‘Brave, or lonely, or free enough to ask’: Hoagland in Retrospect

Christopher Kempf

Until we say the truth, there can be no tenderness.

As long as there is desire, we will not be safe. 

—Tony Hoagland, “Adam and Eve”

At the height of the Great Depression, as American poets engineered newer, more urgent methods of addressing the nation’s economic crisis, two rival approaches dominated the poetry landscape. While avant-gardists sought to adapt modernist principles to leftist politics, proletarian “worker-writers,” rejecting what they viewed as bourgeois experimentation, gave direct, unmediated voice to working-class experience. The dissension between the two camps, played out everywhere from The New Yorker to New Masses, featured some of the most divisive rhetoric in American literary history; yet throughout the dispute—and, indeed, because of it—the marker of a poem’s cultural merit, for both sides, lay less in its widespread praise than in its capacity to provoke critical disagreement. “What signal[ed] cultural power in the 1930s,” writes scholar Walter Kalaidjian, was “a work’s localized and contentious interpretive productivity”—the “best” poems, in other words, or at least the most important, were also the most derided.

By this standard, as much a relic of the 1930s as cloche hats and Charlie Chaplin, this country’s greatest living poet—until his death in October, at age 64, of pancreatic cancer—was Tony Hoagland. It would not, I don’t think, be close. 

No contemporary poetic practice—from the massaging of “found” texts to Alt Lit misogyny to the misappropriation of racialized identity—has been as reviled as Hoagland’s career-long effort to expose, inhabit, and interrogate certain forms of white male chauvinism. While a handful of poets, admittedly, have endured their few days of social media disparagement, Hoagland weathered his status as persona non grata for nearly a decade, seemingly unifying American poets—no trivial feat these days—in their objection to his racist, allegedly reductive poetics.

One need hardly recount the controversies.

And while Hoagland and his work are more multivalent than these controversies suggest, I want to disclose up front my own take on the scandals in which he mired himself, especially since that take necessarily inflects my effort, here, to take stock of Hoagland’s broader legacy. What seemed most objectionable, for instance, about a poem like “The Change” was Hoagland’s response to the criticism the poem generated, particularly his characterization of Claudia Rankine as “naïve when it comes to the subject of American racism,” a claim especially shocking coming from a wealthier white male. What seems objectionable, likewise, in Hoagland’s recent essay “The Cure for Racism is Cancer” is not so much its conviction that, faced with death, all Americans are “equally laid low”—yes, we do all die—as its tidy bracketing of the intersecting forces that render the American healthcare system one of the most unequal, in fact, in the developed world. “In the country of cancer,” Hoagland writes, “no citizens are protected by property, job description, prestige, and pretensions.” However well-meaning, the sentiment ignores, of course, those broader systems of race and class that land cancer patients in Houston’s top-ranked MD Anderson Cancer Center—and not elsewhere, or nowhere—in the first place. If the response to Hoagland’s work, including these two landmark texts, has been overwhelmingly negative, then, such opprobrium has hardly been unwarranted.

Indeed, the texts for which Hoagland has been criticized are far from his most questionable. In the poem “Adam and Eve,” from Hoagland’s second collection, Donkey Gospel, the speaker recounts a date which, after an evening of “flickering glances,” ends up in the “sanctified valley of the bed.” “[A]t the crucial moment,” Hoagland writes:

                         the all-important moment,
the moment standing at attention,

she held her milk white hand agitatedly
over the entrance to her body and said No,
and my brain burst into flame.

If I couldn’t sink myself in her like a dark spur
or dissolve into her like a clod thrown in a river,

can I go all the way in the saying, and say
I wanted to punch her right in the face?
Am I allowed to say that,
that I wanted to punch her right in her soft face?

Published in 1998, nearly two decades before a #MeToo movement which would, presumably, have excoriated the poem, “Adam and Eve” shocks, I think, in its examination of the violence of which its speaker is capable. If the aim of the poem, as Hoagland suggested elsewhere, is to leave its readers “stuck as uncomfortable witnesses to human ugliness,” it succeeds remarkably, yet one wonders if there were not, perhaps, some more acceptable approach to the poetic documentation—and enactment—of male sexual aggression.

I frequently teach Hoagland’s work—particularly “The Change” and its critical reception—as a way of helping young writers enter a culture of argument and ideas, opening them, I hope, to the social responsibilities of poetry in today’s world. They are able, almost always, to speak with nuance and conviction about the multiple ways of viewing that poem, deftly triangulating the relationship among speaker, poet, and audience.

I have never, however, taught “Adam and Eve.” I do not know that the poem should be taught. I do not know how I could.

Though Hoagland’s most objectionable poems, to my mind, have largely been ignored, so vitriolic has been the response to his work that any defense of it—or of Hoagland himself—has proven unable to earn a hearing. Such a re-contextualization, nonetheless, is precisely what I want to attempt, and what I want to attempt now, in the wake of the death of a figure who was, if widely ridiculed, nothing less than a titanic force among contemporary poets. We are, as a poetry community, seldom given to such thoroughgoing assessment, preferring, instead, the quick character assassination and the righteous side-eye; Hoagland— who, alongside others, challenged American poetry to more exacting, more uncomfortable self-examination—deserves better. All poets do.

Any recuperation of Hoagland’s legacy, of course, must necessarily reckon with his work’s ugliest, most unpalatable aspects, tendencies—toward the objectification of women, toward racial stereotype and homophobia—that cannot be ignored or explained away but refract through and color the entirety of his poetics. 

At the heart of poems like “The Change” and “Adam and Eve,” however, is the premise that any real progress in American culture, particularly with regard to gender and race relations, necessitates unflinching confrontation with those parts of ourselves, as individuals and as a collective, of which we are most ashamed, most terrified. Hoagland addressed this effort in his essay “Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People,” first published in 2003. “To really get at the subject of race,” he wrote, “is going to require some unattractive, tricky self-expression, something adequate to the paradoxical complexities of privilege, shame, and resentment. To speak in a voice equal to reality […] will mean the loss of observer-immunity status, will mean admitting that one is not on the sidelines of our racial realities, but actually in the tangled middle of them.” One of the things I admire most about Hoagland is this capacity for self-critique, his unrivaled aptitude for laying bare his own privilege and prejudices; while the rest of us, myself included, are content to mask our inevitable chauvinism with carefully signaled virtue, Hoagland traded easy ethical posturing for the real work of cultural self-questioning. If we are, as a people, to work through and transcend those aspects that divide us—to understand, for instance, how racial and sexual violence perpetuate themselves—writers must be enabled to risk frank attention, as Hoagland risked it, to subjects that challenge cemented liberal shibboleths; for such shibboleths—as well-meaning as they may be— have done little, these past few years demonstrate, to dismantle those systems of oppression that make up American culture.

Whether Hoagland’s work dismantles or perpetuates those systems has been, and will remain, an open question. But underlying his poetics is the unshakeable conviction that, in the public life of this country, poetry matters, that our shared work in language might unearth, articulate, and upend the more insidious features of contemporary life. And Hoagland devoted himself to this conviction, it’s worth pointing out, well before it was fashionable to do so; while the recent political turn in poetry has lent visibility and cachet to an extraordinary range of poetic projects, Hoagland’s earliest work evinces a commitment to social and political issues then marginalized in mainstream poetry. Over a decade, for example, before Rankine dedicated her MacArthur grant to demystifying racial imaginaries, Hoagland was calling for—and practicing—examination of the rhetorical and material construction of white identity. Few poets “want to get their hands dirty,” he wrote, “and it costs us. […] Why haven’t racial anxiety, shame, and hatred—such a large presence in American life—been more a theme in poetry by Caucasian Americans?”

I return to this question—a call for honesty, for openness—certainly not to valorize Hoagland’s racial poetics over Rankine’s, but to suggest that the former, too, represents a good faith effort to overcome racial, sexual, and class-based animosity. “I would rather have [Hoagland’s] failures than nothing at all,” Major Jackson writes in an essay on white poets’ “mystifying silence” regarding race. “At least his poems announce him as introspective in a self-critical way on this topic. Self-censorship should never be an option for poets.” Rather than censoring his shortcomings, Hoagland mined them, dragging them into the light so that we, as a culture, might better understand their internal dynamics. Writing “whiteness,” of course, should never detract from the important work of diversifying the American poetry canon, nor should it preempt the pressing imperative of forging symbolic and material spaces for women and writers of color. But attending, as Hoagland did, to how white male hegemony produces and reproduces itself constitutes a valuable step, I think, in naming and deconstructing that hegemony, in refusing to accept it as normal, invisible, or acceptable. There can be, it seems to me, no higher work for American poetry, work Hoagland pursued, throughout his entire career, with unswerving focus—we are poorer workers in his absence.

What Hoagland means to me, then, is a certain fearlessness cultivated in the name of honesty with oneself and one’s audience, a fearlessness at the heart, Hoagland believed, of truly substantive social change. Throughout my own poetic practice—from a first book exploring the construction of “American” masculinity to a second manuscript, based on two years living in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, examining race, regional identity, and the ethics of memory—I have thought of Hoagland as a kind of ethical avant-garde, testing and extending the boundaries of the field into which my work has been moving. In staking out that field, Hoagland, to be sure, has taught me its limitations—I am hardly as inflammatory as Hoagland sometimes was. But his risk-taking has also expanded what it is possible for me to imagine and to write, has encouraged me, as a white male, to investigate my complicity in injustice in ways I couldn’t, otherwise, have imagined. Much of my second manuscript, for example, explores the seductive—if patently dangerous— nostalgia of Confederate monuments, imaginatively examining whether and how, if I lived then and there, I would have benefited from systems of racialized violence. Hoagland helped me to recognize this in myself and in my history; he also, however, made me want to be a better, more ethical poet, a responsible teacher, and a more engaged citizen. Hoagland, who received no major literary prize after 2008, taught me as well that what matters in the end—and Hoagland asked us, constantly, to consider ultimate questions—is one’s faith in the work, how one lives with oneself through the ups and downs of literary fashion; pride in one’s writing, Hoagland knew, can never come from outside sources. 

Central to Hoagland’s pursuit of these subjects—some of poetry’s largest and most challenging—was his belief, as he stated it, that the writer “plays with the devil” in trafficking in those “repressed energies” subtending our collective life. He is worth quoting at length on this point, one to which he returned frequently. “American poetry,” Hoagland wrote,

still largely believes, as romantics have for a few hundred years, that a poem is a straightforward autobiographical testimony to, among other things, the decency of the speaker. […] The problem with such civility is that it excludes all kinds of subject matter that cannot be handled without contamination of the handler.

As I’ve suggested, Hoagland constantly risked such contamination, and his allusion to the devil helps locate him in an important tradition of ethical self-questioning, one willing, historically, to inhabit and even empathize with figures we would unquestionably condemn. “The poet’s role,” Robert Duncan wrote in 1971, “is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it.” This was Hoagland’s work, as it was Milton’s work in his depiction of Satan, as it was Frank Bidart’s in “Herbert White,” and as it was, more recently, Patricia Smith’s work in a poem like “Skinhead.”

Published in 2002, “Skinhead” ventriloquizes a figure whose abhorrent politics are nonetheless complicated and humanized in Smith’s dramatic monologue. “The face that moves in my mirror is huge and pockmarked,” she writes,

scraped pink and brilliant, apple-cheeked,
I am filled with my own spit.
Two years ago, a machine that slices leather
sucked in my hand and held it,
whacking off three fingers at the root.
I didn’t feel nothing till I looked down
and saw one of them on the floor
next to my boot heel,
and I ain’t worked since then.

Revealing how racial hatred is cross-cut by economic resentment and masculinity in crisis, Smith’s poem—like many of Hoagland’s—is an iconic enactment of what John Keats called “negative capability,” that aspect of poetic personality which, extinguishing the self, “lives in gusto, be it foul or fair” and takes as much delight, therefore, “in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.” Rarely acknowledged in commentary on Keats’s theory, however, is the extent to which Keats rejects ethical constraint, flouting morality insofar as it restricts imagination. Criticizing poetry that “has a palpable design on us,” Keats argues that “what shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet,” an artist capable “of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Hoagland was this kind of “camelion,” and the literary historical positioning I am attempting here—measuring him, too cursorily, against five poets in the span of seven sentences—constitutes a first step, perhaps, in understanding Hoagland’s legacy in the wake of his death. Unlike Smith, Hoagland’s shifting, chameleon-like ethics—including, we might be surprised to discover, poems objecting to white privilege, Fox News, and late-capital consumerism—manifested less through conscious personae than through the excavation of his own subconscious. “A poem,” he wrote, “is an heroic act of integration that binds into rough harmony the chorus of forces within and outside the soul.” It is a cliché born of workshop sentimentality to say that a poem, or a poetics, involves significant risk for the poet behind it; but Hoagland’s effort to bind the most objectionable parts of himself to his own potential for redemption strikes me, given the vilification to which he has been subject, as an astonishingly high-risk practice. For risk, I think, is inherent in any truly meaningful political exercise—it is a risky thing to engage race, including whiteness, beyond packaged diversity and proper moral posturing; it is a risky thing to excavate the depths and depravities of male experience, to “imagine evil,” as Duncan put it, in order more powerfully to combat it.

The psychological inhabitation of evil, of course, may hold little value to those who encounter it, in material ways, every day and in every aspect of their existence. Re-presenting violence as an intellectual exercise, whatever its ethical intentionality, risks perpetuating systems of hegemony of which many are already—are always—well-aware, forms of violence by which, in fact, they are terrified. In re-contextualizing Hoagland’s legacy, it bears mentioning that I have not, nor has a single one of my ancestors, worn shackles. Nor have I been spoken to, approached—much less harassed or assaulted—by a member of the opposite sex likely, in our culture, to get away with such action without repercussion. Under no circumstances—save, perhaps, general denunciations of the “straight white male”—have I been mocked, objectified, stereotyped, derided, or trivialized because of my race, ethnic background, gender, or sexual orientation. I have never not, in short, felt at home in this country, nor, I imagine, have the five generations of my ancestors who called themselves “Americans.” What Hoagland means to me, therefore, is likely not what he means to many others, writers and readers with as much right to wrangle over and redefine his legacy as I have.

At a time, though, when our ability to dwell in contradiction—to acknowledge antithetical opinions at once, to attain toward the massiveness of experience—is as impoverished as it has been in our collective history, Hoagland requires us to eschew pre-packaged politics, including our propensity for ad hominem invective, in order to engage with our fellow human beings as they are and as they might be. To do otherwise—to perpetuate reductive binaries, to echo narrow demonizations—is to participate in what Roland Barthes, writing in 1957, called “myth-making,” a form of thinking that, for Barthes, “abolishes the complexity of human acts” and “organizes a world which is without contradiction because it is without depth.” In place of granular detail and exacting analysis, myth “tends towards proverbs,” buttressing the uncritical belief that one’s own position—ethical or aesthetic, experiential or imaginative—is the only position possible. Hoagland’s poetics, in contrast, seems to me merely a more specific form of the idea that we thrive by opening ourselves to points-of-view, indeed to feelings, different than our own. It is an idea at the heart of American liberalism, and it is one in which, increasingly, we do not believe.

Having acknowledged that Hoagland’s work remains inextricable from the ethical problems it raises, it might be possible, at this point, to approach the work itself in something like a critical manner. 

In preparation for this essay, as news of Hoagland’s declining health leaked out, I re-read everything he ever wrote, surprised, this time, by the extent to which his essays outpace his poetry in their aesthetic range and intellectual muscle. Hoagland was best, it seems to me, in longer, more prosaic forms, a mode in which his discerning eye could dilate and expand, his wit scald and wither unchecked by the aesthetic demands of poetry.

As we might expect from the cheeky, acerbic voice that dominates that poetry, Hoagland’s prose brilliantly irradiates, like an x-ray, the body of contemporary American writing. At times, this irradiation is starkly critical, as when he diagnoses our cultural valorization of poetic personalities, those figures who—through self-serving retweets, through bio photographs featuring jaunty flair—seem to prioritize the crafting of public personae over the unseen labor of poetic composition. “They have eluded representing anything but attitude,” Hoagland writes of these figures, lambasting “our American cult of individuality, our obsession with identity as a sort of divinely granted personal possession.” At other moments, however, Hoagland’s prose reflects the expansiveness and heterogeneity of our poetry, celebrating its range and fairly weighing its merits and limitations. Many of Hoagland’s best essays, for example, treat the relationship between what he called “skittery” associative poems and “traditional” modes relying more heavily on narrative. “The poetry of fragment,” he writes of the former,

celebrates the connective resourcefulness of the human mind and the myriad simultaneous complexities of experience. […] Yet if we can admire the variety of functions made possible by fragment and collage, we might also remember the considerable traditional powers that are foregone when a writer gives up the grammatical sentence: the complex powers of hierarchy and coordination, of flow, momentum, relativity, and precision.

A keen diagnostician of American poetry’s failures and successes, Hoagland is one of the better essayists I’ve found for introducing students to what is, for many, the discipline’s most challenging aspect—namely, the relation between mystery and meaning, fragmentation and coherence. His essays, moreover, reveal Hoagland as a surprisingly catholic reader, generous in his treatment of writers as far afield from one another as Harryette Mullen and Charles Bernstein, as divergent as Louise Glück and G. C. Waldrep. If Hoagland’s poetry too frequently relies, as I think it does, on a tone of arch cynicism—to which, like water seeking its level, it returns time and again—his essays constitute a refreshing tonic, ranging playfully, charitably across the varied topography of contemporary poetry.

This is not to say that Hoagland’s poetry is consistently one-note, or that it suffers from simplicity or mean-spiritedness or myopia. As his career developed, Hoagland’s work did, to my eye, become more cynical, his gift for self-implication more wry than sincerely probing; gradually oriented less toward interior than toward cultural issues, Hoagland’s work came to suffer from the very aggrandizement of personality he diagnosed in his essays, to the point where he too, at times, became a caricature of himself. At its best, though, Hoagland’s work spoke to a facet of American culture seldom visible in its poetry; people do indeed have racist and sexist tendencies, he reminded us, but these people are not unrecoverable and they are not, therefore, altogether evil—our desire to frame them as such betrays the insecurity of our ethics. Hoagland also, of course, possessed an ability to uncover the dignity, the grace in everyday human experience, revealing the quasi-mythic importance of watching sports in the garage, for example, or of high-school courtship rituals, or even of cement trucks and Safeways. If his work spoke to some of our culture’s most objectionable qualities, it also spoke to our shared propensity for beauty—we should not forget this.

While Hoagland’s épater le bourgeois inclinations are what first drew me to his work at a moment in my life, a decade ago, of significant poetic and economic resentment—I had dropped out of graduate school, was painting houses while living with my parents, and considered myself, with all the righteousness of a twenty-something, a “Marxist”—as I re-read his work I found myself preferring the earlier, less angst-filled poetry of a book like Sweet Ruin. Winner of the 1992 Brittingham Prize, the collection possesses a tenderness and humility that receded, perhaps, as Hoagland’s career progressed. Hoagland is young in this collection, sweet still, endowed with a capacity to wonder at and be awed by the deep mystery behind the veil of the everyday. In Sweet Ruin, banal acts become sacramental, as in the poem “My Country,” about “kissing my best friend’s wife/ in the parking lot of the zoo one afternoon.” Here is that poem’s conclusion:

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 happened?
And who would ever be brave, or lonely, 

or free enough to ask?

The poem is a remarkable early instance of Hoagland’s ability, like the optometrist’s toggling of differently powered lenses, to shuttle between ethical contexts, an ability he would later polemicize by applying it to more provocative subject matter. Here too, in dramatic early form, is Hoagland’s comfort in ambivalence and ambiguity; it is difficult, indeed, not to read his rhetorical questions—at once defiant and elegiac, self-satisfied and ashamed—as commentary on what he knows, even then, will be the work of his poetic career…to be brave, and lonely, and free enough to ask. 

Throughout that career, Hoagland’s poetry remained iconic, instantly recognizable for its eminent readability, its everyday setting, and its conversational voice. For all our postmodern sophistication, we tend to underrate these features, just as we underrate, I think, the compelling power of narrative which Hoagland wielded so adroitly. These are not ludic word games, nor disembodied lyricism, but poems in and of the world, poems that tell us stories about that world, that tell us what kind of civilization, in all our ruin and sweetness, we are. If Hoagland’s last collection, Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God, feels uneven, marked by the achievements and shortcomings that characterize his work as a whole, it nonetheless recaptures some of the tenderness of his most brilliant successes. The poem “I Have Good News,” for example, is an astonishing meditation on death and memory, a haunting imagination, moreover, of one’s final moments. “It doesn’t matter,” Hoagland writes, “if you end up isolated and alone, / pulling the trigger of the morphine feed / repeatedly…” He goes on: “The dark ending does not cancel out / the brightness of the middle. / Your day of greatest joy cannot be dimmed by any shame.”

And this does not end in shame. 

And if it ends in death, it ends in the conviction, recurrent in Hoagland’s work, that death is that force, above all others, which binds us together in suffering. 

Nearly a decade before he was diagnosed with cancer, Hoagland was— incredibly, it seems to me—inhabiting that diagnosis imaginatively, traversing the border between death and life in a poem that is, forever, instructive to us all. This is “Barton Springs,” and I want it—and Hoagland—to have the last word:

Oh life, how I loved your cold spring mornings
of putting my stuff in the green gym-bag
and crossing wet grass to the southeast gate
to push my crumpled dollar through the slot. 

When I get my allotted case of cancer,
let me swim ten more times at Barton Springs,
in the outdoor pool at 6 AM, in the cold water
with the geezers and the jocks. 

With my head bald from radiation
and my chemotherapeutic weight loss
I will be sleek as a cheetah
—and I will not complain about life’s

pedestrian hypocrisies,
I will not consider death a contractual violation.
Let my cancer be the slow-growing kind
so I will have all the time I need

to backstroke over the rocks and little fishes,
looking upwards through my bronze-tinted goggles
into the vaults and rafters of the oaks,
as the crows exchange their morning gossip 

in the pale mutations of early light.
It was worth death to see you through these optic nerves,
to feel breeze through the fur on my arms
to be chilled and stirred in your mortal martini. 

In documents elsewhere I have already recorded
my complaints in some painstaking detail.
Now, because all things are joyful near water,
there just might be time to catch up on praise.