In the recent long ago known as 1976, Billy Joel wrote a song called “The Angry Young Man.” Basically, it described a dude who was forever angry at the world, forever fire, forever brimstone. Oh. And forever a bore to be around.
Tony Hoagland’s poem “You’re the Top” reminded me, in its way, of the Joel song. The poem’s speaker describes his grandmother, a debutante in 1938, who sees the world of privilege as an ideal one. The speaker sees it differently: “My liberal adolescent rage / was like a righteous fist back then / that wouldn’t let me rest.”
But there’s a slight turn toward the end of this poem. This angry young man matures to his own realizations — both about himself and about his grandmother. When you get there, note the power not only of the last line but the last word.
You’re the Top
Of all the people that I’ve ever known
I think my grandmother Bernice
would be best qualified to be beside me now
driving north of Boston in a rented car
while Cole Porter warbles on the radio;
Only she would be trivial and un-
politically correct enough to totally enjoy
the rhyming of Mahatma Ghandi
with Napoleon brandy;
and she would understand, from 1948,
the miracle that once was cellophane,
which Porter rhymes with night in Spain.
She loved that image of the high gay life
where people dressed by servants
turned every night into the Ritz:
dancing through a shower of just
into the shelter of a dry martini.
When she was 70 and I was young
I hated how a life of privilege
had kept her ignorance intact
about the world beneath her pretty feet,
how she believed that people with good manners
naturally had yachts, knew how to waltz
and dribbled French into their sentences
like salad dressing. My liberal adolescent rage
was like a righteous fist back then
that wouldn’t let me rest,
but I’ve come far enough from who I was
to see her as she saw herself:
a tipsy debutante in 1938,
kicking off a party with her shoes;
launching the lipstick-red high heel
from her elegant big toe
into the orbit of a chandelier
suspended in a lyric by Cole Porter,
bright and beautiful and useless
4 thoughts on “The Angry Young Man”
Ironically, the privilege of wealth at least kept grandma’s friends from the full force of feeling useless. Their society/tradition/law didn’t allow them to be doctors, lawyers, etc., etc. or even to be school teachers once they married.
Good point. And the point of the Wharton book I am presently reading: The Custom of the Country. Or so I’m guessing.
Tony was a bit of an angry and arrogant asshole early in his career. He mellowed into a thoughtful, kind man as he aged, just as I suspect many of us do, contrary to that cliche of the angry old man.
I’m all in for mellowing with age.