Camouflage and Capitalism: The Intellectual Appropriation of American Poetry,
Sponsored by Alice James Books. (Laura McCullough, Tony Hoagland, Kathleen
Graber, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Peter Campion) Alice James Books presents Tony
Hoagland on the state of American Poetry. Hoagland will present an essay on
poetry as camouflage, as something smuggled into the culture and how the poetry
community hides behind the overintellectualization of aesthetics. Kathleen Graber, Reginald Dwayne Betts, and
Peter Campion respond, offering assessments of the current condition of poetry
in this dialogue and debate moderated by Alice James Books board member, Laura
this was the panel description. It was on Thursday. There were several takeaways:
The essays were all interesting and I hope they’re being published somewhere,
as none of the presenters, I believe, read their entire papers. Maybe Kathleen Graber did?
To begin, I have sympathy for Tony Hoagland. He’s
a humanist. He advocates a human
approach to art with which I reflexively feel kinship. But then he starts talking, getting specific, and I start to
cringe. His opening essay, which I’m not going
to be able to summarize (I should have recorded it. I even thought about it.), had a few
different points, some of which, as I said, I generally could go along with, but
specifically, or when he added examples, I found disagreeable. The
other presenters did a pretty good job of deconstructing them, so again, I wait for the recording to surface.
here are the main points, which Hoagland admitted are not final, but are open (opening)
is a bad word in workshops and in discourse on poetry, and has been supplanted by “intelligence.”
is a bad word in workshops and in discourse on poetry, and has been supplanted by “intelligence”
under these pressures, has gotten too “intelligent” and lost its humanity (or something
like that), as evidenced by a poem example from Ben Lerner.
university system is largely to blame.
is, as with most essays on poetry, some truth to Hoagland’s claims. One can always find, as Peter Campion agreed,
some bullshit poets out there. But I
have to echo Campion when he says that he was (as I believe Kathleen Graber
and Reginald Dwayne Betts also noted) unaware that “soul” and “wisdom” were
terms non grata. This is a major flaw in Hoagland's thinking, taking an example (this time a casual conversation with a friend about poetry, where the friend uses word like "dumb" and "stupid" in disparaging some poets) and then conflating it to be a general method.
seems to me, at times like this, that Hoagland is laying his perceptions of what’s going on over the
reality of what’s really going on. We
all do this, sure, but when Hoagland does this by proclamation in a large
public setting, he’s setting himself up.
His premise/premises, in my experience, are simply wrong. (Right in some places in some poets, but
wrong as a generalization.) And also,
his assertion that the “thinky,” “overintellectualization” of contemporary
poetry can largely be laid at the feet of academia (we mostly have academic
jobs, therefore we privilege academic discourse in our poetry) I find to be severely
arguments, while not without merit, rely on strawman props, which became all
the more ironic after Peter Campion delivered his spirited reply to Hoagland’s
essay. At that time, as Campion went
last, Hoagland, visibly angered, demanded the microphone for a rebuttal, and
delivered a direct attack on Campion (first briefly praising Kathleen Graber and
Reginald Dwayne Betts) as a symptom of what’s wrong in contemporary poetry and
criticism, and specifically charging him with having committed an immoral (maybe
he didn’t say "immoral," maybe it was more like “unconscionable” or something
similar) ad hominem attack on Hoagland’s primary source, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, by Lewis
Campion’s argument went like this: beware the call for “soul” and “wisdom” in poetry,
because these terms (and he was NOT saying that “soul” and “wisdom” are bad
things, by the way, just dangerous as criteria) can lead one to make value judgments on poetry from outside
the poem itself, for example, the way Lewis Hyde dismissed the work of John
Berryman because of his “moral failings” (specifically alcoholism).
seemed a valid example to me, but it upset Hoagland.
the panel had ended there, with just the four essays (and without the Hoagland
mic-grabbing finale) it would have been an interesting swirl of positions and
thoughts, but as it stands, it’s now another example of Hoagland’s thin-skinned,
aggressive nature. I left the panel
thinking only of Hoagland vs Campion, while the interesting and valuable thoughts of Kathleen
Graber and Reginald Dwayne Betts were almost completely effaced from my memory.
hope, as I said above, that the essays (or the recording) will appear somewhere. I’d love a chance for those who weren’t there
to weigh in on the ideas (not just Hoagland's outburst). If I get the opportunity to see them, I'll link to them or post what I can, as there's a lot of interest (some of it being Hoagland's ideas) that I'm not remembering.
a comment on this post (right around comment 80) to ask why I keep “attacking”
Tony Hoagland on my blog. The person
then when on to suggest I do something else with my time, making a joke about
my “soul.” This reminds me that I should
clarify my position.
This is what
I wrote in response:
guess that needed to be said. But from my point of view, it’s more like “Why
does he keep hammering at this?” This paper is another version of “The
Elliptical Poets Have Ruined Poetry” that he’s been doing for years. I don’t
get the luxury of choosing my “targets.” What Hoagland says with a broad brush
against a type of poetry I admire forces me to respond.
I have never
(to the best of my knowledge) attacked Hoagland’s poetry. Responding to his
attacks is a responsibility, just as, for him, making the attacks against a
type of poetry he thinks is “bad” is his responsibility. For the health of my
real soul, I must respond. I will continue to say my piece to his. Just as
you’re tired of hearing me go on, I’m tired of him going on. I’m tired of the
fight. But, you know, as he has said:
“I'm not one
of those people who eschews value judgments of our art, who beams benevolently
on all examples of all aesthetics. I believe that judgment is an accessory and
an accomplice of taste. I myself love to make and to contemplate descriptive
pronouncements of aesthetics. At their best, expressions of judgment are
enlivening; they offer the authentic challenge of accuracy and discernment.
Critical proclamations offer an audience—readers or listeners—a compressed,
potentially illuminating descriptive summary of an artist or a work of art, to
verify or disagree with.”
If he’s sincere
in this, then a response should be welcome, and disagreement allowed. You can
accuse me of whatever, but you could also accuse him of a vendetta against Ben
Lerner, for example, who is his only example in his paper on “what’s wrong with
contemporary poetry.” After the presentation, he said that Peter Campion was
also what’s wrong in the conversation about poetry. If he’s allowed to continue
to hammer away at what he sees is wrong in poetry, I must also be allowed. I
don’t think Tony Hoagland is what’s wrong in poetry. He’s just saying his
piece. What’s wrong is the large microphone he gets, and the deference paid to