Hilary Menos reviews Turn Up the Ocean by Tony Hoagland (Bloodaxe, 2022)
Nobody in the UK writes like Tony Hoagland. When he writes, of America, in ‘Ode to the Republic’,https://comraderadmila.com/2019/06/14/so-great-when/
My country, ‘tis of thee I sing:
There are worse things than being
minor player, ex-bigshot, former VIP, drinking decaf
in the nursing home for downsized superpowers
I want to say, who writes like this, who sings, like this, of the UK? Nobody, that’s who.
In fact, not many people in America, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, write (or sing) like Hoagland either. He has – or he had, he died in 2018, of pancreatic cancer – a very particular quality. Acerbic, witty, chatty, contemporary, demotic, accessible; Hoagland made more sense than Dean Young, was funnier than Ted Kooser, had more gravitas than Billy Collins. He wrote with humour, with irony, and with enormous humanity – his poetry is uncompromising, unsentimental and also deeply compassionate. And he wrote about anything and everything – war, hatred, male chauvinism and the difficulties between men and women, and also about America, the “big, scary baby”, the decline of Empire, racism, what it was to be a white American man, to have the privileges of that position, to enjoy them somewhat reluctantly, and to recognise his own complicity in the enjoying of them.
In Turn Up the Ocean, Hoagland continues to dissect the tragedy of America. Literally, in ’American Story’, where a teen falls to his death, and again, literally, in ‘The Reason he Brought his Gun to School: A Blues’ where the shooter is:
a classic piece of American lunch meat
caught between two slices of white noise
in a club sandwich of confusion.
Here, as so often, Hoagland conjures up a fabulous mix of the colloquial and the profound. And he’s still probing how it feels to be as much part of the problem as part of the solution. Dining out in ‘Dante’s Bar and Grill’ he finds himself “among the sort / whose sins were no different from my own; / whose disproportionate good fortune I had shared”. In ‘Squad Car Light’ he puts his hand up to the cowardice we feel when police come to take someone away, and likens it to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane:
the night they came to fetch the teacher,
and spread him on the hood of his own car
—while the neighbours watched from
behind their flowered curtains
and the disciples slipped into the dark.
And now you must be starting to understand
what a vain idea it was
to call yourself a brother of mankind
because now all you want is to be safe
all you want is to be well out of sight.
Hoagland is convincing and seductive, funny and serious. He has great command of tone, he sweeps the reader along with him. It’s only later that I come back to the poem and question it – why was the lad being arrested, why is Hoagland asking us to elide him with Jesus, why is not protesting an arrest about which we know nothing such cowardice?
Acerbic, witty, chatty, contemporary, demotic, accessible; Hoagland made more sense than Dean Young, was funnier than Ted Kooser, had more gravitas than Billy Collins
Hoagland’s Big Thing is Voice. He writes about it in his book of essays on poetic craft, Real Sofistikashun (Graywolf, 2006), and in his recent book with Kay Cosgrove The Art of Voice (Norton, 2020), and there’s an excellent YouTube video of Hoagland talking about The American Voice at the Ledbury Festival in 2017. Voice, tone, attitude. It’s not all he’s got – he brings a real willingness to explore discomfort, a firm commitment to truth, and a fascination with contemporary culture, not to mention a big bag of technique – but it’s a big part of a Tony Hoagland poem. Everything comes filtered through his ironic, knowing persona.
Another big part of what makes a Hoagland poem is his preparedness to address discomfort, his belief that we need to confront those parts of ourselves of which we are most ashamed, most afraid. For example, in his essay ‘Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People,’ first published in 2003 and included in Real Sofistikashun, he wrote, “To really get at the subject of race, 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.”
Hoagland’s tendency to dig into this tangled middle got him into trouble more than once, most notably with his poem ‘The Change’ which led to a contretemps with Claudia Rankine. You can read Rankine’s response to Hoagland’s poem, and Hoagland’s later response to Rankine, and Daisy Fried’s response to the poem and the controversy on the Poetry Foundation. You will probably decide what side to come down on according to your own prejudices. Hoagland has since said that he feels that American poetry is “hypersensitive” and “a little too decent”. He’s won no major prizes since 2008. Rankine has won many.
Did Hoagland feel he was somehow in opposition to the culture of ‘Nice-ism’ because he spoke “unimpeded by nicety or second thoughts”? Probably. Did he mind being perceived as somewhat out-of-step with American poetry? Probably not; he loved to speak his mind, was known for being caustic, blunt and no-nonsense. This is him on poetry with clever or obscure manneristic features “like manuscripts in which all the titles are parenthesis with nothing inside. That’s an example of what I would call a useless fucking mannerism, a highly useless fucking mannerism. The person who’s doing that, doesn’t even know why he’s doing it, except that they saw someone else doing it or because Jorie Graham did it once.” He says, “probably the poet is really just [doing it] for the sake of cool. We have to remember that there are such things as wisdom, truth, beauty, and poetic power to be achieved through this technology, this English language, through grammar, through image, through metaphor, through intellectual history, through the use of current events. There are so many things that you can do. So why do something in your poetry that by definition has the narrowest possible audience, and in a certain way is already intentionally limiting, sort of excluding a big part of the audience? It’s crazy and it’s bad for our business, it’s bad for art, you know.”https://gulfstreamlitmag.com/archives/online-archives/current-issue/features/interview-with-tony-hoagland/ Thank you, Tony Hoagland.
Voice, tone, attitude. It’s not all he’s got – he brings a real willingness to explore discomfort, a firm commitment to truth, and a fascination with contemporary culture, not to mention a big bag of technique – but it’s a big part of a Tony Hoagland poem
At the back of Hoagland’s new collection, Turn Up the Ocean, his partner the novelist Kathleen Lee, writes of how, over the spring and summer of 2018 before he died, Hoagland gathered poems into a final collection. She says: “We discussed its shifting contents, aware that I would be the one to finish the book”. In fact it wasn’t until 2020, when she spent a lot of time at home due to the pandemic, that she was able to resume the process of adding, subtracting, and reordering. She says, “In the quiet of our house, with the world outside nearly as silent, surrounded by Tony’s paper and books, I completed Turn Up the Ocean for him.”
The title poem of Turn Up the Ocean opens:
Now that I’ve bought a machine that plays noises recorded from nature
I can have Thunderstorm or Forest Pines or Sonorous Ocean
at the push of a button.
This might sound like an eco poem about man finding solace in nature. But his comfort is found not in the real thing, but in a taped, reproduced version of nature. Hoagland revels in this: “Who knew the ocean could be kept on a digital chip / along with Morning Birdsong / and Wind through Summer Grass.” Ah, the ingenuity of Man! Is Hoagland pointing out how we use and exploit nature, how nowadays we rarely distinguish between the real and the fake, how we are often more comfortable with the idea of nature rather than the real thing, or is he gently mocking the cult of self-help with its whale noise tapes and forest bathing? Yes to all this, but the poem has so much more to say:
Again and again my heart has been broken
by people who didn’t have what I want;
Their crime was not being everything, these people,
which it turns out was my crime too.
Now when I hear myself complaining,
I can say, “This pattern of mine has a certain repetition,”
which, who knows, someday might even seem natural.
It’s a poem of understanding, of forgiveness, of detachment. And we feel that while he has achieved a level of detachment, there is still some way left to go. This sentiment pervades the collection. It’s clear that Hoagland knew he was dying. He explores the loneliness of severe illness and impending death, the sense that things are going dark, and the loss of belief in sense-making.
Three poems in Turn up the Ocean stand out as doing this, for me. ‘Why I Like the Hospital’, ‘Illness and Literature’, and ‘Bandage’. In ‘Bandage’ Hoagland goes back to his confessional roots. He finds a bit of bloodstained bandage in the pocket of an old pair of trousers, and it brings back the time he spent on chemo, that “harrowing winter / so pure in its intensity”. Now he can look at the spot of old blood on the bandage:
like a little sunset, reddish and smudged,
I can stare into now
only if I raise my hand
to shield my eyes
from the dark.
‘Why I like the Hospital’ is similarly first-person confessional. But Hoagland can’t quite escape the need to be humorous, or at least ironic and self-conscious, about how people invent a complex scoring system:
to tally up their days on earth,
the column on the left that says, Times I Acted Like a Fool,
facing the column on the right that says, Times I Acted Like a Saint.
Hoagland’s great ability is to go from this, rather flippant and funny, into:
I like the long prairie of waiting;
the forced intimacy of the self with the self;
each sick person standing in the middle of a field,
like a tree wondering what happened to the forest.
I don’t think I have read much else that fully conveys that awareness of the understanding that we die alone, that sense of being shocked into touch, somehow placed in a different relational position to life.
He explores the loneliness of severe illness and impending death, the sense that things are going dark, and the loss of belief in sense-making
in ‘Illness and Literature’ he leaves the ‘I’ behind and writes about the human condition as:
[…] an old Texas redneck with a brushy mustache
reading a Louis L’Amour novel
while waiting for his chemotherapy
In a wonderful flight of fancy Hoagland allows the old redneck to escape into his novel full of cattle drovers, schoolmarms, a drunken sheriff, gunfights and saloons – “while the cancer keeps plowing, plowing, plowing, / on a small piece of land just west of town” – until reality intrudes, his name is called, and, like every cowboy in every Spaghetti Western before him:
he stands, and walks into the hot, dry wind,
his spurs ringing on the polished floor.
Two more poems about death bookend the collection. The first ends with him lying dead in a funeral parlour:
While I’m lying there naked, flat on my back,
I hope I remember all that I went through—
the storms and the lovers and the mountains;
complaining at the top of my lungs;
salting my grief with mirth
while being tossed this way and that, askew and asunder,
in this blithering whirlwind of wonder.
The last links his own imminent death with the rising sea levels, pollution, and storms of the climate emergency, and pleads for a peaceful transition in both cases. “It is one thing to think of buffalo on Divisadero Street, / of the Golden Gate Bridge overgrown in a tangle of vines. // It is another to open the door of your own house to the waves. I am hoping the humans will be calm in their diminishing.” Even here, staring into the dark, Hoagland manages to find a little hope. For himself, perhaps, for us all, certainly – grapes ripening into raisins on the vine, a wren finding a way to make a little nest inside the cactus thorns.
Hilary Menos is editor of The Friday Poem. Her first collection, Berg (Seren, 2009), won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2010. Her second collection is Red Devon (Seren, 2013). Her first pamphlet, Extra Maths (Smith|Doorstop, 2005), was a winner in The Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition 2004/05. Her second pamphlet, Wheelbarrow Farm (Templar, 2010), was a winner in the 2010 Templar Pamphlet & Collection Awards. Her third pamphlet, Human Tissue (Smith|Doorstop, 2020) was a winner in The Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition 2019/20. Her fourth pamphlet, Fear of Forks, is just out with HappenStance Press.