I always pictured Tony Hoagland as a tall man. And though the author photo on the back of Hoagland’s latest chapbook ‘Little Oceans” features the poet from the chest up, there is still something towering about him. In the portrait, Hoagland cocks his narrow head slightly to the right, his fluffed hair crowning just around the rim, as his eyes slyly evade the camera’s gape with his carefully curved mouth implying something jesting; that he knows something you don’t.
Professor of English James Longenbach’s introduction at the latest installment of the Plutzik Reading Series that took place on Oct. 22 certainly did not detract from Hoagland’s stature, citing him as a poet capable of portraying the ‘muchness” of American culture and saying his poetry ‘gives us the time to catch up on praise.” So when Hoagland stood up from his chair to take the podium, which he barely peaked over, it occurred to me that my expectations were being played with.Hoagland knows how to make you laugh, literally.
In a conversation with Professor of English Jennifer Grotz’s Contemporary Poetry class, Hoagland spoke to the point of comedic timing, a skill he has mastered and prominently featured throughout his oeuvre.
‘Manipulating the expectations of the reader is important,” Hoagland says. ‘You want for the poem to be alive at every moment” by starting with something straightforward and sincere and then shortly thereafter undercutting it with something scathing, he explained. And I believe him. Hoagland read his poem ‘Poor Britney Spears” from his most recent chapbook, putting the Welles-Brown Room under a spell of chuckles and guffaws. ‘Poor Britney Spears,” Hoagland earnestly wrote, ‘is not the beginning of a sentence you hear often uttered in my household.” He continues:
If she wants to make a career comeback
so her agent gets a spot on the MTV awards show
but she can’t lose the weight beforehand
so looks a little chubby in a spangled bikini
before millions of fanged spiteful fans and enemies
and gets a little drunk beforehand
so misses a step in the dance routine
making her look, one critic says,
like a ‘comatose piglet,”
well, it wasn’t by accident was it?
Comic verse is precious. When opening a book of poetry, the typical reader rarely expects to find much humor. There are funny parts in some poems, but with Hoagland, a good punch line is as valuable and devastating as good metaphor they are often one in the same. One wisecrack after another, Hoagland reminds us that any reservations we may have about poetry can falter in the presence of a good joke.
Hoagland mused that there is something seemingly disposable about American culture and, as we venture further into the digital age, aspects of life that used to be more concrete can be cast out with just the click of a mouse. ‘There are kinds of power that you can only access syntactically and metrically,” Hoagland said, and that power is the ability to slow things down.
Citing poet Wallace Stevens, he said that as’poetry is an act of violence that creates a space in reality,” it allows us to partake in an important discourse on the contemporary. Because of globalization and the Internet, we have access to more information than ever before, which poses a challenge for poets today. Hoagland explained that, now, poetry is about the malleability of this information and how we shape it.
And with so much on the table, Hoagland is just happy to be part of the conversation, to be able to put a freeze-frame on something that is tragically expendable and remind us, with a smile on his face, why we simply can’t leave Britney alone.
Friedman is a member of the class of 2012.