Real Sofistikashun by Tony Hoagland

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Mean Poems


Poetry, often something we uphold for its beauty and its dalliances with love and nature, sometimes has a reputation to downhold as well. In poetry, Tony Hoagland tells us, meanness can work. That’s right, vinegar instead of honey for your readers. As any misbehaving child will tell you, negative attention can be as good as positive.

Hoagland serves up some examples in the final chapter of his book of essays, Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft (but not Ken Craft). It shouldn’t surprise us. Have we not learned that the pen is mightier than the sword? Have we not realized the power of words as weapons?

Certainly as kids we quickly learn the lie in the little ditty, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” What bull. Words will always hurt us! If they didn’t, we wouldn’t feel the need to protect ourselves with silly little chants in hopes of magically feeling better.

For starters, Hoagland gives us the plain simple plain of William Carlos Williams–a poem that will red wheelbarrow right over your heart, if you love grandmas.

The Last Words of My English Grandmother

There were some dirty plates
and a glass of milk
beside her on a small table
near the rank, disheveled bed—

Wrinkled and nearly blind
she lay and snored
rousing with anger in her tones
to cry for food,

Gimme something to eat—
They’re starving me—
I’m all right I won’t go
to the hospital. No, no, no

Give me something to eat
Let me take you
to the hospital, I said
and after you are well

you can do as you please.
She smiled, Yes
you do what you please first
then I can do what I please—

Oh, oh, oh! she cried
as the ambulance men lifted
her to the stretcher—
Is this what you call

making me comfortable?
By now her mind was clear—
Oh you think you’re smart
you young people,

she said, but I’ll tell you
you don’t know anything.
Then we started.
On the way

we passed a long row
of elms. She looked at them
awhile out of
the ambulance window and said,

What are all those
fuzzy-looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I’m tired
of them and rolled her head away.

Ouch. But it hits you in the not-so-sweet spot. Grandparents aren’t always paid to behave like the sweet old grandparents of yore. Sometimes they grow gruffer with time. Sometimes our final memories of them are best overlooked and forgotten. And sometimes that becomes an impossibility. Instead, it becomes a poem.

Or what about Louise Gluck’s “Circe’s Power,” wherein she pulls a Jonathan Swift and looks at the whole damn human race as pig-like. Thus does Circe’s act become more metaphor than magic:

I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
Look like pigs.

I’m sick of your world
That lets the outside disguise the inside. Your men weren’t bad men;
Undisciplined life
Did that to them. As pigs,

Under the care of
Me and my ladies, they
Sweetened right up.

Then I reversed the spell, showing you my goodness
As well as my power. I saw

We could be happy here,
As men and women are
When their needs are simple. In the same breath,

I foresaw your departure,
Your men with my help braving
The crying and pounding sea. You think

A few tears upset me? My friend,
Every sorceress is
A pragmatist at heart; nobody sees essence who can’t
Face limitation. If I wanted only to hold you

I could hold you prisoner.

And one more from Tony H., this one to the tune of “Mommy Dearest.” It’s Stephanie Brown’s poem, “Mommy Is a Scary Narcissist,” which includes the scary word, blepharoplasty (plastic surgery of the eyelids, thank you).

C’mon, I shouldn’t need to mention blepharoplasty.
Her mauled face is a part of the shared horizon.
I don’t need to mention the lift, the tuck, the lipo.
(A Trinity.)

The smile-ever-smiling is a part of the position.
This is Mommy’s supposition:
Sexy. Sexy. Sexy. Everlasting and in high-tonus stance
Belong to dads, men, boyfriends, bartenders, chance.

Mommy looks good when she prays in the chapel.
(ferns, lush foliage, candles, rose petals, and flattering paints)
Harder than the other mommies. No one stays.
(She looks into the baptismal font deeply, passionately, and

Mommy tries to love, Mommy tries to get a job.
Not very hard, the outside world knows that, but Mommy

Enough already? Ready to cry, “Uncle?” If the world is driving you nuts, you have two creative choices: one, you can write escapist poems for people who want to escape to Pollyanna poesy, or two, you can write with vim and vitriol. Let it all out. Get even. Poetically, of course. Some readers out there just might appreciate it and thank you from the hidden dark and sinister of their hearts.

The Poet as “Perpetual Amateur”


In his book Real Sofistikashun, Tony Hoagland ends a chapter about Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, and Louise Glück (the “Three Tenors,” as he dubs them) with these words about poetry as a “profession”:

“‘Profession’ has always seemed like a misleading, even laughable word for poetry—not just because it suggests that the economy has a Poetry Sector, but also because it suggests that poetry is masterable, that poetry itself is stable, that some persons possess poetry, and that others don’t. Though a skilled craftsperson can create a facsimile of a real poem, a skilled reader can spot the counterfeit in a minute, and the word that reader might use to describe the counterfeit might be ‘professional.’ The making of poems is so mysteriously tied up with not-knowing that in some sense the poet is a perpetual amateur, a stranger to the art, subject to ineptitude, failure, falsity, mediocrity, and repetitiveness. Even to remember what a poem IS seems impossible for a poet—one suspects that professors, or professionals, rarely have that problem.

“Nonetheless, some poets, like those discussed here, make you want to use the word professional because their careers are testaments to their stamina of craft and spirit. Having found an initial place for themselves to stand and a way to speak, they have lost and found it again and again: they have reconceived themselves, gone past their old answers into the new questions. This combination of restlessness and intensity seems fundamental to the path of poetry. And because they have impressed us many times in the past, we follow along, knowing that on a given occasion in the future, unpredictably, they will knock the hats off our heads all over again—as if to remind us what we are in the presence of.”


Speaking of professionals, today is Emily Dickinson’s birthday. In honor of the occasion, here is an Emily poem, one to mull over as you watch the sun rise and the sun set. Yes, there are some stop-you-in-your-tracks lines here!

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose…
Emily Dickinson

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose —
A Ribbon at a time —
The Steeples swam in Amethyst —
The news, like Squirrels, ran —
The Hills untied their Bonnets —
The Bobolinks — begun —
Then I said softly to myself —
“That must have been the Sun”!
But how he set — I know not —
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while —
Till when they reached the other side,
A Dominie in Gray —
Put gently up the evening Bars —
And led the flock away —




Don’t look now, but there are only 10 more school writing days until the Christmas-New Year’s break. Looking for holiday-themed writing prompts? We shared some quirky ones (half seriously) that you can revisit or visit for the first time.

Celebrating something other than Christmas? Add to the prompt list! It’s more fun for students to come up with questions and prompts than come up with poems alone, after all. Make them the teachers and put their expertise to work!