Tony Hoagland on Spirituality (But not really. Really he’s making another argument about manner.)
Every time an essay from Tony Hoagland arrives, I’m intrigued. He has a knack for continually finding topics that I’m also very interested in, while invariably falling into an argument hostile to my take on the issue. So then, as I am here, I find myself having to respond in some way. That way is usually a few emails to friends, and then a simmer-down period, followed by either walking away from it, or saying something about it on this blog.
So here I am saying something about it on this blog.
The essay this time is titled, “Soul Radio: Three American Spiritualist Poets.” It’s in the July/August 2011 issue of APR.
The thing of it is that if he were just going to grab three poets (in this case Linda Gregg, Marie Howe, and Jane Hirshfield) and talk about how they use spirituality, I’d be fine with it. I’d make no argument about that. But Hoagland can’t stop there, he has to add the argument. Here’s some of his introduction:
In our odd contemporary moment, when, in some corners, poetic directness and sincerity are cause for aesthetic embarrassment, the so-called “spiritual” poet runs pronounced risks. The manners of the day are more disposed to obliquity than testimony, and the straight-forward urge toward wisdom is considered a rather unsophisticated undertaking for poetry. Most poets under forty are more comfortable telling it slant, with a twist, than speaking directly of faith. If all signs only point to other signs, and if meaning infinitely recedes as we approach, what is the object of pursuit?
The work of so-called “wisdom poets,” like Lucille Clifton, or Jane Kenyon, or Carl Dennis, or Sharon Olds, or Stephen Dunn, or William Stafford, or W.S. Merwin, or Galway Kinnell, aren’t taught in many MFA programs; such poems aren’t, perhaps, viewed as difficult enough to need smart people to explain them. Against a postmodern background, to someone with a headful of indeterminacy poetics, their sincerity must seem, well, touchingly simplistic. After all, there isn’t enough time in the semester to visit and examine the obvious! And the interdependence of aesthetic difficulty, institutional learning, and officially sanctioned artistic value has to be maintained. Doesn’t it?
Moreover, such poets also renew our confusions about the difference between categories of art and spirituality, between poets and “teachers,” between poems and gospels, artists and seekers.
There’s a lot in those opening paragraphs to unpack. Here goes.
“In our odd contemporary moment, when, in some corners, poetic directness and sincerity are cause for aesthetic embarrassment”
How much truth is there in this, his opening statement? First off, what does he mean by “odd,” “some corners,” “directness” and “sincerity”? I’m going to guess he’s saying that what’s going on now is an aberration, and in the past poetry was praised for its directness and sincerity. How far back do we want to go? Let’s jump to the canon. Shakespeare? Would you call his poetry direct and sincere? Hopkins? Whitman? Dickinson? Stevens? Eliot? Pound? You see where I’m going with this. My argument would also extend to many of the very poets he above praises. Take Kinnell, for instance. The Book of Nightmares, arguably his best book, is anything but a tour of sincerity and directness. To make the argument about sincerity and directness, even in poets often praised for it, one is going to have to reduce the poetry to a cartoon version of itself. Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams are good examples of that.
So, number one, I find nothing odd about the contemporary moment, where we want an art capable of taking on the fullness of life and spirituality in ways that don’t’ reduce it to a bumper sticker. Even Hoagland’s own poetry (the much talked about recent poem for example), like it or not, brings up complex subjects in ways that leave open a host of responses. How does one gauge sincerity? Was T.S. Eliot sincere? Was Elizabeth Bishop? How about Gertrude Stein? I would like to see a bullet list, please, of what criteria go in to making a work of art sincere. I think, what one will find with such a list is that the marks of sincerity are going to be tied to cultural normativity. If someone talks about things in conventional ways, ways everyone else is used to getting them, then it will be called sincere. One person’s sincerity will then be someone else’s simplicity. In that way, Hoagland’s right about the charge that could be leveled against these (or some of these) poets.
I have yet to see anyone embarrassed by the charge of sincerity. I’ve never seen it. I would like to hear one anecdote of someone being called, pejoratively, sincere. And then had a reaction of embarrassment. Show me if I’m wrong. This is often a charge against fringe aesthetics, that they, in their avant-garde or pseudo avant-garde manner, are somehow insincere. John Ashbery has been called that for years. Just for a second, let’s say he is insincere. If one is insincere, and is consistently so for 60 years of publishing, can one really be insincere? How long can you not mean it?
I’ve seen insincere young poets. Maybe I was one, even. Because when one is young, one is trying on hats. Some of those hats will just be wrong, insincere. You move on, if that’s the case.
[Word choice side note: Did you notice the two “so-called”s in his opening? “so-called ‘spiritual poet’” and “so-called ‘wisdom poets’”. It’s an old argument trick that is able to side-step the issue. Who calls them this? Are these real categories?]
“The manners of the day are more disposed to obliquity than testimony, and the straight-forward urge toward wisdom is considered a rather unsophisticated undertaking for poetry.”
What does Hoagland make of the poetry of Rae Armantrout, then? What about C.D. Wright? Julie Carr? Wright and Carr, specifically, use direct testimony in their work. But even so, obliquity and testimony are not opposites. One could be interested in both or neither. Here’s a question: Is the journey to wisdom ever straight-forward? Not in my experience. One must cast about to discover things.
[Snarky side note: it’s good to see Hoagland finally got the spelling of “sophistication correct.” I was worried.]
When one is casting about, it can and will often look oblique to others. Paul Celan is a great example, but so is (I’m being generous to all aesthetics here and none of these examples should be taken as endorsement) Kay Ryan.
“Most poets under forty are more comfortable telling it slant, with a twist, than speaking directly of faith. If all signs only point to other signs, and if meaning infinitely recedes as we approach, what is the object of pursuit?”
What a mistake to make an allusion to Dickinson here: tell it slant. First, Dickinson, in telling it slant, was a great example of both wisdom and spirituality. But beyond that, when does “telling it slant” mean that one must sign on for “meaning infinitely recedes as we approach”? The postmodern position on meaning is yes, it does recede, but that’s only when one is searching for final meaning. Take physics for example. The more we answer questions, the more we uncover more questions. So, in this way, meaning is receding, but many answers are popping up along the way. Hoagland’s reading of the postmodern dilemma is, at the very least, the kind of simplistic reading that infuses much of the poetry and criticism he supports.
And then, my final (kind of) point. About who is and who isn’t taught in MFA programs. First, MFA programs aren’t literature programs, so there are different questions that arise in constructing reading lists. In my MFA and PhD programs I read a variety of books, from Ben Johnson to Bin Ramke to Rosmarie Waldrop to Linda Gregg. It was all over the place.
This leads me to the three poets he talks about: Linda Gregg, Marie Howe, and Jane Hirshfield. I have nothing, as I said, against their poetry, but I do have something against the way he’s positioning them as if they were rebels of some sort, outsiders at the table. He describes them, generally, this way:
“In a time when ‘directness’ is unfashionable, they take the risk of addressing matters of faith.”
Let me remind you who these three people are he's talking about:
Linda Gregg’s first book of poems, Too Bright to See, was published in 1981. Since then, she has published several collections of poetry, including: All of It Singing (Graywolf Press, 2008), the 2009 recipient of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and winner of the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award; In the Middle Distance (2006); Things and Flesh (1999); Chosen by the Lion (1994); The Sacraments of Desire (1991); Alma (1985); and Eight Poems (1982).
Gregg's honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Foundation Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Whiting Writer's Award, as well as multiple Pushcart Prizes. She was the 2003 winner of the Sara Teasdale Award and the 2006 PEN/Voelcker Award winner for Poetry.
She has taught at the University of Iowa, Columbia University, and the University of California at Berkeley. She currently lives in New York and teaches at Princeton University.
Marie Howe’s most recent book, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (W. W. Norton, 2009) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her other collections of poetry include What the Living Do (1998) and The Good Thief (Persea, 1988), which was selected by Margaret Atwood for the 1987 National Poetry Series.
Stanley Kunitz selected her for a Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets in 1988.
Her other awards include grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Bunting Institute, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has taught at Tufts University and Dartmouth College, among others. Currently she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, New York University, and Columbia University.
Jane Hirshfield received her B.A. from Princeton University in their first graduating class to include women. After that, she went on to study at the San Francisco Zen Center. Her books of poetry include After (HarperCollins, 2006); Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Lives of the Heart (1997), The October Palace (1994), Of Gravity & Angels (1988), and Alaya (1982).
She is the author of Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997) and has also edited and translated The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (1990) with Mariko Aratani and Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (1994).
Her honors include The Poetry Center Book Award, fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, Columbia University's Translation Center Award, the Commonwealth Club of California Poetry Medal, and the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award. In 2004, Hirshfield was awarded the 70th Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by The Academy of American Poets,
In addition to her work as a freelance writer and translator, Hirshfield has taught at UC Berkeley, University of San Francisco, and been Elliston Visiting Poet at the University of Cincinnati. She is currently on the faculty of the Bennington MFA Writing Seminars.
Similarly to the list of poets who are not taught as he says they should be in MFA programs (which I’m not sure he’s correct about, by the way), these three poets have all taught in some of the largest, most prestigious graduate programs in the country (which seems to defy logic, I mean, if these people all teach in these prestigious graduate programs, you know, what are they having students read?). As well, the awards they’ve won and the houses they’ve published with, are all large circulation (by poetry standards), prestigious houses.
If these poets are risking it all by being unfashionable, then fashion doesn’t seem to be minding one bit.
Here’s a bit from his conclusion:
“One notices, in our era, how much presumption simplicity requires—how much ease and confidence, or is it conviction, or need?—is required to aim for wisdom; to seek the way inside appearances and beyond transience. So much poetry now has lowered the stakes, settled for the habits of beauty.”
That’s a rather clumsy first sentence. “Simplicity requires presumption to aim for wisdom.” Is that what he’s saying? Or is it more: “Simplicity requires presumption—which includes ease and confidence, but also perhaps conviction and/or need—to aim for wisdom.”
Do you agree with that, as an assertion? What might an essay on this topic about different mid-career poets who write from a spiritual foundation: Donald Revell, Jean Valentine, and Fanny Howe? Or some from the next generation under that one: Dana Levin, G.C. Waldrep, Kazim Ali?
Hoagland’s essay about spirituality does not have to be an argument for poets “of clarity, [who] write in plainsong, which employs a simplified vocabulary, speech accessible to almost any reader.” The type of poets who write lines like:
I walk back across the mown lawn
loving the smell and the houses
so completely it leaves my heart empty.
Which Hoagland then praises for its understatement. Whatever the merits of this poetry, understatement is not it.