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

Linda Pastan 1932-2023

ALMOST AN ELEGY: NEW & LATER SELECTED POEMS, Linda Pastan. W. W. Norton & Company, 500 5th Avenue, New York N. Y. 10110, 2022, 122 pages, $30 cloth,

I began my research for this post by rereading Linda Pastan’s New York Times obituary. I could post a link and be done. The effusive praise you find there, the careful highlighting of biography—it’s exactly what I want to say.

“Linda Pastan writes about ordinary life — family, motherhood, aging, relationships, loss — in crystalline, transcendent verse often filled with humor, surprise, joy, and sorrow.” –Jill Bialosky

Yes, yes, yes, I kept thinking. I picked out a few crumbs, new (delicious) details I didn’t remember from my first reading of the obit in February. For instance, that Pastan didn’t write poems when her children were small—

She took up writing again in the mid-1960s, trying a novel. But, she said, she found she was more interested in the descriptive language of what she was writing than the plot or characters. “My novel kept getting shorter and shorter, becoming almost a short story….Before long I realized that what it really wanted was to become a poem.”

—“Linda Pastan, Poet Who Plumbed the Ordinary, Dies at 90,” The New York Times, Feb. 3, 2023

While reading Pastan’s Almost an Elegy I kept thinking, too, look here, you don’t need to write a poem about this topic: she already wrote it! Even that feeling, Pastan has dealt; her poem “Rereading Frost” begins: “Sometimes I think all the best poems / have been written already…”

I’m surprised, by the way, to learn that Pastan ever did not write. Some of her most memorable poems are about childbirth (see the NYT obit) and living with young children. In her earlier books, I found her mirroring back to me my own ages and stages in marriage and middle age. And now, as I plow toward seventy, I find she has more to teach me.

This poem, which I had not encountered previously, now has its page dogeared:

The Last Uncle

The last uncle is pushing off
in his funeral skiff (the usual
black limo) having locked
the doors behind him
on a whole generation.

And look, we are the elders now
with our torn scraps
of history, alone
on the mapless shore
of this raw new century.

—Linda Pastan

She also has an uncanny ability to predict the future, as if the world contains all its secrets, a jar of bees, and she has pressed her ear against it and listened hard. Her poem, “Somewhere in the World,” from Travelling Light (2011), opens with these stanzas:

Somewhere in the world
something is happening
which will make its slow way here.

A cold front will come to destroy
the camellias, or perhaps it will be
a heat wave to scorch them.

A virus will move without passport
or papers to find me as I shake
a hand or kiss a cheek.

I saw Pastan at SAL several years ago, and wrote here about her book, Insomnia. I feel privileged to know her work from her earlier selected, Carnival Row, which I have picked up so often it is falling apart. Almost an Elegy is, equally, a treasure. Let me end with this poem from the “New Poems” section. Imagine me, inserting Pastan’s name:

Almost an Elegy: For Tony Hoagland

Your poems make me want
to write my poems,

which is a kind of plagiarism
of the spirit.

But when your death reminds me
that mine is on its way,

I close the book, clinging
to this tenuous world the way the leaves

outside cling to their tree
just before they turn color and fall.

I need time to read all the poems
you left behind, which pierce

the darkness here at my window
but did nothing to save you.

—Linda Pastan

Harryette Mullen, Urban Tumbleweed

URBAN TUMBLEWEED: NOTES FROM A TANKA DIARY, Harryette Mullen. Graywolf Press, 250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600, Minneapolis, MN 55401, 2013, 127 pages, $15 paper,

In 2020 I mentioned to a friend that I had been writing poems about my daily walks, and she dug around in her bookbag, pulled out Urban Tumbleweed, and gave it to me on the spot. At home, I read a page or two, here and there, and then put it away “for later.” I am really, really glad that I took it down this morning. Although individual tankas can delight—

The determination of a turtle
clambering out of a pond, up the slippery
side of a rock to rest in the sun. (p. 18)

—I discovered further pleasures by reading it all the way through at one go.

At the entrance to the botanical garden,
a sign hung on the gate forewarns: “Slow down.
Watch for turtles on the roads and paths.” (p. 47)

Mullen explains her project in the foreword:

My tanka diary began with a desire to strengthen a sensible habit by linking it to a pleasurable activity. I wanted to incorporate into my life a daily practice of walking and writing poetry. As committed as I am to writing, I needed a break in my routine, so I determined to alter my sedentary, unconsciously cramped posture as a writer habitually working indoors despite living here in “sunny California.” (p. vii)

A professor of creative writing and African American literature at UCLA and the author of seven more conventional poetry books (notably, Sleeping with the Dictionary, which was a finalist for the National Book Award), Mullen adapts the traditional form of the Japanese verse of thirty-one syllables (originally printed as a single line of text, in English generally broken into five lines of 5-7-5-7-7) to suit herself. Each of her tankas is close to 31 syllables, but rendered in three lines. The main point was to walk, pen and notebook in her pocket, each day writing a single observation:

Another goal was to address the question, “What is natural about being human?” While Mullen’s observations are often about the natural world, they don’t stray far from newspaper stories, bus riders, and trash.

Along the roadside, someone has spilled
pink Styrofoam peanuts. They add color
to the grassy green, but I still prefer flowers. (p. 13)

Ha-ha-haw-haw, the dark bird’s rowdy laughter
as it flew over the heads of earthbound
pedestrians who didn’t get the joke. (p. 115)

In The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice, Tony Hoagland asks a question I’ve been pondering this month:

What do we want from a contemporary poetic voice? One good answer to that question is that we want to feel that we are encountering a speaker “in person,” a speaker who presents a convincingly complex version of the world and of human nature. When we commence reading a poem, we are starting a relationship, and we want that relationship to be with an interesting, resourceful companion. (p. 5)

I find that this is also true with an entire book of poetry. And even when I start out with some reluctance, I find that if I keep going I inevitably begin hearing the poet’s voice, maybe trusting it, definitely glimpsing the world through new eyes. At least, that’s how I felt this morning, reading Harryette Mullen’s 366 tankas. I have a feeling that her journey, in writing the poems, was much the same.

Although I don’t expect that I will soon burst into a book-length experiment with the tanka, I have decided to start carrying a notebook on my walks.

To read more about Harryette Mullen, follow this link.

Carl Dennis, Earthborn

EARTHBORN, Carl Dennis. Penguin Books, 2022, 128 pages, $20 paper,

A friend told me to please, please read this book. It is dedicated to my friend’s mentor and dear friend, the late Tony Hoagland (1953- 2018), and includes passages from his Sweet Ruin and a poem memorializing him. So, I found a copy on-line and I read the whole book this morning.

I should mention that my initial impression was that this poet was not my cup-of-tea. But I got up early today and drove one of my daughters to work, and for about 26 minutes (our entire drive), she recounted in excruciating detail how much the boys in her senior high school class hate the novels they are reading in English class. How they gripe constantly, tell her she’s stupid for choosing the books (she didn’t choose them), plagiarize their assignments from Spark Notes, etc. So. Even though Dennis’s poems didn’t seem — at first — what I wanted to read, I decided to set aside all pre-judgment and lose myself in the poems.

The magic worked. I ended up being engaged — even charmed. I found myself wanting to write a Bethany-Reid poem “in the style of Carl Dennis.”

Earthborn is brand new, published just last month, Carl Dennis’s 13th volume of poetry. I believe I read his 2001 Pulitzer-winning book, Practical Gods, but it’s been a long time since I sat down with his poems. Poetry Foundation helped educate me about Dennis’s philosophy and approach to poem-writing (and I recommend reading that, too), but — in my own words — each poem in Earthborn is like a thought-experiment. “Nothing is improved by being praised,” begins the first poem; another: “Once the seasons were gods…” Another addresses Socrates. The Puritans turn up, and Columbus. And Tony Hoagland. Not that any poem is the same as any other.

In the first poem, Dennis writes, “I want to be one of the witnesses of the familiar,” and that, as much as anything I read about him, helped me to understand his voice.

The opening of his poem, “Primitive,” offers an example of what I think I mean — a sort of address to a religious idea:

It wasn’t a conviction that life is holy
That kept me from drowning the spider I found
In the sink this morning, that caused me instead
To cover it with a cup, slide a postcard beneath it,
And carry it out to the patio. It was more
The thought that it seemed unfair to kill it…

I had a sense of him, picking up each idea of a poem and turning it, one way and then another, like a faceted stone. What if I hold it this way? What if I set it at this angle in the light?

Here’s one poem that got me thinking about how some novels are thought-experiments (maybe they all are) — what if the character made this choice…what if she made this other choice?

Art and Life

It’s no surprise that in fiction the central figures
Tend to learn more by the end than people
Commonly learn in the actual world,
Where many keep making the same mistakes.

Novelists start with their own experience,
Which includes going to bed convinced
That their current project is almost finished,
Only to find, in the candid light of morning,
That it still needs many more months of work.
What better proof that learning goes on
Even in sleep, that one’s sense of fitness
Grows in the night like corn or bamboo?

Is the newest version truer to life
Or simply more shapely, more charming?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
The hero before was recognizable,
A man, say, liable to fritter away his life
In random pastimes. But now he does more
To resist his temperament, so readers,
Instead of looking down from on high,
May be willing to stand in his shoes awhile.

As for the heroine, the revision suggests
She is still a woman who hides,
Beneath her apparent warmth, a seam of coldness.
But now the coldness conceals a wound
That makes trust a challenge.
Now she wants to know where her courage
Is supposed to come from
If she can’t find it when she looks within.

The more they learn, the truer they are in spirit
To the fact that every draft of the novel
Is another chapter in the single story
Slowly unfolding in which the author
Learns by trial and error what the work
Needs more of to be complete.

In the meantime, it’s clear that the hero’s remorse
Near the end of the manuscript for the grief
His want of direction has caused the heroine
Is more convincing than it’s ever been.
Instead of giving a speech that seems
Too polished to be spontaneous,
He seems to be groping for words, not sure
What he’ll say until he says it, and then
Not sure if he ought to be satisfied
Or open to one more try.

–Carl Dennis

When I Googled Dennis, I found a number of videos on-line, and poems at The New Yorker. I hope you’ll take a deeper look.