Tony Hoagland’s Take on Contemporary Poetry
Gulf Coast is one of my favorite journals. I don’t always like it, but I always like it, if you know what I mean.
The current issue is a case in point: Billy Collins and Tony Hoagland.
I don’t need to talk about Billy Collins. If you like Billy Collins’s poems, nothing I say will be of much interest to you, and if you dislike his poems, you already know what I would say, so enough about that. Still, it’s nice to see what he’s up to. I guess.
But Tony Hoagland is different. He’s here with an essay on poetry. Tony Hoagland is trying to be helpful. He’s being a part of the conversation.
First off, Tony Hoagland is not a dunderhead. He loves poetry and he wants to make sense out of, or at least help describe, how poetry changes (and is changing). He's aware things are going on. But what they are, well, that gets him a bit pretzelled up.
The essay is titled, “Litany, Game, and Representation: Charting an Arc from the Old to the New Poetry.” It sounds as if it’s going to be large. And at least he’s making an effort, even if it’s free of female examples and any mention of non-heterosexual sexualities—not that every essay has to talk about such things, I know, but it would seem to me that if one is going to try to put one’s finger on the pulse of what’s happening in poetry, one might want to cast a little wider net. At the very least, he should have put the word “male” in the title. That, at least, would have narrowed his rather absurd generalizations a bit. I hope that doesn’t sound unfair. I’ll move on:
Here are his main example poets:
And then, near the end, he makes a side turn to:
Thomas Sayers Ellis
And, as conclusion (and even with a subheading titled “Conclusion,” just so that we're in no doubt) he is confident enough to make the following statement about “the New Poetry”:
“. . . the New Poetry is informed by new tensions, new understandings (the insatiability of language) and by new possibilities. It shows no preference for narration, description, or confessions of the autobiographical self. It seizes hold of a radical new plasticity in signification, and thus—as has been the case in other revolutions—poems of the New Poetry head off in dozens of distinct directions. However, these diverse writers share some of the same fundamental characteristics: they have an instinct for gamesmanship, they are stylistically and technically intensive, and their starting point is the indeterminacy and innate unanchoredness of language (which can animate either affirmation of negative impulses). These poets feel the plasticity of language. They also feel an obligation to approach knowing in new, often oblique ways. They might therefore be called Experimental or Avant Garde poets, but these labels seem, in 2008, encumbered with baggage—better that they simply be called poets of the New Poetry.”
There’s always some truth in such massively large generalizations, but unfortunately, these truths get so watered down by the largesse of the net they have to sit under, so these assertions of Hoagland's become little more than, “look, their poetry seems different in some way than ours was.”
That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try. And try is what Hoagland certainly does here, as he charts the progression:
1. “Smart’s litany illustrates his premises about poetic speech: in the meticulousness of his observation, he reveals a faith in the ability of language to precisely convey; likewise, he believes in the obligation of the psalmist to be accurate in his descriptions.”
So now that we've covered that, let's skip the pond and forward in time to the next poet of interest, in the present-ish:
2. “Plumly’s litany of naming is a ritual of praise . . . . [b]ut now a gulf has opened beween himself and things. [….] The estrangement from self and the estrangement from language have become symptomatic of each other. [….] In this post-natural existence, once man is lost in the maze of self-consciousness, all things recede into the distant mirror. It is impossible to get any closer to X than the sign for X.”
OK, I’ll stop just for a second to say I’m sooooooooo glad we’re past this “Dilemma of X.” I was very bored in graduate school having to have this conversation over and over again. Yes, of course. Language is metaphorical. Gads, people, just get over it already. And so now, apparently, we have. Dean Young rode in to save us in a kind of fun and mostly harmless way:
3. “[Dean Young’s poem] does not suffer from quite the same tone of existential unease we find in Plumly’s poem. But here, too, language—the act of naming—occupies the foreground of the poem’s subject matter. [….] language is seen as a kind of impediment between people. The poetic attention has been shifted from the realm of nature (perception) to the realm of language (naming). The poem could be called celebratory, even erotic, in its playfulness—but it emphasizes the nutty arbitrariness of the act of naming . . . . [I]n Young’s poem, the wonder is located not in nature but in the stylistic dexterity of artifice.”
So we can see what Hoagland is going for. He’s tracing a line from belief in the THING, though the anxiety about the fraught nature of that belief, to a belief in the play of the words that stand for THINGS. And he sees that arc find its completion in Jordan Davis. This is where Hoagland is most ill at ease. Listen to his defense (to himself?) for even bothering to talk about someone like Davis:
4. “One response to such a poetic mode might be to call it cynical; to accuse Davis and his tribe of the deepest nihilism, terminal irony, or poetic anarchy. Yet not all the evidence supports such a reading. Davis’s poem exhibits too much pleasure and gusto to be written off as cynically hip or disillusioned. It is as if, freed from obligations of representation, sense-making, narrative, and autobiography, the fields of play are infinitely open to indefinable adventure. In an era of deeply mistrusted speech, it is a paradoxical fact that this uninhibited sense of play is a common characteristic of the New Poetry. The alienation, angst, and unease of one generation becomes the liberating poetic license of the next.”
Ah, the things Hoagland has to skip over to make such a statement! All the poets he’s had to erase (because they would, for one, erase his gender bias and his timeline). But, even giving him that, the subtext of Hoagland’s arc here is readily apparent. As a poet himself, he’s somewhere close to Plumly, but leaning just a hint toward Dean Young (mostly in that he likes to be kind of funny sometimes). And now he’s an older poet, watching younger poets doing different things. What to do about that? Well, if one can trace an arc, from the past to the present, one can domesticate the present. Make it more friendly, even while scratching one’s head and implicating that it might just be a bridge too far, what these young people are doing these days.
“Ah, the way they play, these kids! How cute they are! Davis and his tribe!” I don’t buy it. In fact, I also don’t buy that it’s just a sudden, right-now, thing that we’re “[i]n an era of deeply mistrusted speech.” Speech has been mistrusted since just about the time there was such a thing.
In the end, I don’t think this is is a very helpful reading of the poets Hoagland is trying to represent by Davis, but it is an interesting reading of poets that Hoagland might be said to represent, those in a position of power, trying to chart a legacy of influence. (I'm not, I want to make clear, knocking the poets he's talking about, or the quality of their work. I'm simply knocking the way he's talking about them, the rather grand assumptions he's making.)
He then tries to do something similar with Hass and Ellis, so it would redundant to go into it. Therefore, I’ll just nod as I pass.