night

by the beautiful irrigation system

invented by an individual

to whom I am quietly grateful.

Outside it is autumn, the philosophical season,

when cold air sharpens the intellect;

the hills red and copper in their shaggy majesty.

The clouds blow overhead, like governments and years.

It took me a long time to understand the phrase "distant regard,"

but I am grateful for it now,

and I am grateful for my heart,

that turned out to be good, after all;

and grateful for my mind,

to which, in retrospect, I can see

I have never been sufficiently kind.

Let's look at one more example, from "A Short History of Modern Art," much darker here, more stark. He begins eavesdropping on an attempted pick-up in a coffee house, a bearded and bereted intellectual hustler working to persuade a "vampire girl stenciled with tattoos // to come back to his coffin with him"; from this dubious source he first hears, in reverential tones, the name Giacometti. Again, mid-poem to the end:

Giacometti, who represented the idea of human

in the phrase human condition

as a kind of burn victim

standing on two legs like blackened crutches

in a landscape of barbed wire and concentration camps.

Somewhere in there I got the notion

that Giacometti's sculptures must be a strange self-portrait.

Somewhere in Italy I imagined an anorexic guy

with an acetylene torch

was wandering the countryside,

welding one spidery

skeleton after another

out of fire-blackened metal.

Then I heard a song called "Giacometti" on the radio,

in which the heavy, angst-saturated hook

was, Every human being is trying to decide

whether to become a cannibal or a suicide.

I was 17—my mother was dead; my head

was a smokestack full of rage and fear.

I understood that people were dishonest and confused;

The soul pitch-dark—the world unsafe.

The human prognosis was not that great.

That's when Giacometti

showed up to help me out.

The good news was that

someone had figured out

a way to take the bad news

and turn it into art.

I don't know how much time he thought he had, or even if he fully believed he was terminal—the poems in Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God angle ambiguously—but he went on working right through. His third critical book, The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice, was published posthumously. And in the ironies of death his own voice, that memorable, sardonic, driving voice, echoes now even more vividly. His poetry will live, as the best poetry does, but the criticism is over; and while there will be plenty of intelligence and care to usher in the new books of poems and do the triage, it won't be done with quite the same fierceness and hunger. No, that particular chick has pecked out of its egg and flown.

Richard Silberg is Associate Editor of Poetry Flash. His recent poetry books are The Horses: New and Selected Poems and Deconstruction of the Blues, recipient of the PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Literary Award 2006. Author of Reading the Sphere: A Geography of Contemporary American Poetry, and other books, he co-translated, with Clare You, The Three Way Tavern, poems by Ko Un, winner of the Northern California Book Award in Translation. He also co-translated, with Clare You, Flowers Long For Stars, poems by Oh Sae-Young; This Side of Time, by Ko Un; and I Must Be the Wind, by Moon Chung-Hee. He lives in Berkeley, California.

— posted April 2020

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