What’s Rio Got to Do, Got to Do with It?
Tony Hoagland wearies me. He’s a person of great energy to write essays and with the ability to get these essays published in some of the highest visibility venues, and yet he has so little of value to contribute to the conversation. Still, he has quite a stage for his views, so he gets notice. On the one hand, he is grappling with new poetry, and finding some poets he likes, such as Dean Young or Matthew Zapruder. I’ve no problem with that. These are poets worth liking. But on the other hand, he has to lop off the statue’s arms to get it into the museum. Simply put, Hoagland is not a good lover. All he really knows how to do is fight, which he doesn't do all that well. His moments of acceptance are short, and his energy for dismissal is deep.
An essay by Tony Hoagland, when it’s on his topic of The Skittery (though he’s now thankfully stopped using that term), will follow the logic of something like this, as a shorthand paraphrase:
“There’s this zany, lightweight stuff going on that is a falling off from the heroic history of strong poetry that started with The New York School (and/or Language Poetry). I like the energy of this poetry and am influenced by it. Nobody does it well. Dean Young (or Mathew Zapruder, etc) does it well, because he’s (his examples in these essays are almost all male) participating in the grander, heroic history of poetry. I picked up an issue of a journal (Fence, etc) and there were poems in there that weren’t as good as Dean Young’s (Matthew Zapruder’s, etc), evidenced by these three poems from relatively unknown young males (he once in an essay used an example from a male student in his workshop in Houston). Poetry’s in bad shape these days, and young poets in MFA programs have to get away from imitating Dean Young/ The New York School and/or Language Poetry.”
That’s pretty much his point. And I feel for him. He’s in a tough situation, as I get the feeling he’s honestly trying to come to terms with the fact that he really likes some of this poetry, while hating it in general. To make himself understand his feelings, he needs to rewrite, or at least, renovate what he sees these poets he likes doing. In doing so, he does a lot of damning with faint praise, of them, as well as poets like O’Hara. (Or maybe that’s “feint praise.”) Large-circulation journals such as The Writer’s Chronicle are happy to give him pages and pages to work through his issues. Why, I don’t know, because none of this is doing a service to poetry.
First off, before I go any further, Tony Hoagland needs to read more work from younger female poets. The fact that he keeps writing these essays about the major poets and trends of our time without talking about anything written by women is doing all of us a disservice. I’m not saying Hoagland can’t or won’t write about female poets, because he can and he has, but for whatever reason, when he’s writing about poetic influence and the major figures of the present and the past, it becomes a very male conversation. I wonder how a poet like Mary Ruefle, for example, might complicate his view, or Rae Armantrout, Martha Ronk, or Mary Jo Bang, etc. These are some poets that could easily fit his argument, pro or con. If he’s talked about them in this regard, I’ve missed it. Instead, he uses a strong, mid-career male voice (Dean Young, Mathew Zapruder) and positions that against some much younger random male examples from a random issue of a random journal (or his grad workshop, etc). This is not the way to build a persuasive argument, especially if one has lofty period-influencing ambitions.
So all of this as long preamble to his new essay in The Writer’s Chronicle, titled “Blame it on Rio: The Strange Legacy of New York School Poetics: An Evolutionary Story of Delight and Dissipation.” (I’m not sure what Rio has to do with it, by the way. But I’m rolling with it.) Johannes Göransson talks about this essay over on Montevidayo:
As usual, Hoagland’s essay starts out interestingly enough, with an appreciative, if low-key, bit on Frank O’Hara and the New York School poets, positing that the group is now pretty much the most influential strand in American poetry. This brings up for me my usual knee-jerk reaction to the usual period style argument. Is The New York School really that widespread in its influence? Well, in certain circles, yes, but if you go by the avenues of power and prestige, certainly no. Looking around the rest of The Writer’s Chronicle, one quickly sees a broader picture of who’s in, if anyone really is. And the more Tony Hoagland asserts that O’Hara (or Ashbery, the more usual target in essays such as this) is the reigning influencer, the more the real wagons of power and prestige can feel threatened and double down in reductive assertions of all those kids out there playing on their lawn. But I digress.
He names a few venues for this nth-wave New York School poetry: Jubilat, Conduit, Fence, and Forklift. And a couple presses, Wave and Verse (there is no longer a Verse Press, by the way, it became Wave awhile back, which reveals at least an inkling of Hoagland’s lack of depth regarding what he’s talking about). “And here’s the bad news,” Hoagland writes, “the aesthetic traits O’Hara passed down to us have not been universally beneficial in their absorption.” And he goes on to say that as “history suggests, some of this can be laid at the unassuming feet of the second generation of the New York School.”
Hoagland sees a direct line from O’Hara to you and me, and that is his largest error. He commits the fallacy of talking about lineage by starting history in the late 1950s (The Fallacy of Temporal Dumbness, I think it’s called). But what of the poets who influenced O’Hara? What of these other writers who have, independent of O’Hara, been influenced by these earlier writers (Stevens, Rimbaud, Stein, Jacob, etc)? And, more specifically to his argument, how do James Tate and Russell Edson (just to keep it male) fit into his straight line lineage? Hoagland has to create a false model to make his assumptions seem inevitable. Jack Spicer, for example, radically messes with his superstructure, as do Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop, C.D. Wright, Jorie Graham, Anne Carson, and a host of others. Influence is not a line, but a web. To reduce it as Hoagland is doing here, is to write a lot of the poetry of the 20th Century out of existence.
But that would make it messy, and Hoagland wants to keep it neat, so on he goes. For one thing, he refuses to admit that the New York School poets, either the first or second generation, have depth or emotional resonance, a claim I find absolutely absurd. About Ted Berrigan (and by extension, The New York School[s]), he writes, “[They] declare their harmlessness with a vengeance. They are ruled by the muse of defiant triviality: Disheveled Lite.” In answer to that, I would kindly direct him to the poetry of Ron Padgett and Alice Notley, two second-generation New York School poets he’s obviously not aware of, though he should be (and John Koethe would work in here as well). He can start his education by catching Alice Notley at AWP this year, and he can catch Ron Padgett at The Academy of American Poets Poet’s Forum this October in NYC.
It’s true that Hoagland admires O’Hara (though he steers clear of saying anything much about Ashbery, Koch, or the others), by saying such things as, “O’Hara . . . brought an improvisational nobility to his work, a warmth, dignity, and humanness.” I agree. But I would argue that it is precisely this warmth that linked him with Ashbery and Koch (et al). And it is this warmth, this humanness, that links them with the anti-pretentiousness of the second wave of New York School poets, and further, it is this same tone that links them with James Tate. In fact, James Tate seems a much better candidate for “influencer of the year award” than either O’Hara or Ashbery, if one wants to go on surface similarities to young poets writing today. Read the poem “Absences” from his 1972 book Abesnces, for example, with stanzas such as this:
In a drunken moment years ago
the hero would be me,
effervescent, welcoming a rattled polka dot
of snow, instead of just sitting here
nervously, twisting a casual wink
into this, in a ditch computing
the future, the dust & the whiteness.
I feel a morbid desire for music.
It comes to zero,
knowing another is near,
a wise man, singing.
Never say drunken angry visionary.
I knit the floating mouth
to the sheep called nobler.
Maybe he’ll write that essay next, decrying the diminishment of Tate’s genius in the hounds of wannabees. It’s all so silly, this line of thinking. “They write like O’Hara, but not as well!” “They write like Tate, but not as well!” “They write like Dean Young, but not as well!” Bah. I remember reading old reviews of Ashbery where some reviewer was saying he wrote like Rimbaud, but not as well. Know what I’m saying? It’s a drone. A mantra. The Ohm of the over-the-hill gang as they’re secretly mourning the fading of their own relevance, trying to argue it back into existence.
In this iteration, Hoagland calls upon an ally, David Rivard, to back him up, quoting him thusly: “The first generation of New York poets invented themselves against a backdrop of conservative ’50s American culture—a context against which their aesthetics meant something fresh and liberating—even spiritual. Consequently, it might be reasonable to think that what our present moment in culture needs from poetry right now is a counter-position; something with weight and existential gravity, asserting counter-values.”
What a switcheroo that is! It’s a convenient argument to rid ourselves of The New York School once and for all. Say they were good but slight, then say their influence has diluted into vapidity, and then say they’re no longer relevant anyway. Boom, all done with that! (By the way, I won’t go down the tangent of arguing about the absence of weight and existential gravity in The New York School poets, though I want to.)
One of the problems with that is that Tony Hoagland likes some of the poetry that comes out of this impulse. He really likes Dean Young’s poetry, for example. He really likes Matthew Zapruder’s poetry, for example. And both of them, as he’s saying here in regards to Zapruder, come out of this tradition. Which, then, begs his next question: “One might ask, by way of proof [of the inconsequential nature of the influence of O’Hara, et al]: What major figures have emerged from the second or third generation New York School of Poetics?”
He has a head of steam now, so he goes for a big finish: “If there’s a kind of heroism and commitment missing from contemporary American poetry, that absence is surely born of many forces. . . . The result is a shortage of the visionary.” If this statement is true, it’s as true of Hoagland’s, Rivard’s , and your poetry (if you've written poetry or not). The answer is easy: heal thine self.
I say “if this statement is true” because I really don’t believe it’s true. I find much to cheer for in contemporary American poetry, just as Hoagland does, and some of the poets I cheer for are poets he cheers for. It’s why I have such a difficult time with what he says in these essays. I feel depressed for him. He’s very interested in lineage and schools of poetry, and he does such a poor job of talking about them. “Where’s the duende and fierceness of mind that authorizes vision in our time?” he asks finally. In answer, I suggest he read more poetry, and stop being so silly about it.