Nice College Research Paper - In Praise of Tony Hoagland

Jacob Anderson
Mr. Damaso
Honors English II, Period 2
6 May 2012

Tony Hoagland's Chronic Case of Truth Telling

"Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it." 

Uncovering the harms of commercialism, consumerism, racism and other current issues to raise awareness is a popular trend in the works of contemporary artists.  According to Impressionist painter Edgar Degas, "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see."  Most artists aim to make others' perceptions as similar to their own intentions as possible.  Taking this desire further, many modern American artists focus on the radicalization of themes they portray with hopes of persuading audiences to take action or adopt certain viewpoints.  Photographers and painters depict the struggles of the homeless. Sculptors attempt to symbolize their discontent with materialism.  Writers compose pieces dedicated to stances on issues such as racismphysical healthdomestic violence, and same-sex marriage.  Lyricists struggle to discover what's most important in life.  The hipster movement is permeating throughout the country, with a value of independent arts at its core.  Thus, art maintains a prominence in society.

Tony Hoagland is one of these artists who have some things to say.  Born and raised in middle-class America, Hoagland is a contemporary poet lauded for his humor and wit.  He's known for his free verse poetry that expresses observations and dissatisfactions with his surroundings.  Although Hoagland writes some prose, he is primarily heralded for his contributions as a writer and teacher of poetry.  His general style can be observed in the poems "Social Life," "The Change," and "In Praise of Their Divorce."  Despite an absence of forceful cynicism, Tony Hoagland's poetry expresses his often taboo observations of truths about contemporary American culture.

Although Hoagland's works often provide insights into his own life, very little of his biographical information is openly available.  On November 19, 1953, he was born as Anthony Dey Hoagland in Fort Bragg, North Carolina ("Social Life").  He grew up on army bases in Hawaii, Alabama, Ethiopia, and Texas with an older sister and a twin brother, who died of a drug overdose in high school (Grotz 182).  Hoagland came from a middle-class family with no religion and even still considers himself "a very typical middle-class American" (Hoagland, "Transcript: Tony Hoagland").  He found poetry as a troubled child struggling with inquiries about human nature; it became a culture for him and one of the few things, unlike relationships and education, that constantly remained with him (Hoagland, "Transcript: Tony Hoagland").  After dropping out of Williams College, he eventually enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he received his most formative poetic influences and turned towards "clarity, accessibility, entertainment, irreverence, and the idea of poet as guide" (Grotz 182).  He received his MFA from the University of Arizona in 1983, and has a longstanding affiliation with the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College.  During his college years, he felt his teachers were slothful, reserved, and saved themselves for their own work, and resolved if he ever had the privilege to teach, he'd tell his students everything he knows(Grotz 182).  He currently teaches in the PhD program at the University of Houston, leading a course structured around poetry of the nineteenth century that details cultural context and major poets (Hoagland, "Six Questions").  His partner, fiction writer Kathleen Lee, also teaches at the University of Houston; they spend free time in their house in Wellfleet, Massachusetts (Grotz 185).  Like many other artists, his influences come from his personal history.

Hoagland's poetry heavily relies on his own experiences and observations.  In an interview, he once said, "I think I came to poetry as an adolescent out of a thirst for truth telling" (Grotz 182).  He realizes modern poetry centers around entertainment with its wit, linguistic play, and rhetoric, but believes his work involves more than that.  His poetry contains linguistic self-consciousness, but also stems from experience and suffering with a goal of analyzing and naming sources of pain(Hoagland, "Transcript: Tony Hoagland").  In 2002, the American Academy of Arts and Letters praised him with a citation stating, "Tony Hoagland's imagination ranges thrillingly across manners, morals, sexual doings, kinds of speech both lyrical and candid, intimate as well as wild" ("Tony Hoagland").  Hoagland is renowned for his critical analyses of modern issues as well as for his humor.  TheAcademy of American Poets notes "a mixture of popular culture, literature, and religious yearning simultaneously parodied and longed for" in his work (Grotz 183).  He won the Mark Twain Prize for his humor from the Poetry Foundation in 2005.  Hoagland uses irony and sarcasm to reveal important subtleties and complexities in his poems (Grotz 183).  According to Christian Horlick, a literary critic for the scholarly online journal Blackbird, Hoagland's work casually introduces readers "to friends and family members, personal and national events, idiosyncrasies, racism, commercialism, and a wide gamut of not-so-nice emotions that define life in the United States" (Horlick).  His topics range from dragonflies to Britney Spears, from cement trucks to the omnipresence of plastic.  Hoagland frequently scrutinizes the world from a distance with an experienced and jaded voice (Grotz 184).  Along with his brother's OD, a few harrowing family-related experiences greatly influenced the tones and themes of his work.  His father ended his parents' marriage not long before dying of a heart attack, and his mother died of cancer when he was 17 ("Social Life").  In turn, his first book, Sweet Ruin, heavily involved self-reflection, family relations, and musings about love (Horlick).  He couldn't find a mentor when he was growing up, so he learned to do without and his teachers became the poets whose work he read, like Cummings and Ginsberg. Likewise, current friendships and conversations with other poets are an ongoing tutorial and great artistic treasure for him (Hoagland, "Six Questions").  These sources assist him in comprehending the collective emotions and values of the people surrounding him.

The general sentiments of certain American time periods Hoagland lived through are also paralleled in his work.  He views poetry as immensely useful to people, as it helped him fight several of his psychological battles and understand his experiences during his youth (Hoagland, "Transcript: Tony Hoagland").  He once stated, "One thing that I think poetry can do is hold up a snow globe of contemporary American experience, so we can look at it from a safe position from outside and say 'yes, it really is demented, and there actually are some choices I can take to make myself less crazy, and to be less complicitous with these structures of collective dementia'" (Hoagland, "Transcript: Tony Hoagland"). He often adopts common moods and themes of certain eras into his work.  Many of his poems discuss concepts of change and portray sentiments similar to those during the political unrest and self-realizations of the '60s and '70s, dealing with issues of love, identity, and social placement (Horlick).  However, he also said, "It took me a long time after the drugged-out seventies and eighties but I eventually lost my taste for disorientation" (Grotz 185).  He believes he is deeply rooted in two kinds of poetry: one being sensibility, realism, and desiring to see through things, and the other being to achieve self-generated joy through voice, energy and imagination (Grotz 185).  His contemporary poems are mostly identified with the sentiments of the "Narcissistic 90's," when material indulgence and suburban life grew rapidly, as well as with post-9/11 trends of trying to sort out what's actually valuable in life.  He criticizes how materialism, commercialism, and self-absorption have become parts of the "American fabric" ("Social Life").

Hoagland's typical thematic elements and styles are present in "Social Life," "The Change," and "In Praise of Their Divorce."  In all three poems, Hoagland takes somewhat controversial or unusual stances towards certain issues in American settings.  "Social Life" expresses a speaker's preference of quiet nature over selfish socializing at parties, "The Change" contains traces of racism from a typical-American-man speaker watching an interracial tennis match, and "In Praise of Their Divorce" glorifies its titular ceremony as a release for preexisting tensions.  Despite some controversy about the meaning of "The Change," most critics applaud Hoagland's inventive outlooks and linguistic ingenuity.

Both qualities are apparent in "Social Life," in which the speaker, a party goer, seems to be the only one who can see through the superficial friendliness of other socialites at his friend Richard's soiree.  Recognizing everyone's self-centered conversational habits, he stands back to distance himself from them and reflect on nature, which he prefers since it doesn't judge him, is well-mannered and silent, and has a beauty long forgotten by his peers ("Social Life").  "What I like about the trees is how / they do not talk about the failure of their parents / and what I like about the grasses is that / they are not grasses in recovery" (22-25).  Hoagland warns that too much self-isolation is the root cause of hate and reveals that the speaker's mistrust of others lies hidden in his unhappiness (Horlick).  Two major themes exist.  One focuses on the selfishness of party goers, who jump at "the first opportunity to begin talking about themselves, as though their own opinions, complaints, and platitudes are of more value than anything they have just heard," while the other reflects on how contemporary suburbanite culture has lost touch with the nature he describes so vividly.  The poem contains self-reflection and disillusionment, anger and hope, but doesn't shroud its messages with confusing abstractions ("Social Life").  Hoagland circumvents overly-complex language with simple metaphors, such as, "and the survivors of the first party climb / into the second one as if it were a lifeboat / to carry them away from their slowly sinking ship" (2-4).  The guests rely on parties for momentary entertainment, growing away from the pureness and easiness of nature in the process ("Social Life").  He even begins to make nature seem more humane than humans themselves, describing it by writing, "because silence is always good manners / and often a clever thing to say / when you are at a party" (48-50).  Both the content and format break away from standards.  As are most of his poems, this one is written in contemporary free verse.  It has no distinct rhyme or meter and uneven stanzas divided by the critical speaker's groupings of individual topics and settings ("Social Life").  The helpless and forlorn tone of the speaker in "Social Life" is also present in "The Change."

"The Change" encompasses a white narrator's recollection of a tennis match he saw on TV and how he secretly rooted for the white girl instead of the black one since she was one of "his kind."  The black girl's victory symbolized a great change in society the speaker didn't want, the social acceptance of civil rights, but that had already occurred (Fried).  "Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone, / we were there, // and when we went to put it back where it belonged, / it was past us / and we were changed" (54-58).  Daisy Fried, an article contributor to The Poetry Institute archives, wrote, "'The Change' is a narrative poem about the inevitability of political change. It is also is a poem which believes that white liberals' relationship to race is more complicated than our consciously held and universally agreed-upon opinion that Racism is Bad."  The witty, attentive, plainspoken, introspective voice sounds like Hoagland's, which makes some readers uncomfortable (Fried).  Hoagland often seems to become the speaker since he uses details like his friends' names and opinions, like "Richard" in "Social Life;" therefore, there's little perceived distinction between the poet and speaker (Horlick).  Hoagland's apparent racism and stereotyping, like in the lines "Pitted against that big black girl from Alabama, / cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms, / some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite" (10-12), offendedClaudia Rankine, an African American poet and past colleague of Hoagland(Rankine).  At a poet conference, she issued a statement of her complaints.  In response, he wrote back to her, "Let me say that I think my poem 'The Change' is not 'racist' but 'racially complex.'"  He called her naïve for thinking the speaker and writer of a poem are the same; he simply captured the subconscious racism that's still a part of many Americans' lives (Staff).  Hoagland believes the poet's job is to "play with the devil" by releasing repressed feelings (Hoagland, "Dear Claudia").  He made effective choices to avoid admitting the racism within the poem itself to prevent readers from hearing the same "it's bad" warning they've heard before, as well as to avoid writing with bigotry and slurs that readers would dismiss as "not me. Nothing to do with me" (Fried).  It does seem grounded in a modern reality, though, and even the name "Vondella Aphrodite" seems to allude to Serena and Venus Williams, current African American tennis players.  Also in his response, he stated, "I want some of my poems to alarm people with their subjects and attitudes.  I think poems can be too careful.  A poem is not a teddy bear"(Hoagland, "Dear Claudia").  The attitude in "The Change" isn't necessarily angry, rather just upset and defeated.  The speaker analyzes his motive for preferring the white girl: he can't keep up with the progress of racial equality in his country that the black competitor symbolized, "Hitting the ball like she was driving theEmancipation Proclamation / down Abraham Lincoln's throat, / like she wasn't asking anyone's permission" (31-33).  The poem is written in contemporary free verse with uneven stanzas and no consistent rhyme or meter, and isn't as concerned with form as the poet's poem about divorce.

"In Praise of Their Divorce," while offering a unique positive outlook on a touchy subject, showcases a more strictly poetically structured side of Hoagland's work.  He breaks away from clichéd commentaries about the misery of divorce, instead embracing an optimistic possibility that new hope can come from new solitude(Halliday).  "And when I heard about the divorce of my friends, / I couldn't help but be proud of them" (1-2).  The poem validates splitting up as an honorable release of negative tensions that were present in the first place.  The speaker thinks divorce isn't destruction; rather, it's creation since people emerging from it can be happier and have opportunities to experience things they hadn't been able to while married.  He even makes it seem amazing: "It is two spaceships coming out of retirement, // flying away from their dead world, / the burning booster rocket of divorce / falling off behind them" (30-33).  Like his other poems, it subtly embodies an expectation that everything will work out for the best in the end (Horlick).  In Mark Halliday's review of Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, Hoagland's 2010 book of poetry, the professional literary critic wrote, "The Hoagland voice is the voice of someone trying hard to say the sharp-edged necessary thing in the pressure of the moment....  The mood is not frantic, nor is it grim, but it's not relaxed and easygoing either."  Halliday believes the overall piece is successful because a funny poem with a message embedded in the comic relief spurs on much more insight and reflection than one that solely relies upon cleverness and explanations.  Unlike the message, the form of "In Praise of Their Divorce" follows a more conventional style.  The poem is scribed in couplets, with two one-line exceptions.  It still has no set meter or rhyme, but contains poetic elements like direct references to the Bible and the book George the Giraffe, allusion to Jesus' crucifixion, and many metaphors and similes.  Hoagland uses makeshift, quickly-crafted metaphors that resemble the hastily formed frameworks of ideas average people slap together to endure stressful days or experiences(Halliday).  For instance, the first few lines read, "That man and that woman setting off in different directions, / like pilgrims in a proverb" (3-4).  In this way, Hoagland tackles problematic issues with levity.

Similar to Hoagland's investigations of the roots of issues like selfishness, racism, and divorce, the 2006 film Fast Food Nation also takes a stab at the sources of a major American stigma.  Directed by Richard Linklater and written by him and Eric Schlosser, it was an official selection at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, where it first premiered (Ebert).  It's based on the nonfiction book of the same name also written by Schlosser, an investigative novelist and journalist.  Like Hoagland, Schlosser dedicated his life as a writer to finding "the truth." 

Fast Food Nation contains many themes and tones similar to those Hoagland uses.  The film "is about how meat arrives in franchise burgers, and what may be in it besides meat" (Ebert).  It's not a documentary, but a fact-based dramatization that intertwines stories of a marketing executive's attempt to investigate health concerns raised about his chain's burgers, a group of illegal Mexican immigrants who must take low-paying jobs at a questionable and dangerous meat processing factory, and a teenage girl who struggles with her choice to work at a fast food restaurant (Ebert).  The film belongs to a current trend of health-conscious investigative films such as Super Size MeFood Inc., and so on, but sets itself apart by being a fictionalized account.  Roger Ebert, a Pulitzer-Prize winning film critic, wrote, "The movie is not sensational, unless we consider factual footage of cattle being slaughtered on an assembly line to be sensational, and why should we?"  Like Hoagland's poem content, the film is grounded in unexaggerated reality; after all, the kill floor scene was filmed in a real abattoir (Scott).  Things may be disgustingly bloody, but they're real.  Like "The Change," intended to be a portrait, not opinion, of racism in modern America, Fast Food Nation uses a similar narrative style.  Instead of taking a side in the national debate about undocumented workers, it simply observes what's already happening (Ebert).  L.A. Times critic Carina Chocano wrote, "Every character exists within an increasingly homogenous, inorganic system, and each individual must find a way to live within it on his or her own."  They face hard ethical choices set down by 21st-century consumer capitalism (Scott), like Hoagland struggles to understand his similar circumstances.

Like other artists of the time periods that have influenced him, Tony Hoagland draws his messages from his own life experiences and observations.  Although he employs subdued tones, his poetry expresses his unusual and frequently controversial reflections on the America he has grown up in.  The reader becomes a nonparticipating spectator and must create his or her own realizations based on the speaker's perceptions and assumptions (Horlick).  Hoagland's humor, themes, language, and criticism are typically all so uninhibited, lucid, and relatable to readers that he easily eliminates the deficit between intentions and perceptions.  Thus, his art isn't just what his audiences see, but what he sees, too.  His poems involve meditation, engagement, and argument, and they exhibit wit, linguistic play, and rhetoric.  However, they're about more than that.  They contain elements of self-consciousness, but also analyze the traits and sufferings of the communal American experience (Hoagland, "Transcript: Tony Hoagland").  These contributions to the field of poetry, as well as his undeniable originality, have garnered him several prestigious awards throughout the years, but at the age of 58, he's not finished yet. 

Works Cited

Chocano, Carina. "Swallowing Indignities in a Sallow World." Rev. ofFast Food Nation. The Los Angeles Times, 17 Nov. 2006. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.

Degas, Edgar. Web. 1 May 2012. <>.

Ebert, Roger. "Cannes #2: Meat the Press." Rev. of Fast Food Nation. Chicago Sun-Times, 18 May 2006. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.
Fried, Daisy. "Tony Hoagland's 'The Change'" Monroe Poetry Institute, 28 Apr. 2011. Web. 2 Apr. 2012.

Grotz, Jennifer. "Tony Hoagland - A Profile by Jennifer Grotz."Ploughshares 35.4 (2009): 180-85. JSTOR. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.

Halliday, Mark. "Courageous Clarity." Rev. of Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, by Tony Hoagland. Pleiades 2011: 162-64. University of Central Missouri. Web. 3 Apr. 2012.

Hoagland, Tony. "Dear Claudia: A Letter in Response." Letter to Claudia Rankine. Feb. 2011. The Academy of American Poets, 4 Feb. 2011. Web. 16 Apr. 2012.

Hoagland, Tony. "In Praise of Their Divorce." The Academy of American Poets. Web. 04 Apr. 2012.

Hoagland, Tony. "Six Questions for Tony Hoagland." Interview by John Skoyles. Ploughshares Literary Magazine. 18 Feb. 2010. Web. 1 Apr. 2012.

Hoagland, Tony. "Transcript: Tony Hoagland in Conversation." Interview by Elliott Liu. The Academy of American Poets, 28 Sept. 2006. Web. 1 Apr. 2012.

Hoagland, Tony. "The Change." The Academy of American Poets. Web. 04 Apr. 2012.

Horlick, Christian. "Review | What Narcisissm Means to Me, by Tony Hoagland." Blackbird 3.1 (2004). Blackbird: An Online Journal of Literature and the Arts. Web. 1 Apr. 2012.

Lewis, C. S. "Simply Tell the Truth." Advice to Writers. 24 July 2011. Web. 01 May 2012. <>.

Scott, A. O. "The Ties That Bind America's Food Chain." Rev. of Fast Food Nation. The New York Times. 17 Nov. 2006, New York ed., sec. E: Web. 22 Apr. 2012.

"Social Life." Poetry for Students. Ed. David A. Galens. Vol. 19. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 250-263. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 3 Apr. 2012.

Staff, Harriet. "Tony Hoagland's Poem on Race Heats Things Up at AWP." Poetryfoundation.orgHarriet Monroe Poetry Institute, 10 Feb. 2011. Web. 1 Apr. 2012.

"Tony Hoagland." The Academy of American Poets. Web. 1 Apr. 2012. <>.

-Shiv Kapoor