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Conversation: Tony Hoagland on ‘Poems That Could Save America’

“Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America.” There are many assumptions, questions and provocations in the title of an essay in Harper’s Magazine by poet Tony Hoagland, who clearly has a thing for great titles: Among his books of verse are “Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty” and “What Narcissism Means to Me.”

Hoagland teaches at the University of Houston, and I talked to him by phone earlier Friday:

JEFFREY BROWN: The beginning premise here is that something needs saving, that we have a problem. What’s the problem you are trying to address?

tony-hoagland-448_utility_thumb.jpgTONY HOAGLAND: The problem in many ways is something that poetry has struggled with for a long time, especially in the 20th century. The misimpression that many people have, the misapprehension that poetry is something that they’re not clever enough for or that poetry belongs to high culture or that it’s so sensitive and emotional in nature that it’s impractical in the real world, that is has nothing to do with mechanics or science or money or making a living. The first illusion that any poet has to dispel, I think, is that poetries is for sissies, or that poetry is for people who are specially qualified when in fact American poetry is one of the great populist bodies of culture in the world, in the history the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: You yourself have tackled that in some ways through humor and wit and, I guess, writing about real life and not highfalutin stuff?

TONY HOAGLAND: Sure, I think that that’s one of the ways that poetry wins attention and readership is through its daring and its irreverence and its contemporariness. I don’t think there’s anything outside of the reach of poetry, nothing that poetry can’t expand and unpack and emphasize or nuance in some interesting, challenging ways.

JEFFREY BROWN: What comes through in the essay is the canon and the way it’s taught is part of the problem. So you’re proposing, in a sense, a new canon?

TONY HOAGLAND: Yes, I think that the way people are drawn into poetry or perhaps into any art form is by a contact, a random contact sometimes, or an educational contact, with something that’s extremely contemporary. And at that point the art becomes something that is organic to culture and to perception and to the ability to think about the moment that we live in or simply that it articulates feelings and contradictions in human nature and inner circumstances that are just especially contemporary. That that moment is crucial. So a canon should begin in the present, it should be absolutely contemporary. After somebody is inoculated, after somebody sort of recognizes that this is a living art form, a living breathing art form that is in a very dynamic, elastic relationship with the moment that we live in and with ourselves, then they will read backwards. I think that’s a natural process. Anthologies shouldn’t begin with Chaucer; they should begin with something like Billy Collins or Terrance Hayes or Lucille Clifton, and then they should progress backwards.

JEFFREY BROWN: You pick any example you want from this. The way you’ve structured this, at least in the essay form, is to say poetry teaches the ethical nature of choice and then you give an example of a poem, poetry respects solitude and self-discovery. Give me us an example.

TONY HOAGLAND: Ok, I’d be happy to. I’ll start off with an example from a poem by Linda Gregg called “Bamboo and a Bird.” For me, this is a poem about the mysterious pleasure of loneliness, something which is not often advertised. The speaker is in a subway late at night.

In the subway late at night.
Waiting for the downtown train
at Forty-Second Street.
Walking back and forth
on the platform.
Too tired to give money.
Staring at the magazine covers
in the kiosk. Someone passes me
from behind, wearing an orange vest
and dragging a black hose.
A car stops and the doors open.
All the faces are plain.
It makes me happy to be
among these people
who leave empty seats
between each other.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you’re proposing this reaches people in a way that the poems that were typically taught don’t.

TONY HOAGLAND: I think so. I think it’s a wonderfully unpretentious, lucid capturing of a moment that we all can recognize. And there’s just a pleasure in recognition of the world that we live in. And then, also, there’s a feeling tone underneath it and there’s an intelligence which isn’t assertive, but which offers us the chance to hold that moment in our hands and say, ‘Look at this moment, how unusual it is that the poet says, ‘It makes me happy to be among these people who leave empty seats between each other.’ There’s ‘Too tired to give money.’ Those are not look at me moment. It’s not a poem that laments loneliness or tiredness or poverty. It says that there’s a secret pleasure in the individuality, in self-enclosure, and so that’s not a truth that is popularly represented. It’s sort of off the map. It doesn’t connect with any kind of utilitarian economic motive. It’s not something you can test for, but when it’s held up to us and we can examine it, we think, ‘Yes, it’s true. Loneliness is a strange kind of pleasure and I often take pleasure in it.’

JEFFREY BROWN: You use that word utilitarian. I mean, I sort of see you wrestling, and you come out and say it here, wrestling with the notion that you’re making a case for poetry that connects with people, that can kind of give them something in their lives.


JEFFREY BROWN: But at the same time you don’t want to just say, ‘Oh, poetry is all about utility, this is all just a help you in various ways.’ That’s not it either.

TONY HOAGLAND: That’s right. That’s not it either. And you’re sort of catching me in a kind of a paradox, because I am making an argument for the value of poetry in daily life, in the minds of every American citizen, especially young ones. I’m absolutely making an argument for that. I think that the skill of being able to tolerate ambiguity, of being able to embrace loneliness, being able to observe the paradoxes and the hypocrisies and the ironies of the world, I think those are enormously useful survival skills. But at the same time I’m arguing that utility is the wrong way to look at this stuff. This is my Trojan horse of utility. I’m trying to get in the gates of American culture and then let poetry loose inside the walls of the city.

JEFFREY BROWN: So let me ask you finally, how would you make this happen? You have line near the end where you say, ‘I’m only waiting for the president to give me the go ahead,’ I guess, to make your 20 poems in the courses of America. But realistically how would you make something like this happen?

TONY HOAGLAND: Well, one thing we haven’t really addressed is how poetry got dropped out of the school system. It only takes one generation to lose knowledge and to lose the will to transfer that knowledge and to transmit that knowledge. All it takes is one generation of poetry not being taught in the schools and not being sort of represented with the vitality and the lucidities that it actually has, with the life force that it has. So a couple of generations of English teachers, probably since the ’70s, have not been introduced to poetry for a lot of reasons. Because our culture is amnesiac, because we forget faster than we remember or than we learn. My idea is that teachers find out about poetry again, and maybe that’s by a restructuring of anthologies, maybe it’s through a sort of cry in the wilderness, like this essay is making. Maybe it will be word of mouth. It’s all quite random. You can’t herd culture in one direction or another, but you can try. I truly believe that it only takes one or two poems to sort of wake up readers and to make them recognize that this is not something to be intimidated by, but it’s something to be an advocate for and it’s something to find out more about.

JEFFREY BROWN: I bet and I would imagine that we’ve raised curiosity here about your 20 poems. We only heard one, but we’ll put a link on our site so people can go and see what you are proposing. The essay in Harpers is “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America.” Tony Hoagland, thanks so much.

TONY HOAGLAND: Thanks a lot, Jeffrey. Good to talk to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.

You can read Tony’s Hoagland’s essay in Harper’s here.