Tony Hoagland

7 posts

How Voice Escorts Us into the “Interior of the World”

It seems fitting that Tony Hoagland’s farewell book to the world would tackle the concept of voice. If any poet knew of what he spoke, Hoagland was the man. Whether you read his poems or his sage essays about poems or writing poetry, you “heard” Hoagland and felt as if you were lucky to have found an open seat in his seminar.

The last seminar you can attend is The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice. The posthumous collection of essays stands as a short, “Hey, wait a minute,” on the matter of hard and fast rules about poetry writing. Chief among them? Your poetry must be as concise as possible to succeed.

The old adages sound logical, but Strunk and White weren’t poets, either. What about voice? With due diligence, Hoagland demonstrates that voice often requires colloquialisms, idioms, asides, etc. — the stuff that leavens our daily speech.

If executed with purpose, voice quickly bonds writer with reader, who is more than willing to forgive linguistic excess in exchange for a temporary soul mate capable of providing an insight or two on the world.

Hoagland provides many examples of poems, some complete and others frustratingly not, to back up his words. Here’s an excerpt he uses from Lisa Lewis’s poem, “While I’m Walking”:


Once I saw a man get mad because two people asked him
The same question. The second didn’t even know of the
Anyone would’ve called the man unfair, unreasonable,
He stormed at the person who approached him
That unfortunate second time, and it was nothing,
Where’s the restroom? or Where could I find a telephone?
He was a clerk, and the second person, a shopper,
He “change his attitude”…

But though it ruined their day it improved mine, I could rest
Less alone in anger and wounded spirits. That was long ago,…


Hoagland comments, “Lewis’s plain linguistic style might be described as ‘prosaic,’ that is, verbose and unpoetic, yet it compels us because her speaker tells more truth than we usually get, and she does so with a bluntness that tests the conventions of decorum. Lewis is a narrative-discursive poet in style, not a poet of lyrical language, but there is a rhythmic, businesslike terseness in her storytelling and thinking that is riveting in is purposeful informality. Her speaker captivates us for the duration of whatever she wants to say. That’s what a voice poet wants to do: hook us and then escort us deep into the interior of the poem, which is also the interior of the poet, which is also the interior of the world.

“In a world where, socially, we often feel stranded on the surface of appearances, people go to poems for the fierce, uncensored candor they provide, the complex, unflattering, often ambivalent way they stare into the middle of things. In a world where, as one poet says, ‘people speak to each other mostly for profit,’ it is exhilarating to listen to a voice that is practicing disclosure without seeking advantage. That is intimate.”

And so the book leaves practitioners with an oxymoron of sorts. For voice, the poet must practice her intimacy, plan her informality, execute her natural voice for a casually-preconceived cause.

There are some writing exercises at the back of the book, if you wish. And some reader-writers will dive in. But others, like me, will find the book’s encouragement enough. Rereading a 168-page book is an exercise of sorts, too.

Either way, you’ll leave the book realizing that there are more angles than you thought to “voice,” and more “types” of voice, too, such as “speech registers” and “imported voices” and “voices borrowed from the environment.”

Bottom line? Strunk and White were fine for your college freshmen writing course, but maybe not for your poems. Perhaps it’s time to make like Pygmalion and give voice to your art.

Quieting the “Chatter of Desire”


In our times we face some stark realities. One of them is disappointment. It’s small fry, really, but to many of us it’s a daily gnawing from inside, not to mention a reminder of a selfishness we can’t quite quell.

The ego, I guess. Or id, maybe. It likes to say things like, “Why me?” It likes to feel sorry for itself. And it tries like hell to be sympathetic and empathetic, but more often comes across as simply pathetic. Disappointed.

But disappointment, like most things, has its up side. I think of Tony Hoagland’s lines:

That’s what I like about disappointment:
the way it slows you down,
when the querulous insistent chatter of desire
goes dead calm

Then I feel a little better, because that’s what poetry does. Forces you to look at something from another angle. Slowing down is a good thing, right? We frequently talk about it, in normal times, but seldom indulge it.

And what about that “querulous insistent chatter of desire” we’ve never been able to name (until Hoagland helped)? Isn’t it the opposite of disappointment? Isn’t it as bad or worse?

Well, now that you put it that way, maybe so. Especially if you were Tony Hoagland, a man who, later in life, would have as much to celebrate as to lament.

So, as you read “Disappointment,” you might ask yourself this: Has my life in recent weeks been soaked in self-indulging disappointment, or am I seeing my petty desires a little better for what they are? Petty. And in some cases pitiful.

I don’t know. Maybe the answer will some day make you a stronger and better person. Then again, maybe not. Disappointment, after all, is a pernicious and ubiquitous foe.


Tony Hoagland

I was feeling pretty religious
standing on the bridge in my winter coat
looking down at the gray water:
the sharp little waves dusted with snow,
fish in their tin armor.

That’s what I like about disappointment:
the way it slows you down,
when the querulous insistent chatter of desire
goes dead calm

and the minor roadside flowers
pronounce their quiet colors,
and the red dirt of the hillside glows.

She played the flute, he played the fiddle
and the moon came up over the barn.
Then he didn’t get the job, —
or her father died before she told him
that one, most important thing—

and everything got still.

It was February or October
It was July
I remember it so clear
You don’t have to pursue anything ever again
It’s over
You’re free
You’re unemployed

You just have to stand there
looking out on the water
in your trench coat of solitude
with your scarf of resignation
lifting in the wind.

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!

“The Charm of Voice Is More Important Than Economy.”

In his new, posthumous book, The Art of Voice, the gist of Tony Hoagland’s message can be found at the opening of Chapter 3, “The Sound of Intimacy: The Poem’s Connection with Its Audience.”

If you’ve been browbeaten by writing teachers and mentors who insist on economy at all costs, you might by surprised by his words:

“A successful poem is voiced into a living and compelling presence. The convincing representation of a speaker may be created by force, or intellectual subtlety, or companionability, or even by eccentricity, but it must initiate a bond of trust that incites further listening. That presence in voice is not always ‘intimate’ in a warm, ‘best friend’ kind of way, but the reader must be impressed that the speaker is a complex, interesting individual who is intriguingly committed to what she is saying, and how she is saying it.”

So far, so good. And it holds true for all writing, I think. Even blog posts. Do I have a voice here? With words as your only camera, can you “see” me by dint of diction alone? Hoagland continues:

“Such presence is only sometimes created by brevity. Many gurus on the craft of writing declare that a writer should ‘make every word count.’ Yet in poetry, often the charm of voice is more important than economy. After all, most of our daily interchanges don’t convey information in an economical manner. When we say ‘What’s up?’ or ‘Looks like rain,’ our speech isn’t really about conveying information, but about signaling to the listener that someone is present and accessible—open to conversation. They are gestures of presence. How about them Seahawks?”

I love that embedded little quote in this paragraph: “Often the charm of voice is more important than economy.” You can hear more than one poet craning her chin to the sky to shout, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last!”

“All day, every day, those ‘uhs’ and ‘ers’ and ‘likes’ pepper and salt our spoken interchanges. These ‘inefficiencies’ of speech serve a purpose in building tone and voice; they ‘warm’ and humanize poetic speech; and they have their own prosodic contribution to make to poems. These interruptives, asides, idioms, rhetorical questions, declaratives, etc., float through our sentences like packing material, which in a sense they are—they pack and cushion and modulate the so-called ‘contents’ of our communications. And this technically ‘inessential language’ creates an atmosphere of connectedness, of relationality.”

From there, Hoagland goes on to provide examples in poetry via poems that live and breath voice. Without the “inessential” verbiage, they’d sink. Start weeding out “unnecessary language” in these works (á la writing workshop feedback from the learn’d astronomers) and you’d have a poem that fails.

Fancy that. The unfanciness of it all, I mean.

But, as I said in part one (yesterday’s post on Hoagland’s book), this is not license to be sloppy and wordy in your writing. It is permission to consider the word “essential” hiding in “inessential,” especially if voice is the craft that you are working on as a writer.

Not working on that craft? Maybe you should be. And maybe Hoagland’s parting-this-world words will help you in that cause.

R.I.P. Tony Hoagland

Wow. Not sure how I missed it until alerted via email today, but we lost a good man and a good poet (and not a bad essayist, thank you, too) over a week ago. Here is a fine tribute to Tony Hoagland in the New York Times obituary pages.

And, from only a month before his death to pancreatic cancer, there’s this must read from The Sun by Tony.

Our hearts go out for this loss, but as our thanks go out, too, for the gains in our reading lives and in our lives as poets and Americans.

Tony, we will miss you but never forget you.

Be a Man!

donkey gospel

What does it mean to be a man? In its way, as fascinating a topic as the age-old muse of many a poet: death. I was struck by this thought while reading Tony Hoagland’s 1998 collection (for the first time!), Donkey Gospel.

While in the book, wondering if the title had anything to do with what asses we are (a variation of Mark Twain’s fist-shaking at “the damned human race”), I came across “The Replacement.”

This poem, ostensibly about Hoagland’s brother and what it means to come of age as a “man” in America (oh, hell, anywhere really) struck me because it does what good poetry should do–it speaks on two levels, the concrete particular and the abstract in-general.

Man or woman, the reader reads the poem, hits the spot-on finish, and nods, “Yes! That’s it. This captures something I myself know, either from personal experience or from witnessing someone else’s experience.”

Better yet, Hoagland doesn’t preach. He simply lays his brother’s experience out and leaves it to the reader to decide: Good? Bad? Necessary? Unnecessary? Somewhere in between?

In case you haven’t read it yet, you can enjoy its bittersweet truths here. And if you have read it, enjoy anew. Poetry begs rereading more than any other genre, which only adds to the mystery of why so many otherwise-stalwart readers avoid it.


The Replacement

And across the country I know
they are replacing my brother’s brain
with the brain of a man:

one gesture, one word, one neuron at a time
with surgical precision
they are teaching him to hook his thumbs
into his belt, to iron his mouth as flat
as the horizon, and make his eyes
reflective as a piece of tin.

It is a kind of cooking
the male child undergoes:
to toughen him, he is dipped repeatedly
in insult–peckerwood, shitbag, faggot,
pussy, dicksucker–until spear points
will break against his epidermis,
until his is impossible to disappoint.

Then he walks out into the street
ready for a game of corporate poker
with a hard-on for the Dow-Jones
like this hormonal language I am
flexing like a bicep
to show who’s boss.

But I’m not the boss.
And there is nothing I can do to stop it,
and would I if I could?
What else is there for him to be
except a man?
If they fail,
he stumbles through his life
like an untied shoe.
If they succeed, he may become
something even I can’t love.

Already the photograph I have of him
is out of date
but in it he is standing by the pool
without a shirt: too young, too white, too weak,
with feelings he is too inept to hide
splashed over his face–

goofy, proud, shy,
he’s smiling at the camera
as if he were under the illusion
that someone loved him so well
they would not ever ever ever
turn him over to the world.


Tony Hoagland’s America: Look Familiar?

If you’re tired of empty phrases like “Build a Wall” and “Make America Great Again,” you might consider Tony Hoagland’s America for respite. At least you’d be a realist, and at most a decent judge of political poetry.

Tony Hoagland’s view of America is subtle, though. No in-your-face pronouncements. Just creative and philosophical riffs that seem to be written in the key of how-did-we-get-here?

Here are two examples, one an older poem and one from his most recent collection, Application for Release from the Dream. First, the more famous older one:



Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud
Says that America is for him a maximum-security prison
Whose walls are made of RadioShacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes
Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials,
And as I consider how to express how full of shit I think he is,
He says that even when he’s driving to the mall in his Isuzu
Trooper with a gang of his friends, letting rap music pour over them
Like a boiling Jacuzzi full of ballpeen hammers, even then he feels
Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds
Of the thick satin quilt of America
And I wonder if this is a legitimate category of pain,
or whether he is just spin doctoring a better grade,
And then I remember that when I stabbed my father in the dream last night,
It was not blood but money
That gushed out of him, bright green hundred-dollar bills
Spilling from his wounds, and—this is the weird part—,
He gasped “Thank god—those Ben Franklins were
Clogging up my heart—
And so I perish happily,
Freed from that which kept me from my liberty”—
Which was when I knew it was a dream, since my dad
Would never speak in rhymed couplets,
And I look at the student with his acne and cell phone and phony ghetto clothes
And I think, “I am asleep in America too,
And I don’t know how to wake myself either,”
And I remember what Marx said near the end of his life:
“I was listening to the cries of the past,
When I should have been listening to the cries of the future.”
But how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable
Or what kind of nightmare it might be
When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you
And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river
Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters
And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher?

I like the idea of America’s walls consisting of Radio Shacks and Burger Kings and MTV episodes. And of fathers being stabbed and bleeding Benjamins instead of blood. A Goldman Sachs America, then. “My plutocracy, t’is of thee/Sweet Land of Money Trees,/of Thee I write,” and all that.

Note, too, the all-important “your own hand” in the penultimate line. Americans as accessories to the crime. Yes, even protesting Americans, ones who miss the inherent hypocrisies of commercialism and comfort.

And here’s a link to Hoagland’s more recent effort as published in the New Ohio Review. It’s called   “Ode to the Republic”  and contemplates the rewards of not being number one among nations, or considering yourself to be number one among nations: “But now at last the end of our dynasty has arrived / and I feel humble and calm and curiously free.”

Disturbing? Maybe. But the feeling may be coming sooner than you think, and Tony Hoagland’s America may prove preferable to the one stumbling along like a late Roman Empire on a bender right now.

As Hoagland puts it: “There are worse things than being second burrito.”

Amen and pass the sour cream.