If you are not upset or angry at the very mention of Tony Hoagland’s name, please skip ahead to part two and listen to my reading of his poem, “Windchime” before coming back to part one’s discussion. If, on the other hand, you are one of the many who are so unhappy with him that you debated whether you even wanted to open this post, I ask you to give part one a fair hearing. The discussion is difficult, to say the least. It’s uncomfortable, for sure. But then again . . .
Part 1, Disturbance
In an interview with the Boston Phoenix in 1999, Adrienne Rich talked about the kind of poetry she liked. It wasn’t “comfortable poetry.” It was poetry, she said that was “intellectual and moral and political and sexual and sensual—all of that fermenting together. It can speak to people who have themselves felt like monsters and say: you are not alone, this is not monstrous. It can disturb and enrapture.” I’m not sure that she meant it should always do both, or that doing so should necessarily be the primary aim of the poet, but that the poetry she was drawn to was capable of such things. Certainly, what disturbs one reader might enrapture another. Sometimes an otherwise potentially productive disturbance can cause hurt or anger.
And therein lay the problem for today’s featured poet. You may have read about a particular controversy involving Tony Hoagland. It’s certainly google-able, but let me throw you a few quick links. Had this occurred on Twitter in 2019, you can bet it would have been a dark and caustic battle of tweets. In fact, some of the old argument was dug up again and displayed on social media and in various web articles after Hoagland died in October of 2018.
Whether you’ve heard of the brouhaha or not, if you choose to know more, I’d recommend first reading Tony’s poem “The Change,” followed by Claudia Rankine’s thoughts on the poem, as expressed at the AWP conference in 2011. Then, if you have the heart for it, read Tony’s response. Talk about poetry being uncomfortable!
I can understand Claudia Rankine’s perspective, though I also see what Hoagland was trying to accomplish. It hit me when I first read “The Change” long before I encountered the interchange between the two poets. It made me uncomfortable. It felt a bit like a satirical finger pointed right at my own white prejudices, especially those that I didn’t think I possessed.
But I wish Hoagland had responded to Claudia Rankine in a significantly better manner than he had. In my opinion, he missed an opportunity for a productive and edifying discussion. But however poorly he addressed her criticism, I thought understood what he meant when he said that poem was intended (as accusation/criticism) “for white people,” because when I first read it, I felt a sting that I sensed was meant for me. But how much better might it have been had he more carefully considered how that statement and the poem might be perceived by others? Is it possible for a poem to be both thoughtful and uncomfortable?
Perhaps. The poem was defended by some, like Daisy Fried. Others defended the poet if not the poem. In conversation with Rachel Zucker on her Commonplace podcast, American poet Terrance Hayes said, “Is Tony Hoagland a racist or putting out racist views? I would say no. He wrote a bad poem.” For a longer and interesting read that includes parts of that discussion, see this article by Kathryn Maris at the Poetry Society.
Whatever your opinion of the poet or the poem, please consider this brief memorial of Hoagland, written by Marie Howe. And if you still disagree with Terrance Hayes, perhaps Hoagland’s last essay, published in The Sun about a month prior to his death speaks to his growth: Read “The Cure for Racism Is Cancer.”
How do I see it? Well, I see Hoagland as a skilled, sometimes hard, and often tender poet who, like others before him, failed or floundered more than once. I think he wanted to expose a bit of the American modern, white, middle class (and liberal) psyche and leave his readers to decipher what they could. And maybe let us squirm a bit too. I wish he had thought of those he might hurt in the process, though. But I’m willing to bet, especially after his last words in the Sun article, he may have wished that he did too.
However you may judge its execution, both the poem and the subsequent discussion, I am glad that the conversation happened. Like other poets I admire who were far from flawless, I’m willing to enjoy his art for what he “got right,” if you can use that phrase at all about poetry.
Part 2, Rapture
So, let’s look at another poem by Hoagland. While this one again shows the cynicism of a modern American male, it also has a soft underbelly that I find touching. Let me know what you think in the comments (about part one or part two).
But what is this Thursday love poem thing? It’s been a while since I’ve done this feature, but if I haven’t already linked you to death in part one of this post, check out the original Thursday Love Poem, the flagship and namesake of TLP, a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay called “Thursday:”
And if I loved you Wednesday,
Well, what is that to you?
I do not love you Thursday–
So much is true.
And why you come complaining
Is more than I can see.
I loved you Wednesday,–yes–but what
Is that to me?
Sometimes the Thursday Love Poem is an anti-love poem. At the very least, it’s an unconventional one. Or, as in today’s example, it may be an oddly cynical, yet poignant piece. In any case, it’s not the sort of verse you’ll read on your Valentine’s card this month—unless you’ve got really cool friends.
Below is my recording of the poem. You can check out it and other recordings of mine on my Soundcloud profile or on my YouTube channel. You can find the text to Hoagland’s “Windchime” and follow along here.