Twenty Poems That Could Save America and Other Essays by Tony Hoagland

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Tony Hoagland’s criticism is a lot like his poetry. In fact, any given poem of his could be a microcosm for his new collection of essays on poetry and poetic craft, Twenty Poems That Could Save America and Other Essays. Let’s grab one at random: “Big Grab” from Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. It opens thusly:

The corn-chip engineer gets a bright idea

and talks to the corn-chip executive

and six months later at the factory they begin subtracting

a few chips from every bag

Here we have a simple premise explained in plain English. Yet it contains a few subtle phrases that hint at the poem’s object: “corn-chip” is a prototypical American snack, so we know we’re heading toward some social commentary. Similarly, in Twenty Poems, the first essay is on American diction, “a linguistic landscape so etymologically wealthy that our most minor communications are studded with high and low improvisations.” He goes on to explore the various ways in which American diction allows for dialectical examinations of “the complex social forces that must be accounted for in any description of reality.”

Like “Big Grab,” this opening essay contains within it a hint at this book’s underlying thesis, as when he compares American diction to Frankenstein’s monster:

The creature we know as Frankenstein is patched together by a mad doctor, who employs a cut-and-paste method using the recycled parts of executed criminals. The monster escapes, descends from the mountain, and terrorizes the villagers. It sounds a lot like postmodernism, doesn’t it? Yet the big, interestingly fabricated fellow is trying to communicate something––maybe he just wants a hug, but he can’t make himself understood to the frightened townspeople.

The anxiety caused by postmodern perceptions of language is a huge theme here, as is the difficulty that said anxiety creates in trying to express one’s self clearly and meaningfully.

“Big Grab,” meanwhile, continues, getting closer to the its central concern:

but they can still call it on the outside wrapper,

The Big Grab,

so the concept of Big is quietly modified

to mean More Or Less Large, or Only Slightly

                                                         Less Big Than Before.

Here we have a specifying of the premise. Now the corn-chip engineer’s “bright idea” shows its consequences: language is being changed, not by cultural evolution, but by corporate branding. Though the speaker has yet to say it, clearly the target is in sight. Frankenstein’s monster has been stitched together. Like the poem, Hoagland’s collection, in the next five essays, narrows its focus. He explores particular elements of poetic craft that he finds woefully lacking in contemporary poetry, for which he offers superlative examples.

In “Litany, Game, and Representation,” Hoagland examines the act of naming in contemporary poetry, how “confidence about the harmony between speech, things, and humans has not been universally shared in the twentieth century.” In “Poetic Housing,” he likens the poem to “an internal combustion engine [which is] mounted, or housed, inside a sturdy frame,” a necessary structure “because the contents of the poem are combustible; the vibrations are fierce.” In “Facts and Feelings,” he ponders the way poetry used to also contain information, facts, instructional knowledge for a people for whom such things were not readily available. Though of course Hoagland does not hope that we will soon depend on poetry once again factual communication, he strongly advises that “if contemporary poetry is to claim the status of ongoing relevance, it must interest itself in the stuff of mortgage crisis, insurgency sponsorship, and lithium batteries.”

These essays form a slowly accumulating argument for the Hoagland’s vision of poetic efficacy. He is itemizing the major components of successful (and enlightening and potentially useful) poems in order to establish the premises for his larger argument. Like many essay collections, Twenty Poems can be viewed as a subtle manifesto, a whisper to action. If that’s so, then what is his argument? What action does he want us to take?

Let’s go back to “Big Grab.” Its next stanza gets to the heart of the poem’s theme:

Confucius said this would happen––

that language would be hijacked and twisted

by a couple of tricksters from the Business Department

 

and from then on words would get crookeder and crookeder

until no one would know how to build a staircase,

or to size up a horse by its teeth

or when it is best to shut up.

A problem is announced in unambiguous terms. The crass, capitalistic maneuver of the corn-chip company has dire consequences when taken as one drop in the bucket of linguistic degradation. Over a long enough time, little corporate (and political) shifts in language create a messy, confusing and potentially disastrous world. Like Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” Hoagland’s work wants to disrupt the menacing manipulation of words by shifty, untrustworthy “authorities.” The postmodern monster has been set free.

Tony Hoagland

Tony Hoagland

One must make an important distinction here between our language system and our perceptions of the language system’s effect. Hoagland has already stated that “American poets are millionaires” because of the richness diction of our culture’s speech, yet he also laments the same culture’s lack of belief in language’s power. If we were able, his argument goes, to get over postmodernism’s stranglehold on expression, then we would see the wealth it offers us and the deep connections it can form. (Though Hoagland is a little vague on his definition, it seems to me that postmodernism, here, simultaneously refers to its theoretical conundrums (i.e., the inadequacy of language) and those theories’ implications in culture. What was once esoteric became ubiquitous, even if the cerebral underpinnings of its originators is no longer acknowledged.)

Fittingly, Hoagland turns his attention to individual poets who practice the very things he espouses. Dean Young, Hoagland asserts, “is the contemporary avatar of avant-garde populism in American poetry. His poems are jazzy, imagistic, ironic, romantic, humorous, surrealist-inflected, and accessible.” Here Hoagland pauses his commendations for some critical comparisons: he examines the way in which several poets who were influenced by Young have failed to reach Young’s skillful language. He examines the unfair negative reception of Sharon Olds’ work, so mired in misogyny it’s shameful and embarrassing (though Hoagland fails to rightly condemn these critics). In a discussion of “so-called wisdom poets,” he writes that their poems “aren’t taught in many MFA programs; such poems aren’t viewed as difficult enough to need smart people to explain them. Against a postmodern background, the sincerity of such poets must seem, well, touchingly simplistic.” Finally, he praises Robert Bly’s work, specifically his Eastern-borrowed ghazals. “Plain enough in its language,” Hoagland notes, but it’s the “cumulative impact” that matters, as in Bly’s poem “The Difficult Word,” in which separation is repeated several times, and its meaning “morphs kaleidoscopically through context after context.”

After all those appraisals and assertions, Hoagland finally arrives at his coup de grâce, the title essay, “Twenty Poems That Could Save America.” Now he’s squarely in the present, talking directly about the current state of poetry, of language, of America in general. His poem “Big Grab” also moves to our present predicament:

We live in that time that [Confucius] predicted.

Nothing means what it says,

and it says it all the time.

Out on Route 28, the lights blaze all night

on a billboard of a beautiful girl

covered with melted cheese––

 

See how she beckons to the river of late-night cars!

See how the tipsy drivers swerve,

under the breathalyzer moon!

If you have been paying attention so far, you can already tell where Hoagland is going, both in the poem and the collection. Language has been hijacked by business, politics, media, technology, and even our own complicity. We don’t believe in language anymore; we’re suspicious of it. Consequently, even many of our contemporary poets––the very ones who ought to be guarding language’s endless efficacy––have fallen victim to postmodernity’s tempting ambiguity. The result is a populace enmeshed in a “fake culture” full of “shallow substitutes.”

His solution? Completely rewrite the poetry curriculum in schools. Somehow, the enterprise of getting poetry into schools has “flunked.” “The old chestnuts,” he argues, “”The Road Not Taken,” “I Hear a Fly Buzz When I Died,” “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” great, worthy poems all––must be removed and replaced by poems that are not chestnuts.” He further suggests that we create “a set of poems held in common by our students and so by our citizens.” Some of his selections are convincing: Kerry Johannsen’s “Black People & White People Were Said” would be a great addition, as would Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Ballad of Orange and Grape.” Others, like “Song of Speaks-Fluently,” almost demand inclusion.

Strangely, Hoagland only stumbles when he makes a case as to why the elements of craft that he espouses should be prominent, why the work of Sharon Olds or Dean Young is prescriptively vital, and why American schools need a revised core of poems. His suggestions are sound, but his reasoning sometimes falls into generational grumbling:

The celebrity culture that seems ubiquitous in our moment is a kind of fake surrogate for the culturally significant place gods and myth once held in the collective imagination. The sagas of Princess Di, or Michael Jackson, or Amy Winehouse are shallow substitutes for the story of Persephone, lacking the structure to edify but charismatic to many people nonetheless. Just as junk food mimics nutritious food, fake culture mimics and displaces real myth. Real culture cultivates our ability to see, feel, and think. It is empowering. Fake culture renders us passive, materialistic, and tranced-out.

He cites E.D. Hirch’s Cultural Literacy, which envisions an America “in which poems were part of the civility and pleasure of the dining table, in which guests and hosts staged impromptu readings, in which poems could usefully and naturally be worked into a conversation about anything at all.” He even goes so far as to paint a portrait of this New America, a scene set in the Capitol building. Congress has before them a difficult and morally complex bill, and through discussion of William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark,” they are able to reach the right decision.

What Hoagland doesn’t seem to realize is that he needn’t have depicted contemporary America as a linguistically inadequate, insufficiently educated and culturally lacking country in order to make his points. His assessments of our culture seem naïve and a little old-fashioned (and a little disconcertedly Freudian), which undercut his overall project. It is not required that the world be in dire straits in order for a writer to propose ways to improve it.

And maybe this new landscape of shifty language and surrogate myths isn’t so bad after all. Maybe the world is merely leaving Hoagland behind. As his poem, “Big Grab,” comes to an end, the tone it strikes is one of worried resignation:

In a story whose beginning I must have missed,

without a name for the thing

I can barely comprehend I desire,

I speak these words that do not know

where they’re going.

 

No wonder I want something more or less large

and salty for lunch.

No wonder I stare into space while eating it.

Too many times Hoagland fails to see where he stands in this new culture he keeps talking about. He’s not wrong that poetry is important, or that more people should read it. He’s not wrong that reading poetry will better our citizens, enrich our shared imagination and provide reference points for moral and philosophical conundrums. No, Hoagland is only wrong about why we need those things. Need does not necessitate lack, just as recommending poetry shouldn’t demand painting a picture of a world that will be completely lost without it.

Poets and critics often publicly ponder the relevance of poetry. They talk of low sales and self-imposed esotericism. Maybe the image these writers repeatedly invoke––that of an apocalyptic America with no poetry and little civility and lots of celebrities––is part of the reason why people have begun to see us that way. Poetry may need promotion, but it shouldn’t always come along with a condescending picture of the world in which it needs promoting. Poetry is not sermonic; its crusaders should take a lesson from it.


Jonathan Russell Clark is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review and Read It Forward. His work has also appeared in Tin House, the Atlantic, the San Francisco ChronicleThe MillionsRolling Stone, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. More from this author →