Tony Hoagland (1953-2018)

TURN UP THE OCEAN: POEMS, Tony Hoagland. Graywolf Press, 212 Third Avenue North, Suite 485, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401, 2022, 85 pages, $16 paper,

I can’t resist the temptation—after the last poem in yesterday’s blogpost—to read and share Tony Hoagland’s posthumous collection, Turn Up the Ocean. Not to have every blogpost an elegy, but if you want to read more about him, you could start with the New York Times obituary, which includes a link to Hoagland reading his poem, “Romantic.”

Tony Hoagland is another poet I have been reading for decades. Not so much for insight into my personal life, as for insight into our times. For insight and for humor—for a wry, often biting (“mordant”) humor. Or this definition, from Hoagland himself:

“Humor in poetry is even better than beauty. If you could have it all, you would, but humor is better than beauty because it doesn’t put people to sleep. It wakes them up and relaxes them at the same time.” (from NYT obit, cited above)

Does Hoagland’s humor relax us? Consider the opening of “Gorgon”: “Now that you need your prescription glasses to see the stars / and now that the telemarketers know your preference in sexual positions. // Now that corporations run the government…”

No matter. Even in poems such as “The Reason He Brought His Gun to School: A Blues,” and “Squad Car Light” (“the officers—so much gear attached to them, / they clank when they walk—the spurs and handcuffs / hung from their belts, / the slender baton for administering shock”), I am right there with him, wide awake, eager to read more.

Or lines such as this, from “Among the Intellectuals”:

They passed the days in an activity they called “thought-provoking,”
as if thought were an animal, and they used long sticks

to poke through the bars of its cage,
tormenting and arousing thinking into strange behaviors.

We should thank Hoagland’s wife, Kathleen Lee, for this beautiful, sometimes raw book. In her brief afterword she writes that Hoagland before his death “gathered a group of poems—recent and older—into what he imagined as a chapbook” (p. 83). Lee expanded the collection in 2020, explaining:

“Tony revised his manuscripts almost as much as he revised poems; he felt any version might be good enough, but none exactly right. No doubt he would want to make changes to some of the these poems and to this published version of Turn Up the Ocean.

I wonder if some of the poems about his illness and dire prognosis are in that category of late-additions to the manuscript, and I’m so glad Lee put them there. (See for instance “Why I Like the Hospital,” “Reading While Sick in the Middle of the Night,” or “Siberia,” which begins: “In these final few months of my life, / I feel a little like a Russian poet / who’s been exiled to a remote / village in Siberia….”)

While I’m at it, I want to recommend Hoagland’s books of prose: Real Sofistikashun (2006), Twenty Poems that Could Save America and Other Essays (2014), and The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice (2020). For a sample essay, and a poetry tutorial (!), “Image Out of Sound,” visit Graywolf Press, here.

I never studied with Hoagland, but I am told that he was a generous and encouraging teacher (with a razor-sharp wit). His poems, I know, are generous, inclusive and provocative:

Virginia Woolf

On mornings like this I often think of her
lying in bed all day in her pajamas,
the room striped in sunlight and cats
like a painting by Matisse.

Virginia writing newsy letters to her friends:
“The light through fog is convalescent,” she said,
and “The main requirement for public life
is overacting.”

On a morning like this,
when I walk the fields behind the house,
I feel that she is still alive,
sipping from her second pot of tea,
notebook propped up on her knees—

nose deep in language
like a thoroughbred horse,
like an endangered species
brought back from extinction.

I think of her and
I would like to know she is all right,
though I know she suffered terribly
from too much sight.

But who will talk to the petunias now
on Finchley Lane? Who will stand
and look out of the window for hours?
who will tell the sunlight
not to be so vain?

Who will inform the piece of toast
on the small blue plate
with one bite taken out of it

that she will not be coming back?

—Tony Hoagland

Tracy K. Smith, Wade in the Water

WADE IN THE WATER, Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf Press, 250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600, Minneapolis, MN 55401, 2019, 96 pages, $16 paper,

For my last poet in #nationalpoetrymonth, this book is too perfect. Here’s Graywolf Press’s description:

In Wade in the Water, Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith boldly ties America’s contemporary moment both to our nation’s fraught founding history and to a sense of the spirit, the everlasting. Here, private utterance becomes part of a larger choral arrangement as the collection includes erasures of the Declaration of Independence and correspondence between slave owners, a found poem composed of evidence of corporate pollution and accounts of near-death experiences, a sequence of letters written by African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, and the survivors’ reports of recent immigrants and refugees. Wade in the Water is a potent and luminous book by one of America’s essential poets.

I lack words enough to describe this book. “Choral arrangement” helps (beginning with the gospel title). “Luminous” seems overused, but I knew when I found the audio version of Wade in the Water, that I would have to try to write about it. It captures both transcendence and terror, life itself. “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I will Tell You All About It,” one title promises us, and Smith delivers. I would love to know more about the process of writing these poems, or “creating” them, as some are erasures and others, collages of voices of slaves, and of Black Civil War soldiers and veterans. Smith brings it all to the page, and hearing her read this book aloud made my day.

Smith’s first book Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize; she served as U. S. Poet Laureate from 2017-2019. She is a must-read.

This is the first poem in the book, far more conventional than poems later in the collection, but easier for me to reproduce for you. (Find more poems at

Garden of Eden

What a profound longing

I feel, just this very instant,

For the Garden of Eden

On Montague Street

Where I seldom shopped,

Usually only after therapy

Elbow sore at the crook

From a handbasket filled

To capacity. The glossy pastries!

Pomegranate, persimmon, quince!

Once, a bag of black beluga

Lentils spilt a trail behind me

While I labored to find

A tea they refused to carry.

It was Brooklyn. My thirties.

Everyone I knew was living

The same desolate luxury,

Each ashamed of the same things:

Innocence and privacy. I’d lug

Home the paper bags, doing

Bank-balance math and counting days.

I’d squint into it, or close my eyes

And let it slam me in the face—

The known sun setting

On the dawning century.

—Tracy K. Smith

I found numerous recordings on the web, and felt this one–her thoughts on the history and witness of Black poetry, and a tribute to Amanda Gorman–was the perfect one to share.

Tomas Tranströmer (1931-2015)

THE HALF-FINISHED HEAVEN: SELECTED POEMS, Tomas Tranströmer. Trans. Robert Bly. Graywolf Press, 250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401, 2001, 2017, 118 pages, $16 paper,

Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011, and his influence is pervasive. But he is not merely a serious and learned poet, he is also wry and funny and readable. In his 2017 introduction, Robert Bly writes of Tranströmer:

“…he was a genius–for things in human communication that are half-sensed, half-understood, only partially risen into consciousness, liable, like a fish, to disappear into the lake a moment later. If you are addicted to certainty, there’s no point in going toward his poems–they’ll just lead you into islands that disappear a moment later.” (xxiv)

I purchased my copy of this expanded edition of his selected poems when I was in San Francisco last fall, at City Lights Booksellers. I’ve wrestled with what to include here, and have decided on one of the longer poems.

Out in the Open 


Late autumn labyrinth.
At the entry to the woods a thrown-away bottle.
Go in. Woods are silent abandoned houses this time of year.
Just a few sounds now: as if someone were moving twigs around carefully with pincers
or as if an iron hinge were whining feebly inside a thick trunk.
Frost has breathed on the mushrooms and they have shriveled up.
They look like objects and clothing left behind by people who’ve disappeared.
It will be dark soon. The thing to do now is to get out
and find the landmarks again: the rusty machine out in the field
and the house on the other side of the lake, a reddish square intense as a bouillon cube.


A letter from America drove me out again, started me walking
through the luminous June night in the empty suburban streets
among newborn districts without memories, cool as blueprints.

Letter in my pocket. Half-mad, lost walking, it is a kind of prayer.
Over there evil and good actually have faces.
For the most part with us it’s a fight between roots, numbers, shades of light.

The people who run death’s errands for him don’t shy from daylight.
They rule from glass offices. They mill about in the bright sun.
They lean forward over a desk, and throw a look to the side.

Far off I found myself standing in front of the new buildings.
Many windows flowed together there into a single window.
In it the luminous night sky was caught, and the walking trees.
It was a mirrorlike lake with no waves, turned on edge in the summer night.

Violence seemed unreal
for a few moments.


Sun burning. The plane comes in low
throwing a shadow shaped like a giant cross that rushes over the ground.
A man is sitting the the field poking at something.
The shadow arrives.
For a fraction of a second he is right in the center of the cross.

I have seen the cross hanging in the cool church vaults.
At times it resembles a split-second snapshot of something
moving at tremendous speed.