About Tony Hoagland

by Jennifer Grotz

A few years ago, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, sitting in the offices of Inprint, Inc., a literary nonprofit based in Houston, Texas, I asked Tony Hoagland if he considered himself to be a cat poet or an ox poet. Rich Levy, another Houston poet, was in the kitchen slicing us an apple to share during our workshop. Tony had initiated this more or less weekly informal workshop to give the three of us a chance to share and to support each other’s work. Looking back, I can’t really see how it helped Tony nearly so much as it helped Rich and myself. Rich, a terrific poet with an mfa from Iowa, had a challenging work and family schedule and the workshop gave him the always-useful deadline; I had just published my first book and completed the coursework for the phd at the University of Houston and was feeling a little lost, like what the poet Lynn Emanuel once called “overeducated and recovering.”

Anyhow, I was telling Tony about something I’d read that morning that referred to the distinction Zbigniew Herbert once made between “cat poets,” those who sit indolently and curl their tails and wait for a poem to come to them, and “ox poets,” those who produce poems more prolifically from working every day in the field, as it were. Tony drily replied, “I’m an ox poet who wishes he were a cat poet.”

What’s “ox-like” in Hoagland’s poetry? One answer is that it’s what’s “American” about his poems. They don’t seem to come from anything resembling aristocratic entitlement but rather from a dogged autodidacticism, a kind of voracious but simultaneously pragmatic consideration of poetry and how to write it. Like Eliot’s famous injunction, Hoagland’s poetry—and essays—show signs of having “inherited a tradition by great labor.” Delightfully, Hoagland is the first to admit this. After winning the Zacharis Award from Ploughshares in 1994 for his first book of poetry, Sweet Ruin, Hoagland spoke of his early work as being “incredibly untalented.” “It took a long, long time for me just to get competent. When you’re a student of poetry, you’re lucky if you don’t realize how untalented and ignorant you are until you get a little better. Otherwise you would just stop.” If Hoagland associated native poetic genius with being a “cat poet,” his own poems do, nevertheless, reveal cat-like attention, lithe, sometimes nearly gymnastic syntactical ability, as well as the savoring of sensual pleasure.

Although Herbert’s distinction had primarily to do with the manner and rapidity with which poems come, Hoagland extends the analogy: “The ‘cat’ poet is an aristocrat of sensibility; the ox poet, which I am, is the one who tells what the yoke feels like or why it is a representative experience to fail—at love, at understanding, at compassion, at community, at being exceptional, or more generally, at being a human being—and these testimonies seem an important poetic tradition. Think of John Clare’s “I Am” or William Blake’s “London”; the cat sings the aria, the ox sings the blues.”

Hoagland’s own impulse to categorize and list is apparent in his book of essays, Real Sofistikashun, where he playfully—and profitably—identifies poets with certain “chakras” or certain poetics with “polka dots,” “stripes,” or “plaids.” There’s nothing dogmatic about these impulses, only an enthusiastic attempt to grasp and articulate the experience of poetry for both its readers and writers. This fresh and constant renaming and rethinking of poetry and craft is no doubt what also makes Hoagland a renowned teacher. In addition to teaching in the phd program at the University of Houston and a longstanding affiliation with the mfa Program at Warren Wilson College, Hoagland has been recognized for his exceptional poetry and teaching by receiving awards such as the O. B. Hardison Prize from the Folger Library in 2005.

Hoagland was born in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1953. He and his twin brother (who died of a drug overdose in high school) and an older sister grew up on army bases in Hawaii, Alabama, Ethiopia, and Texas. He attended, then dropped out of Williams College and eventually enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa. “Probably my ideas for what I wanted in poetry were formed as a result of Iowa City poetics at that time, in the mid-seventies,” Hoagland recalls. “What I read in the graduate worksheets seemed stylized, mordant, and written in a kind of encrypted “poem-ese”—who knows what ‘school’ was dominant then. But as a result of what I heard and read, my own values reactively turned towards clarity, accessibility, entertainment, irreverence, and the idea of the poet as guide.” It was also at Iowa that Hoagland first formed ideas of what a writing teacher should be. “To my fanatical youthful eyes, my teachers, with one exception, seemed slothful and reserved, merely phoning in their performances. I was starving for knowledge about poetry, but I felt that my teachers were saving themselves for their own work. I resolved that if I ever were in that privileged position, I would not withhold, but tell my students everything I knew.” Hoagland later got his mfa at the University of Arizona, where his teachers included Steve Orlen, Tess Gallagher, and Jon Anderson.

The poems in Donkey Gospel, Hoagland’s second book, mark a departure from the more conventionally “confessional” style in Sweet Ruin. “I think I came to poetry as an adolescent out of a thirst for truth telling—I needed some honest witnesses to offer blueprints and instructions. My early poems are preoccupied by tales of family and masculinity, the sufferings of romantic love. Much later, when I woke from the stupor of autobiography, I discovered that identity was composed of a lot of other things besides familial trauma; it included race and money and being American and technology and historical currents. Eventually it turned out that these things were more interesting to me than my first person insights and testimonies. Now it’s reached the point where I would rather read a poem about the history of corduroy or about the Coca-Cola Company depleting the water table in some Indian village than the story of someone’s brother dying of cancer.”

The judges who awarded Donkey Gospel the 1997 James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets point to “a mixture of popular culture, literature, and religious yearning simultaneously parodied and longed for” in Hoagland’s work. That rich increase in the complexity of tone—along with an ever-expanding range of subject matter—may be the hallmark of Hoagland’s poetry. That and the tonic introduction of humor back into poetry, which began most notably in Donkey Gospel but is everywhere evident in Hoagland’s third collection, What Narcissism Means to Me and for which he received the Mark Twain Prize for humor from the Poetry Foundation. Playful, provocative, and sometimes even a little mean,Hoagland’s humor is meant both to delight and to startle.“To me, a good poem threatens the reader a little, crosses over some line of the social contract, or the poetic contract, which sets off alarms,” Hoagland said in an interview with Miriam Sagan. “A really good poem is the poem which breaks through the television screen into the world and reminds the reader that reading or listening is not a safe, living-room-La-Z-Boymuseum-tea-party experience, but that poetry is about open-heart surgery, being woken up or taken somewhere unexpected and dangerous.”

Hoagland’s use of humor occurs on the level of diction and incorporates practically every aspect of the American idiom. Take for example the opening lines of “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” from Hoagland’s chapbook, Hard Rain:

On Friday afternoon David said he was divesting his holdings in Stephanie
dot org.
And Cindy announced she was getting rid of all her Dan-obelia, and did anyone
       want a tennis racket or a cardigan?

But more ambitiously, Hoagland wields humor as a poetic tool, one that ables him to enlarge the aperture of what is serious and true, allowing him to grasp difficult alliances between the personal and social, the spiritual and commercial:

And in Argentina, after the elections,
we hear the old president won’t leave office—
literally, they say—they can’t get him out of the office!
He’s in there with his little private army, eating caviar,
squandering state money on call girls and porno movies—
and if you’ve done any therapy at all, I think you’ll see the analogy.

How did I come to believe in a government called Tony Hoagland?
with an economy based on flattery and self-protection?
and a sewage system of selective forgetting?
and an extensive history of broken promises?
(from “Argentina”)

There is indeed a kind of United States of Tony Hoagland, one that mixes high and low culture, friends, lovers, and chiropractors, Vietnam Vets and convenience store workers. But Whitman’s democratic longing for and love of, well, everyone, has resurfaced in Hoagland’s poetry as a diligent if humanly flawed practice of listening, truth-telling, and empathy. The critic James Wood once praised Herman Melville for his incredible appetite for the English language, saying that one has the sense he would have liked to use every word in the dictionary at least once. For Hoagland, it’s more the sense that he won’t be satisfied until he has a poem about every thing in the world—from dragonflies to the career of Britney Spears, from the omnipresence of plastic to the happy sighting of a cement truck. Just as impressively, there’s the sense that any kind of poetic influence can be incorporated into his work, from Sharon Olds to W. H. Auden, from Frank O’Hara to Czeslaw Milosz, from Larry Levis to W. S. Merwin.

If irony, humor, and tone are associated with Hoagland’s poetry, it’s essential to acknowledge Hoagland always employs them to reveal some subtlety or complexity inherent in a poem, not to remain emotionally distant from the topic at hand. Increasingly, Hoagland’s poetry shows an investment in the material world, a working together of the mind and body, and serves (as the title of his forthcoming book of poetry, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, suggests) as a sanity-inducing truth—telling about American culture as well as a grateful attention to the humbling and powerful abiding human pleasures and suffering. “It took me a long time after the drugged-out seventies and eighties but I eventually lost my taste for disorientation,” Hoagland admits. “Now, I would say that I am deeply engaged in at least two kinds of poetry: one is the sensibility of realism, the appetite for seeing and seeing through. The other is poetry which can achieve through its plenitude of voice and energy and imagination a kind of authentic self-generated joy which, yes, does testify to our spiritual resourcefulness, our innate ability to transcend our circumstances, whatever they are.”

When they are not teaching at the University of Houston, Hoagland and his partner, the fiction writer Kathleen Lee, spend their time in the house they own in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Less acknowledged though everywhere present in his work is an abiding love of nature. It’s significant that so many of Hoagland’s poems describe sunsets or weather systems or take place during a specific month or season. In one poem, Hoagland laments the loss of closeness he had to nature as a boy: “The lake was practically my girlfriend,” he writes (“Nature”). And in another recent poem like “Barton Springs,” one sees how the description and experience of the natural world increasingly gives Hoagland access to the spiritual realm:

In documents elsewhere I have already recorded
my complaints in some painstaking detail.
Now, because all things near water are joyful,
there might be time to catch up on praise.


Copyright © Jennifer Grotz

Winter 2009-10 Cover
Cover art by James Wm. Dawson
  Out of Print

Guest-edited by:
Tony Hoagland
Photo by James Wm. Dawson
Tony Hoagland