Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tony Hoagland in the Late AWP Dynasty

Had a lovely Valentine's Day last night with my lovely husband (our 4 month anniversary is tomorrow!), though I confess after dinner we were so sleepy and stuffed (8pm dinner reservations feel a little late to me, especially on a weekday) that we piled into bed to read. I read Tony Hoagland's Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty,
which I had just recalled that I had on my shelf.

Before I get into my thoughts on the actual book, my backstory: for a long time, I disliked Hoagland's work. I'm not even sure how I came by that impression, except that I have long been a fan of Dean Young, and Hoagland and Young seem to be besties or something, mentioning each other quite often in poems or books, and I really wanted to like him. But I think a few years back I probably read a couple poems that I ran across in a magazine or something and decided I didn't care of him. [* EDIT * Upon further reflection, I think that I read Sweet Ruin for a class during my MFA. ] Last year, about the time that the above book came out, I decided I was going to give him another try so I picked up the book. It sat there in the poetry section of my to-be-read shelf until yesterday, when I was thinking about all the controversy on Hoagland's poem "The Change." Sara Jaffe has a fantastic write-up of Claudia Rankine's response to the Hoagland poem at AWP and that is where I got most of my understanding of it.

In general, I don't like addressing a writer's intention in creating a work. A poem (or novel or whatever) should stand on its own, because it's almost never that the writer will be standing over your shoulder while you're reading something, telling you what something means. Meaning is in the text, to paraphrase Stanley Fish. So I'm not so interested in whether he intended to offend anyone or if the poet and the speaker are one and the same in the poem. Hoagland's supposed response that it was "facile" to assume that the poet and the speaker in the poem are the same seems to me to be a cop out. Sort of like using a hand puppet to insult someone's mom and then saying, "Just kidding."

My thoughts on "The Change" are complicated. I think writing on race should not simply be the domain of black poets. Not all poems on race should be warm and fuzzy. Sometimes you do have to portray something ugly like hate and racism, and it's great if people start talking about it and then we all learn something about ourselves. Absolutely, it is interesting and a valid topic for a white person to examine his or her feelings about "the other," and those feelings don't always have to be flattering.

But I can see the racist, objectifying language in the poem, and I don't know if the framework in the poem goes far enough to frame how we should read it. Let's say that Hoagland really didn't mean to sound racist and we're all just misreading the poem. That is still a failing of a poet--writers can't follow people around and claim, "You're reading it wrong!" The poet has to take some point of view and it has to be one that is possible for the reader to unlock, given enough work and application of clues. The poem may have supported a point of view that Hoagland did not intend. The alternative is to say, as some readers claim, the point of view the poem proports is accuriate to what Hoagland intended, and therefore he is racist and sexist.

The idea of writing something just to stir up contraversy makes me kind of tired. For me, the problem comes down to the poem being flawed and Hoagland tossing out excuses. Personally, I'm not looking for an apology or an explanation or anything other than for him to own up to what the poem. His response seems to me to be too squirrely, like he is trying to have it all ways. While it's never a poet's job to have to explain or make excuses for his or her poem, his responses show a lack of empathy, as others have said, which does not facilitate the discussion of this already difficult topic.

So, reading up on all of this controversy yesterday made me want to get a little more context and read the book that was sitting on my shelf. "The Change" came out in Hoagland's 2003 book What Narcissism Means To Me (and perhaps was written even earlier), and the book I read came out in 2010, so there is a gap in time there that allows for change. Hoagland continues to talk about race, and I think that in general he tries harder not to offend; that is, he chooses to skirt or brush over landmines like the one he carelessly traipsed across with "The Change." He is closer to addressing the ideas that are not quite realized in "The Change" in "Foghorn," a poem dedicated to Terrance Hayes. Hayes' book Lighthead is one of the best books I've read lately, and many of the poems in it come from an African American point of view. I like the convergence and intertextuality here.

My rambling about Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty ends up being a poor review, in part because I am still thinking about it. I think the smart, ironic tone in many of Hoagland's poems is interesting and entertaining, and his poems are tight and well-crafted. I don't know if there is any point in trying to label him as sexist, but the tone in many of the poems gives off a "skeevy old man" vibe, which makes me uncomfortable. I don't need a description of your girlfriend's body (Is "Visitation" fictional? Nonfictional? Does it matter?) including holes that I don't care to be familiar with. The way he casually drops parts of women's bodies into his poems makes me wonder if I were a man, I would think that it makes the poems a little more scenic.

I still feel this overall skeevy tone makes Hoagland a poet whose work I will not seek out in the future. I feel that I have learned and thought more having read his last book, and I have a better understanding of his work now, rather than my previous opinion that was a vague "I don't like it." I think he is a skilled writer, and while his intent might be to make readers uncomfortable, I can still choose to take what I know and read something else.

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