The Vivid Voice of Tony Hoagland

By Carl Dennis

This essay was written last spring, when Tony Hoagland was still alive, though only a few months from his succumbing to pancreatic cancer. I resist casting it in the past now because his death has changed nothing about my main point here: the vitality of his poetic voice. His poems seem more alive now than ever, and more necessary. —C.D.

One of the basic pleasures that poetry provides is that of intimacy with a speaker. For in a poem, particularly in the kind of first-person poem common today, the poet seems to be addressing us directly. When we are moved by a poem we are made to feel that we are making contact not simply with arguments and opinions but with a sensibility, with a whole human being who seems to be standing behind the lines. This voice is obviously a construction, but if the construction is effective we feel the presence of a unique perspective on the world, of a person whose company is worth keeping. How close the speaker chooses to stand to the reader varies from poet to poet. The typical voice in a poem by Elizabeth Bishop seems to prefer to stand at greater remove than does the typical voice in a poem by Sylvia Plath. The voice of Robert Lowell’s early poems seems more distant than that of his later poems. In the poetry of today, in which the dominant stance tends to be frank and familiar, rather than indirect and formal, we are offered a rich variety of distinctive personal voices, voices that not only manage to seize our attention but to hold it as well, so that as the poem develops we find ourselves being drawn more fully into connection with the speaker. For me, one of the most vivid and arresting voices among contemporary writers is that of Tony Hoagland, which succeeds in establishing a particularly close relation to the reader through its particular weave of irony and frankness, wit and raw feeling, frustration with human frailty and deep humanity. I can’t think of another poet writing today who offers contact with so rich a personality, contact constantly gripping and rewarding.

To say that a poet has a vivid voice is to make a statement both about the poems taken one by one and about the work as a whole. Individually each poem I focus on here has a speaker of its own, different from all the others, who stages for the reader his own particular drama of self-presentation. And collectively the poems share enough in materials, methods, and attitudes to be instantly recognizable as members of the same family, the speech of a single character in a variety of moods and situations. To make this second point requires choosing a representative sample from different periods in Hoagland’s career, and I have chosen nine poems taken from six of his seven books. This attempt at temporal breadth might not suit a poet who discovers his voice only after a substantial period of trial and error, but Hoagland’s speaker appears, remarkably, fully formed in his first book, Sweet Ruin. What we find in moving from book to book is not a slow growth toward confident self-definition but a voice that is strong from first to last, though shifting its strategies as the poems open themselves to new materials.

Because Hoagland’s voice is fully present at once, it makes sense to linger with Sweet Ruin awhile. Here is “Oh Mercy,” the first of three poems I want to look at closely in terms of the relation they enact between the speaker and the reader:

Only the billionth person
to glance up at the moon tonight
which looks bald, high-browed and professorial to me,

the kind of face I always shook my fist at
when I was seventeen
and every stopsign was a figure of authority

that had it in for me
and every bottle of cold beer
had a little picture of my father on the label

for smashing down in parking lots
at 2 AM, when things devolved
into the dance of who was craziest.

That year, if we could have reached the moon,
if we could have shoplifted the paint and telescoping ladders,
we would have scribbled FUCK YOU

on its massive yellow cheek,
thrilled about the opportunity
to offend three billion people

in a single night.
But the moon stayed out of reach,
imperturbable, polite.

It kept on varnishing the seas,
overseeing the development of grapes in Italy,
putting the midwest to bed

in white pajamas.
It’s seen my kind
a million times before

upon this parapet of loneliness and fear
and how we come around in time
to lifting up our heads,

looking for the kindness
that would make revenge unnecessary.

The poem opens with an engaging irony, the poet’s mocking of his own choice to begin his poem with an outmoded lyrical gesture, an opening which is then saved from sounding conventionally self-deprecating by the freshness of the poet’s own projections. We can think of many poems that begin with the moon, but no other in which the moon is “high-browed and professorial,” and none in which we move so quickly from the speaker in the present to his younger self, full of teenage resentments about authority figures. From the charm of the self-mocking opening we move to clear-eyed anatomy that refuses to take the boy’s grievances too seriously and presents him instead as the star of his self-produced late-night melodrama, with a blend of belligerence, paranoia, and vanity as the boy competes with his fellows in the “dance of who was craziest.” This witty deflating analysis, set in a decidedly unpicturesque scene of beer bottles and parking lot, wins the reader by its bracing honesty, its freedom from the wish to defend the speaker’s youthful self, to justify or mythologize. But what is more deeply engaging is that the poet, having won our faith in his critical distance, begins to close the distance between him and his younger self. This shift begins with his imagining himself and his friends as longing to paint an insult on the “yellow cheek” of the moon to offend all the residents of the earth. The wish is more appealing in its imaginative extravagance than the boy’s smashing bottles in a parking lot, and functions as the poet’s gift to his younger self. Using his own imagination, the poet gives the boy the wish to resist the professorial moon that begins the poem. Poet and boy, and the reader as well, understand this vexation at a predictable moon indifferent to human flamboyance, though the poet can also imagine the moon as performing custodial duties of “varnishing” and “putting to bed.” The stage is set for the collapse of distance that takes place in the last seven lines of the poem, in which the boy eventually turns into the adult who wishes to belong to a welcoming community:

It’s seen my kind
a million times before

upon this parapet of loneliness and fear
and how we come around in time
to lifting up our heads,

looking for the kindness
that would make revenge unnecessary.

The world the boy comes to inhabits is now “the parapet of loneliness and fear” that we all recognize as the human condition, the more elevated phrasing here marking the shift of the speaker away from irony to directness. We do have some real grievances after all. We do have reason to feel frustrated and estranged. But if we are like most of our kind, we will give up a grand dream of retribution for something more available and more consoling, by “looking for the kindness / that would make revenge unnecessary.” By the end of the poem we feel that the poet is speaking for all of us in outlining the stages of human desire. We are ready to allow him the lapidary formulation of the last two lines in which he speaks about us with complete authority.

“Oh Mercy” is based on a contrast between youth and age, the voice of self-absorbed ignorance and the voice of experience. But the second poem from Sweet Ruin that I want to look at, “My Country,” is focused entirely on the speaker as he is now, and in particular on his moral limitations. It is a poem not about growing self-acceptance but about unflinching self-contempt, so the reader has good reason to stand at greater remove from the speaker, listening in from a safe distance:

When I think of what I know about America,
I think of kissing my best friend’s wife
in the parking lot of the zoo one afternoon,

just over the wall from the lion’s cage.
One minute making small talk,
the next my face was moving down to meet her

wet and open upturned mouth. It was a kind of patriotic act,
pledging our allegiance to the pleasure
and not the consequence, crossing over the border

of what we were supposed to do,
burning our bridges and making our bed
to an orchestra of screaming birds

and the smell of elephant manure. Over her shoulder
I could see the sun, burning palely in the winter sky
and I thought of my friend, who always tries

to see the good in situations—how an innocence
like that shouldn’t be betrayed.
Then she took my lower lip between her teeth,

I slipped my hand inside her shirt and felt
my principles blinking out behind me
like streetlights in a town where I had never

lived, to which I never intended to return.
And who was left to speak of what had happened?
And who would ever be brave, or lonely,

or free enough to ask?

This may be called a confessional poem in which someone speaks frankly about his own failures of character, but what holds our attention is the speaker’s refusal to lecture himself about his guilt, to take himself too seriously, for while he describes his betrayal of a friend, he describes as well his pathetic attempts to regard the act as noble, as a courageous attempt to live in the moment, as a frank affirmation of pleasure against the restraints of rules and obligations. It is this clear-eyed refusal to admit to his own pretense of being a romantic lover that allows the reader to sympathize with the speaker. We appreciate his using the scene of the zoo parking lot, with its “smell of elephant manure” to expose his own offensive pretensions. It turns out that the hero’s foil is not the villain of romance but a kindly man whose “innocence shouldn’t be betrayed,” and breaking free turns out not to be an act of courage but a giving in to weakness, summarized in wonderfully effective enjambment:

I slipped my hand inside her shirt and felt
My principles blinking out behind me.

In the speaker’s refusal to give his story the dignity of tragedy we feel a grudging respect, if not intimacy. But our connection with him is complicated and deepened by his suggestion, from the first line on, that his failure is somehow representative, that it is not an isolated private episode but part of the experience of being an American. The parallel between the private and the political is not spelled out, but the suggestion persists indirectly that not only the speaker but America as well has betrayed its principles, turning from a concern with long-range consequences to pursue short-term gain. It too has tried to hide its betrayal beneath unconvincing excuses. It too has lost its innocence so completely that it is unable to mourn the loss or understand it:

And who was left to speak of what had happened?
And who would ever be brave, or lonely,

Or free enough to ask?

“Lonely” is an especially resonant word here, calling attention to itself because it doesn’t seem to fit a description of the land of the free and the home of the brave. It suggests that to be free and brave now one must feel isolated, because we live in a time where the founding values of the country are no longer admired. This is a bold assertion for the poet to make, because it asks the reader to acknowledge that he or she may also be an agent in America’s decline. If we don’t have a sexual betrayal to remember, we may have some other episode of private life in which we have betrayed values that we think we believe in. The poem succeeds in its presumption here because the speaker allows us to draw the implications ourselves. It’s up to us to ask if we recognize the little town whose streetlights the poet imagines blinking out behind him, the town that represents his private version of a public life, that embodies the hoped-for country he can no longer imagine inhabiting.

Both “Oh Mercy” and “My Country,” then, may be seen as enacting a narrative that moves, directly or indirectly, from a first person singular to a first person plural, that closes the distance between “I” and “we.” In the third poem I want to look at from Sweet Ruin, “History of Desire,” the poet addresses the reader directly as a “you”:

When you’re seventeen, and drunk
on the husky, late-night flavor
of your first girlfriend’s voice
along the wires of the telephone

what else to do but steal
your father’s El Dorado from the drive
and cruise out to the park on Driscoll Hill?
Then climb the county water tower

and aerosol her name in spraycan orange
a hundred feet above the town?
Because only the letters of that word,
DORIS, next door to yours,

in yard-high, iridescent script
are amplified enough to tell the world
who’s playing lead guitar
in the rock band of your blood.

You don’t consider for a moment
the shock in store for you in 10 A.D.,
a decade after Doris, when,
out for a drive on your visit home,

you take the Smallville Road, look up
still scorched upon the reservoir.
This is how history catches up—

by holding still until you
bump into yourself.
What makes you blush and push
the pedal of the Mustang

almost through the floor
as if you wanted to spray gravel
across the features of the past,
or accelerate into oblivion?

Are you so out of love that you
can’t move fast enough away?
But if desire is acceleration,
experience is as circular as any

Indianapolis. We keep coming back
to what we are—each time older,
more freaked out, or less afraid.
And you are older now.

You should stop today.
In the name of Doris, stop.

In his direct address to the reader, the speaker here seems, at first at least, to be ingratiating, not challenging, as he invites the reader to participate in a reminiscence they both share, an older man assuming a younger man is open to sharing a memory of the crazy extravagance of teenage love. The presentation is comically embodied in the furniture of popular culture, the stealing of the father’s El Dorado, the spray-painting of the beloved’s name in “yard-high iridescent script” on the local water tower, the lover’s obsession defined in the fresh, colloquial metaphor of “who’s playing lead guitar / in the rock band” of the reader’s blood. But just when we have become comfortable with this avuncular speaker, he lets us know that the opening stanzas are only the first act of a drama, followed by the second act, 10 years later, when the “you,” now 27, comes across the spray-painted phrase, still legible, and is embarrassed by this reminder of the antics of his teenage self, and speeds away in shame. And now the speaker, instead of sharing the feelings of the shocked “you,” reproves him for not wanting to embrace his earlier craziness, delivering a sermon on “the history of desire,” about the need to embrace one’s early folly, to move from self-rejection toward a self-acceptance that makes growth possible. How does the poet manage to pull this off so we don’t feel the speaker has changed his casual clothes for his church clothes, setting us up for a comeuppance? In part because the diction, though it momentarily becomes abstract, returns quickly to the colloquial.

But if desire is acceleration,
experience is circular as any

Indianapolis. We keep coming back
to what we are—each time older,
more freaked out, or less afraid.

And in the last two lines, in what may be thought of as a brief third act, the speaker moves past sobriety and maturity to embrace a position just as extravagant as that of the teenage lover. For he now presents himself as an apostle of the true faith, devoted to the worship of the goddess Doris, commanding the “you” in the name of Doris to stop speeding away from his love and turn toward it. Work with your youthful imagination, not against it, the implied gospel goes, and you will know the truth that will set you free. The hyperbole of this command is comic, but the comedy does not undermine the command so much as give it colloquial authority.

Though the speaker addresses the reader in “History of Desire” and has a privileged insight into the implied reader’s conflicts, the only voice we hear is that of the speaker himself, so the conflict between the speaker and the “you” isn’t expressed as a dialogue. In this sense the strategy is like that of “Oh Mercy,” in which the speaker dwells on the difference between the boy and the man, or like that of “My Country,” in which the speaker mocks his own behavior. But one of the markers of the shift from Hoagland’s first book to his second, Donkey Gospel, is a deliberate effort to bring other voices into play. How to share the poem with another voice without losing the energetic focus of a single speaker is one of the aesthetic problems confronted in the poem entitled “The Confessional Mode”:

“I wish somebody would take a razor
and just slit my throat,”
my mother often used to say
at the lovely time of evening

when the stars gleamed like spangles on a corset
wrapped around the broad, ungirlish waist of Earth.
“Put a bag over my head, pretty please,
and let me blow my brains out in the sink.”

The mouth is such a terrible instrument,
such a bloody harmonica,
wailing its complaints,
but it’s the great insulters we remember,

the ones with a vocabulary
of cancer and barbed wire.
“I’m the fucking Jew here,” she would announce,

setting down the dinner plates, smiling like a woman
invited to consume a meal of broken teeth,
and everyone would sigh and shiver
over their spaghetti, and wait for that particular

Russian novel to be over.
What strange appetites we have
that make us rewind time and summon
up the landscapes of our pain

long after the lips have been unleashed
from their humiliated smiles,
and the silverware gone to the graveyard
for old forks and knives.

Yet some craving draws me backward
and the words for telling it
march out of my mouth with a pleasure
that is almost biological,

as if the telling were a sort of sweet revenge,
though I have noticed also how
each telling renders me
a little bit more ruthless, old

and capable of saying anything.

We have here, clearly, not one speaker but two—the poet’s mother and the poet—though we can’t call the poem a dialogue, because while the speaker’s mother addresses the family, her son addresses only himself and the reader. This lack of symmetry seems wholly understandable. For the mother is focused on venting her anger about her life, not on having a conversation. She wants to blame her family as somehow complicit in her suffering, not to create a moment of concord. If we took the title at face value, we might say that the poet is being confessional in revealing how his mother’s bitterness with life, while she was dying, poisoned the atmosphere of family gatherings. But this formulation would seem to overlook the speaker’s tone, which isn’t that of a scarred victim. His mother’s words are hurtful, but the poet now has enough distance from them to confess to the pleasure he feels in repeating them, his sense that they are so vivid and extreme as to be memorable, to suggest his mother has the distinction of being “one of the great insulters.” What the poem gives us is not so much a monologue or a dialogue but a monologue with creative interpolations, a kind of duet sung to the reader, in which the “ruthless” words of the mother are followed by the descant of the son’s ruthless commentary, which allows him to prove his kinship with his mother by his refusal to pull his punches. In this way the poem gives us an account of the birth of a poet, or at least the birth of one element essential to the makeup of the poet’s voice, the unflinching honesty we have seen in the poems we have looked at so far. What makes his honesty poetical here is that it provides the mother’s words with an imaginative frame that transforms them into comic theater:

I wish somebody would take a razor
and just slit my throat,”
my mother often used to say

at the lovely time of evening

when the stars gleamed like spangles on a corset
wrapped around the broad, ungirlish waist of Earth.

The mother’s words are part of script she has performed before, and performed them in a way that turns the evening to a night at the theater that specializes in melodrama, in which the real is transformed into a dowdy replica. A scene that could be played as solemn anguish is turned into broad comedy, though it’s a dark kind of comedy, and the effect is to establish a particular intimacy between the poet and the reader. We feel privileged to be given a seat in the audience at this family drama, even though it means we’re bound to a poet who is “capable of saying anything.”

In Hoagland’s next book of poems, What Narcissism Means to Me, the poet’s effort to engage with voices other than his own sometimes takes the form of recording conversations where he is more of an observer than a participant, interactions that capture the character of the poet’s social milieu, the speaker adding his thoughts to the mix from time to time but mostly keeping silent to make room for other voices. But occasionally he presents himself engaged in a dialogue with someone who pushes him to see the world from a perspective different from his own, as he does in the “Poem in Which I Make the Mistake of Comparing Billie Holiday to a Cosmic Washerwoman”:

We were driving back from the record store at the mall
when Terrence told me that Billie Holiday
was not a symbol for the black soul.

He said, The night is not African American either, for your information.

It is just goddamn dark,
and in the background

she was singing a song I never heard before,
moving her voice like water moving
along the shore of a lake,

reaching gently into the crevices, touching the pebbles and sand.

Once through the dirty window of a train
on the outskirts of Hoboken, New Jersey,
I swear I saw a sonnet written high up on a concrete wall,

rhymed quatrains rising from the
dyslexic alphabet of gang signs and obscenities,

and Terrence says he saw a fresco
of brown and white angels flying
on a boarded-up building in Chinatown

and everybody knows
there’s a teenage genius somewhere out there,
a firebrand out of Ghana by way of Alabama,
this very minute in a warehouse loft,
rewriting Moby-Dick—The Story of the Great Black Whale.

When he bursts out of the womb
of his American youth
with his dictionary and his hip-hop shovel,

when he takes his place on stage,
dripping the amniotic fluid of history,
he won’t be any color we ever saw before,

and I know he’s right, Terrence is right it’s obvious.

But here in the past of that future,
Billie Holiday is still singing
a song so dark and slow
it seems bigger than her, it sounds very heavy

like a terrible stain soaked into the sheets,
so deep that nothing will ever get it out,
but she keeps trying,

she keeps pushing the dark syllables under the water
then pulling them up to see if they are clean
but they never are
and it makes her sad
and we are too

and it’s dark around the car and inside also is very dark.
Terrence and I can barely see each other
in the dashboard glow.
I can only imagine him right now
pointing at the radio
as if to say, Shut up and listen.

Here we have the record of an actual conversation on a particular occasion, as our speaker and his friend Terrence drive home from a record store listening to a tape of Billie Holiday. We assume we can trust the speaker to give an honest report, because, as the title suggests, he seems to accept the reproof that opens the poem, that he has made the mistake of mythologizing Billie Holiday, not hearing her as a singer with a voice all her own but as “a symbol for the black soul,” and that this mistake is a symptom of the grid that a white American is liable to impose on his world.

He said, The night is not African American either, for your information,
It is just goddamn dark . . .

How much our poet learns from this reproof is the subject of all that follows, and the poem is nicely open and engaging about the answer, offering the reader a sequence of possibilities along the way. In the next stanza, he seems to make a good first step away from convention, describing what he hears in the music in a simile that suggests an authentic personal encounter:

she was singing a song I never heard before,
moving her voice like water moving
along the shore of a lake,
reaching gently into the crevices, touching the pebbles and the sand.

Perhaps the poet’s success in finding a metaphor for his experience may explain why at this moment he turns away from the drive he’s engaged in to introduce his experience of spotting—from the window of a train passing through Hoboken—a sonnet “high up on a concrete wall” that’s been scrawled over with “gang signs and obscenities.” Like the sonnet, the metaphor of the moving water seems unaccountable and unpredictable, though it may be hard to see what corresponds, in the speaker’s experience of Holiday’s music, to the grimy window and the graffiti. Is there something melodramatic and self-congratulating creeping into the poet’s associations, or something patronizing about his wonder at finding high art on the street? Perhaps not, for his memory of encountering an improbable sign seems validated by Terrence’s similar experience:

and Terrence says he saw a fresco
of brown and white angels flying
on a boarded-up building in Chinatown.

Somehow the conversation, interrupted by these two memories, has led the poet to shift from his narrative of a drive together in the recent past to a connection in an open present, as they toy with this odd, absurd sign of brotherly love. And then our speaker takes a further step of suggesting that this vision of promise may be more than a dream:

and everybody knows
there’s a teenage genius somewhere out there,
a firebrand out of Ghana by way of Alabama,
this very minute in a warehouse loft,
rewriting Moby-Dick—The Story of the Great Black Whale.

“Everybody knows,” but doesn’t this rewriting of Moby-Dick suggest that our speaker is slipping back into the mythologizing of blackness that Terrence began the poem by rejecting? The poet tries to correct this mistake by asserting the “firebrand” “won’t be any color we saw before,” and by attributing this “so obvious” insight to Terrence. But anything that is “so obvious” may be too obvious to be credible, and after this moment of hope in a future society in which the drama of black and white has been transcended, the poet falls back into the world of history. He can’t help hearing in Billie Holiday the pain of black experience, can’t help hearing her song as a fruitless struggle to wash away the scars and stains of the past. Does this mean that the poet ends the poem where he began, still peering at experience through the grid of white mythology, and placing the burden of transcending the past on Holiday and not on himself? Or does the new reading suggest a deeper level of empathy, one that doesn’t attempt to transcend the sadness but understand it? The first possibility seems to be confirmed by the poem’s title, and yet the second reading seems to be implied by the last two lines of the penultimate stanza, asserting that her failure “makes her sad / and we are too.” Holiday, Terrence, and the poet seem for a moment to be bound together, at least in the poet’s eyes, as they contemplate a past that they feel unable to move beyond. This impression of growth may seem at first to be denied by the last stanza, for here the poet and his friend seem to be back where they began, still talking in the car, with Terrence still telling our speaker to stop forcing meanings on Holiday and start listening. But the situation is different in one crucial respect, because Terrence in fact says nothing. His voice exists now in the poet’s imagination. The poet has grown enough in the course of the poem to include Terrence as one of the permanent voices of his consciousness. And if the poet is disappointed by this sole sign of progress, the reader at least—the black reader as well as the white, I believe—who has followed him through his efforts at self-education, is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Monologue has at least become dialogue, however incomplete that dialogue might be.

Hoagland’s attempt to get more voices into a poem is one aspect of an attempt that becomes even more obvious in the books following What Narcissism Means to Me: to get as much of contemporary life as possible into his poems, however apparently ephemeral and pedestrian it may be, a world that he presumes the reader will recognize as all too familiar. In his next book, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, that project includes fidelity to the surfaces of contemporary commercial life. The speaker here takes on the role of the guide to aspects of the culture that the reader may have overlooked. Here, for instance, is the opening of the poem “Food Court”:

If you want to talk about America, why not just mention
Jimmy’s Wok and Roll American-Chinese Gourmet Emporium?—
the cloud of steam rising from the bean sprouts and shredded cabbage

when the oil is sprayed on from a giant plastic bottle
wielded by Ramon, Jimmy’s main employee,
who hates having to wear a sanitary hair net

and who thinks the food smells funny?

This is not a poem that uses “America” in its first line as it’s used in “My Country,” as an entry point into painful self-revelation. Here we have a speaker who wants to share with the reader his own boundless appetite for the details of American culture. If we aren’t interested in Jimmy’s Wok and Roll, we are missing something colorful and revealing. Or consider the opening of “Cement Truck” that describes the poet’s successful effort to make a cement truck poetical, to show the reader that his poetry tries to leave nothing out:

I wanted to get the cement truck into the poem
because I loved the bulk of the big rotating barrel
as it went calmly down the street
churning to keep the wet cement inside
slushily in motion.

I liked the monster girth of the torso
and the tilted ovoid shape,
the raised rump with a hole like an anus at the back,
the double-thick tires to bear the weight. I liked
the way that people turned to watch it pass—

because what is more like a rhinoceros or elephant
than this thick-skinned grunting beast
goaded by two smallish men in jumpsuits?

It’s hard to imagine a reader who would not want to continue reading this poem, who would not be charmed by a poem with the power of witty description that can make something so bulky and awkward into an object of pleasurable recognition. We too may have thought of the cement truck as a heavy, bulky animal, though we may not have worked out the analogy so exactly.

But the effort, in Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, to provide an inventory of contemporary paraphernalia is usually braided, as the title of the book suggests, with the poet’s discomfort with the world he is presenting. Being inclusive, for our poet, seldom means being neutral. It often means juxtaposing the world he’s describing with the world as it might be. At times this honesty means that the dominant mood of many poems in the book is chagrin, as is in the case “Hard Rain,” in which the speaker confronts the power of commercial life to rob the world of depth, to cheapen all it touches. And often he broods about his own complicity in the process. But in other poems the poet asserts his powers of resistance more emphatically, as he does in “Disaster Movie,” where a dream allows him to give America its comeuppance:

You were a jumbo jet, America,
gone down in the jungle in my dream.

It must have been Borneo, or someplace tropical like that,
because vines had strangled the propellers into stillness,
rust was already licking the battered silver wings—

monkeys had commandeered the cockpit
and were getting drunk
on the miniature bottles of vodka and Jack Daniels,

wearing the orange safety vests backwards
and spinning in the empty swivel chairs.

In the first-class cabin, the first-class passengers
had finished the last of the Chicken Kiev and were barricaded in,

while outside the economy fliers had gathered by the defunct fuselage
to take a vote
on whether to wait for rescue or to try to rescue themselves.

I couldn’t believe that my twisted subconscious
would wreck a whole nation to make a point;
that my disgust with cell phones and beauty pageants would drive me to

ram it headfirst into the side of a hill,—its wings snapped off,
its captain decapitated,

its dependence on foreign oil
brought to a sudden conclusion.

And sure I knew that this apocalypse was a thin disguise
for my pitiful fear of being no good at ordinary life.

But what was sweet in the dream was the quiet
resilience of those little people:

someone using duct tape to make beds out of flotation cushions;
the steward limping past on crutches, as night seeped in.

The huge cracked tube of the plane
laid out on the floor like a broken toy.

An AA meeting in progress by one of the enormous, flattened tires.
And a woman singing in the dusk,
as she tended a fire
fed with an endless supply of safety manuals and self-help books.

We’re offered a rich layering of comedy here as the poet laughs at his naked wish to punish the America of “cell phones and beauty pageants” by reducing the country in dream to a jumbo jet that has crash-landed in a jungle. America’s faith in technology is exploded, along with its privileges for the rich and the dithering of the “economy flyers” who suspect that waiting for help may not suffice as an emergency plan. If the poem had ended four stanzas from the end, with the poet judging the dream to be “a thin disguise” for his “ritual fear of being no good at ordinary life,” the poem would have reduced the dream to delightful self-satire. But in the rest of the poem, as the “little people” show some “resilience,” the poet moves past the wish to humble and punish toward the wish to redeem, inspired by a kind of Whitman-like faith in ordinary Americans to cope pluckily with misfortune. This move is a bold one, because it risks sentimentality. But the poet avoids that danger with comedy, with the homeliness of the details: the mattress made from duct-taped flotation cushions, the AA meetings that imply recognizing limitations rather than grand achievements. As for the woman “singing in the dusk,” if she seems at first an avatar of Whitman’s solitary singer in the woods, or even of Wordsworth’s solitary reaper, she turns out to be tending a cooking fire by feeding it all the American self-help books that have proven useless in a real emergency. From the ashes of the old America, perhaps a wiser, chastened America can rise like a phoenix. By the end of the poem we are won over by the director of the disaster movie. His pleased surprise at the turns of his dream is our own surprise and pleasure at his vivid weaving of distance and engagement. We feel indebted to his imagination for reducing America’s problems to manageable proportions and for then suggesting that our hopes, however qualified, are not wholly absurd. If he hasn’t given up on America, we ask ourselves, then why should we?

When we move from the world of dream to the world of waking life, Hoagland’s poet has to accommodate himself more to the world as is, which means the voice is more subdued, the wish to celebrate more muted. But the ambition remains to the end of his career to give us poems with a complex range of perspectives on particular scenes, scenes that offer a representative aspect of American life. Here, for example, is a poem entitled “December, with Antlers,” from his next book, Application for Release from the Dream:

Why are people wearing antlers in the hospital cafeteria?
Because it’s Christmas, silly.

Can’t you hear the sleighbells
drifting down like pesticide from all the hidden speakers?

Mr. Johansson says he doesn’t get paid
enough to wear a Santa hat,
but everybody else just goes along with it.

It’s winter, the elevators ding, the stunned relatives get off and on.
If it is Indiana or Ohio, they bring food.

No one sees the drama of the not-dead flowers,
taken from the room of the deceased
and thrown onto the trash.

Was it Stevens, or Corinthians?—“We make our dwelling
on the slope of a volcano.”

You have to admire the ones who stand outside to smoke,
studying the parking lot,
all James-Dean casual with their IV poles.

If you could see them through my eyes, they all have antlers.
Human beings are tough—

with their obesity, their chemo and their scars,
their courage in the face of dark prognosis.

Tough as Rudolf-fucking carcinoma.

Look. Here come the three wise women,
up the escalator, bearing Jell-O.

At our first reading of the poem we may be most aware of the vivid survey of characters in the hospital cafeteria: the woman he asks for an explanation about what’s going on, the one hold-out against Christmas cheer, the smokers, the relatives. But on a second reading it’s clear that the drama in the poem is not so much among the characters as within the speaker, as his attitude toward the scene he’s describing keeps shifting. The question he asks at the opening marks him as an outsider for whom the Christmas decor is jarring, and his silent response to his informant, who calls his question “silly,” is scornful: “Can’t you hear the sleighbells / drifting down like pesticide from all the hidden speakers”—as if to suggest that the fake cheer is itself toxic in this place of serious illness. Mr. Johansson deserves to have his name mentioned here because he alone resists the charade. If the poet is going to stay and watch, we learn in the next two lines, he is going to play the role of anthropologist generalizing from his sample about the strange customs of Americans, and attentive to variations:

It’s winter, the elevators ding, the stunned relatives get off and on.
If it is Indiana or Ohio, they bring food.

Does the poet manage to keep to this neutral, clinical distance? The next three lines do suggest a clear difference between his wider perspective and that of the participants:

No one sees the drama of the not-dead flowers,
taken from the room of the deceased
and thrown onto the trash.

Only our poet sees the dark truth that this Christmas cheer is pathetically irrelevant.

But this claim, which risks sounding a little too knowing, a little smug, is mocked at once by the poet’s misquoting of Nietzsche in the next stanza, and the false choice he offers about its source:

Was it Stevens, or Corinthians?—“We make our dwelling
on the slope of a volcano.”

It’s hard to think of any advice more inappropriate for a cancer hospital than Nietzsche’s imperative to “live dangerously” and “build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius.” And the two sources offered, Wallace Stevens or Corinthians, seem so different from each other, as well as from Nietzsche, that they suggest that the speaker has no real notion of stable tradition, that he can offer only a jumble of references. Once the poet has given up his claim to see what others can’t see, he is free to identify with the patients. The pose of the smokers may be “James-Dean casual,” but he admires their efforts not to be cowed, so that the antlers he sees on the heads of everyone are signs not of their denial of their plight, as they seemed at the opening, but of their efforts to face the harsh facts of their lives without cringing. The anger he expresses with the phrase “Tough as Rudolf-fucking carcinoma” is directed not at popular Christmas cheer but at the cancer the people in the cafeteria know they are up against. But the final shift of the poem moves us from anger to comic wonder:

Look. Here come the three wise women,
up the escalator, bearing Jell-O.

Instead of the three wise men from the East, we have the three wise women from the mid-West. Instead of precious gifts for the holy child born to redeem us, we have Jell-O for the sick, and for their friends and relatives. And the poet is ready to wonder at this small, brave fellowship, and to join it.

The subject of cancer here becomes strangely prophetic with reference to Hoagland’s own experience of the last few years, which has been darkened by debilitating treatments for the disease. I want to end this essay on voice by looking at two poems from his most recent book, Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God, that turn from his large project of making sense of America to deal with the personal issue of what may prove to be a terminal illness, poems where his mastery of voice seems peculiarly powerful, poems that complement each other in their strategies for making the subject of death manageable. Here is “Achilles”:

Achilles is being carried from the field.
Three-fourths covered by a thin green gown;
one big bare shoulder sticking out,
his face ash-gray and ivory-pale.
His war is finished. They’re taking him home.

They have him in the bay across from me
on a gurney outside Radiology. IV bags suspended over his head
like toy Mylar balloons fastened to his arms by string,
Anyone can see he’s done.

It seems we are temporarily encamped upon the bank
of that famous river that has run
through London and Detroit, Bangkok and Baghdad—
this Ganges down which a hundred million souls have gone
like candles flickering in the mist.

Our brave companions here: the cornrowed orderly from Birmingham;
the plump Filipina nurse; Myron who spends his check on Powerball;
the weeping relatives. They move among us whispering.

Achilles—his name is called at last—
is being wheeled now on his way
into the crypt-cold vault called Radiology.

They roll him past. Maybe I am the only one
who sees the six tall ghosts that walk on either side of him,
rhythmically striking their fists against their shields.
I want to say, Look, don’t pity him! His imagination is not dead!

Sideways, going by, he opens one of his gray eyes
to look at me, and raises two fingers in that salute
I am coming to recognize.

And then I am here alone,
the one to weep,
and it is myself I weep for.

Unlike “December, with Antlers,” this is not a poem that begins with detachment and moves to engagement. It begins with a grand claim, that the patient dying in a cancer ward is akin to Achilles, the greatest of the heroes who fought at Troy, and it never backs away from that claim even as we move from the battlefield where our Achilles receives his mortal wound to the clinical setting of a “gurney outside Radiology.” The concrete, impersonal, humiliating details are not denied, but they are forced to make room for a mythic occasion as well, with the poet and Achilles camped on the bank of “that famous river” that runs through the cities of the world, on which the souls of the dying journey toward death. The companions of Achilles and the poet are not the Achaean warriors at Troy, just

the cornrowed orderly from Birmingham, the plump Filipina nurse, Myron who spends his check on Powerball, [and] the weeping relatives

but they are still brave and compassionate to dwell by choice in this region of death. As the poem moves toward its conclusion, the poet places in the foreground of his narrative his efforts to ennoble his hero, drawing our attention to his own mythologizing:

They roll him past. Maybe I am the only one
who sees the six tall ghosts that walk on either side of him,
rhythmically striking their fists against their shields.

The poet acknowledges he may be making claims for the heroism of the man he calls “Achilles” that no one else may be willing to make, but this is what poets do, give voice to the claims of desire, insisting that they reveal a truth too often ignored. And the poet then intensifies his efforts by claiming that the hero himself is participating in the process of exaltation: “I want to say, Look, don’t pity him! His imagination is not dead!” Maybe, the speaker suggests, it is not only his own imagination that is creating this procession but Achilles’s imagination as well. Whether the scene of recognition that follows, with Achilles opening one of his eyes to look at the poet and give him a two-fingered salute, actually happens, or whether the poet simply wants to believe it does, is perhaps an open question. But the effect is to suggest that the poet and Achilles, working together, manage an act of genuine communication. And as observers of this success we are left feeling indebted to the poet for his ambition. He has done his best to transform this dying man into a hero, and we, his fellow mortals, are grateful for the gift.

But this feeling of achievement is not the one that the poet chooses to end with, as he turns in the last three lines, after Achilles is borne away, to emphasize what he hasn’t managed to accomplish:

And then I am alone,
the one to weep,
and it is myself I weep for.

He has done his best to exalt Achilles, but he doesn’t have the strength here at the end of the poem to see himself as exalted. He isn’t feeling heroic, but rather weak and vulnerable. If the poem is the right place to celebrate what deserves to be celebrated, it must also be the place to admit the limits of the imagination. If we’re grateful for the poet’s presumption, we need as well to be grateful for the poet’s honesty in acknowledging his creaturely pain at the thought of his own extinction. Our relation to the poet at the end may not be exactly the one we hoped for, with the poet finding comfort in Achilles’s noble example, but in its recognition of difference, it feels more honest and so more intimate.

If the purpose of a strong voice is to create a particularly close bond between speaker and reader, it seems fitting to end this essay with another poem from the last book, entitled “The Classics,” in which the poet addresses the reader directly, passing on advice about bearing up under suffering. How the poet manages to perform this didactic function without sounding patronizing and presumptuous, how he wins us over without undermining his own claim to authority, is worth examining with some care.

Try not to make too much of suffering,
Try not to make it into a profession.

Your story is like the others: you kissed and you cried.
The tears dried slowly on your face
like words upon a page

and the moon rose dripping from the sea
like an old bronze shield.

Remember what you promised in July?
Never to forget the smell of horses in the barn?

Or the color of grandfather’s sweater
or the little white flower called Mother’s Milk
which grew outside the kitchen?

You bent to sniff it
and when you stood
you had that old, bewildering sensation

of having just arrived on earth
without a history or a name,

on some mission secret even to yourself.

Pain and pleasure were the ways
you learned to walk and talk,
and you liked them both

as you wandered through
your many destinations.

And the stars were like books on a very high shelf:
telling ancient stories

of voyages and battle,
of love and tribulation—

the ones they call The Classics.

How does the poet convince us of his authority to tell us how to handle suffering? Why are we willing to listen to advice that suggests we may dwell on it too much? In part because he doesn’t tell us that our suffering is unimportant but that it is part of a traditional story, that having stories like ours are what it means to be a human being. And in part because the details he has chosen are vivid and particular enough to suggest he’s taken them from experience he knows firsthand:

Your story is like the others: you kissed and you cried.
The tears dried slowly on your face
like words upon a page

and the moon rose dripping from the sea
like an old bronze shield.

It must have taken many retellings for the poet to have selected from a welter of incident a few simple images about the movement from pain to acceptance that are far more suggestive than any word like “acceptance” could manage to be. We can fill in for ourselves what it might mean to see the moon rising “dripping from the sea like an old bronze shield,” can muse on the battles that humans have always had to be engaged with. He is not telling us, in other words, how we might see things differently, but is rather reminding us of what we already know. And when he turns to a list of memories that we can use to counter our feelings of loss, they turn out to be images we have already promised ourselves to remember. All the poet is doing by citing “the horses in the barn,” “the color of grandfather’s sweater,” and the flower outside the kitchen, is reinforcing our own resolutions. And these details turn out to be great gifts, suggesting not only that we have had our share of vivid, heartening experiences, but that we have had rare visions of some higher purpose, whether or not we could express what a presence like the magical white flower may imply:

You bent to sniff it
and when you stood
you had that old, bewildering sensation

of having just arrived on earth
without a history or a name,

on some mission secret even to yourself.

All we need to do is remember the advice we have already given ourselves about the need to reject remorse, about realizing we already have accepted suffering as a part of our lives:

Pain and pleasure were the ways
you learned to walk and talk,
and you liked them both

as you wandered through your many destinations.

And in the final affirmation of shared insight, the poet presents us as knowing our suffering connects us to the world beyond the individual:

And the stars were like books on a very high shelf:
telling ancient stories

of voyages and battle,
of love and tribulation—

the ones they call The Classics.

To present a world where the stars are seen as books full of stories of love and tribulation is to imagine the world remade in terms of human desire. It is a world of wishes, not a world of facts, overstated to sound like a child’s fairy tale—those books “on a very high shelf”—but the wishes are fundamental and archetypal, and so are as eternal as anything human may be said to be.

A classic, the poem suggests, is a story true to our privations and our wishes, our passion for honesty and our passion for secret missions. Of course, I believe that all the poems I’ve chosen to focus on in this essay fit that description, that in each of them the speaker manages to share his vision with us, to bind us to him in a way that makes his project ours. No doubt everyone who knows Hoagland’s work will have a different list of such poems. I hope this essay prompts many of his readers to write essays that feature them. It is encouraging to think of a critical mass of such poems being brought to the attention of the reading public. Tony Hoagland has always been a great believer in the force for good that poetry may exert on the world. The second of his two books of essays is entitled Twenty Poems that Can Save America, and the title is only partly ironic. It would be very easy to come up with an anthology entitled Twenty Poems by Tony Hoagland that Can Save America. And then it would be very easy to come up with a book featuring twenty more. Whenever America is ready to be saved, they will be waiting.

Poem excerpts © Estate of Tony Hoagland, with permission.