Tuesday, May 19, 2009

La Chascona #8: Tony Hoagland

[La Chascona was the Santiago home of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda—a home in which portraits of Walt Whitman adorn the study]

Tony Hoagland is the author of three volumes of poetry: “Donkey Gospel” (1998), winner of the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets; “Sweet Ruin” (1992), winner of the Brittingham Prize in poetry; and “What Narcissism Means to Me” (2003). Additionally, he is the author of “Real Sofistakashun” (2006), a collection of essays about poetry. All are published by Graywolf Press. His poems and essays have also appeared in such venues as the Harvard Review, Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, and the American Poetry Review. Currently Hoagland teaches at the University of Houston, though he has taught at several universities including the University of Pittsburgh and Warren Wilson College. He has also been the recipient of two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center (Provincetown), the O.B. Hardison Prize for poetry and teaching from the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Poetry Foundation’s 2005 Mark Twain Award in recognition of his contribution to humor in American poetry.

The son of an Army doctor, Hoagland was born in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. He grew up on several military bases in the South and pursued his college education at Williams College, the University of Iowa, and the University of Arizona. Hoagland drifted about for a time: picking apples and cherries in the Northwest, living on communes, and following the Grateful Dead. Hoagland has said that if he had to place himself on an “aesthetic graph,” he would be equidistant between Sharon Olds and Frank O’Hara—between the confessional (where he started) and the social (for which he aims). In a 2002 citation, The American Academy of Arts and Letters stated that “Hoagland’s imagination ranges thrillingly across manners, morals, sexual doings, and kinds of speech lyrical and candid, intimate as well as wild.”

Hoagland’s poems exude wit, irony, and intelligence with a scathing eye cast toward the mysteries of national identity, America’s spiritual bankruptcy, and selfhood and manhood. In his work, the exploration is as exhilarating as a single moment’s magnification. While sensitive, Hoagland’s work is candid nonetheless. He touches on not-so-delicate hot-button issues such as misery, death, sexual behavior, and hypocrisy. Despite this, one finds an inherent healing humor.

How I remember my introduction to Hoagland and his work! In the summer of 1996, I was enrolled in a poetry workshop led by Marie Howe at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Toward the beginning of the week, Howe asked the participants whether we would mind “working” an extra afternoon. Howe explained that she had a “friend” in town. Well, all of us jumped at the chance. When we arrived for that special session, there was Tony Hoagland. He read for us and some of us read our work. What followed was a magical two hours of poetry.

His lyric verse is amazing and revealing in all its vigorous irony, metaphor, and provocation. Just note the muscular transcendence in the following lines from his poem, “Lucky”:

If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to help your enemy
the way I got to help my mother
when she was weakened past the point of saying no.

Into the big enamel tub
half-filled with water
which I had made just right,
I lowered the childish skeleton
she had become.

Her eyelids fluttered as I soaped and rinsed
her belly and her chest,
the sorry ruin of her flanks
and the frayed gray cloud
between her legs.

The Academy of American Poets

Poem Hunter

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