A Poetical Moderate Leads a Tour of His Contemporaries



Even among avid readers, poetry is often inaccessible. At times it’s a country club, hiding its luxuries behind stanzas we can read but not comprehend; at others, a coffee shop that’s unrelentingly quirky but serves bad coffee.

In Twenty Poems That Could Save America and Other Essays, Tony Hoagland—an established poet and author of a previous essay collection—acknowledges that there’s a bit of truth to those perceptions. But if we stick around, he’ll explain the mechanics of poetry, examine skillful and less skillful uses of poetic devices, and introduce us to some of his favorite poets (he defends one, Sharon Olds, from “puritan” critics). He’s neither a traditionalist nor a revolutionary, accepting modern trends in poetry while noting their limitations.

In an essay on the use of disassociation in poetry, he praises its more substantive uses, those which “[give] us a chance not just to be bewildered but to respond,” while criticizing those that don’t quite say anything:

[N]o discourse does accumulate, because in this universe, each moment, each insight, each breath, each memory is transient, anonymous, and oblique; each insight reiterates its instability. The reader waits in vain for something besides the speaker’s disconcertedness to manifest—more “plot” of some kind….Can we praise a book for its intriguing concept, and method, or even its brilliant individual lines, if the method creates monotony?

Throughout, Hoagland reminds us that concepts are not enough. Poems need shape and substance, and, if not certainty, conviction. Poets in the postmodern era aren’t required to be as certain as their predecessors—not when people are questioning everything, including the ability of language to represent whatever this is—but should still say something more than “look at this meaninglessness.”

Hoagland’s stately, affable prose occasionally leaps into joyous poetic flourishes: “pretentious ponderous ponderosa of professional professors will always be drawn to those poems that require a priest.”

Despite Hoagland’s best efforts, it’s hard to imagine poetry being “restored to its position in culture, one of relevance and utility.” But in his appreciation for content as well as concept, and his treatment of poetry as craft rather than magic, he makes poetry accessible to those of us who’d otherwise be, quite literally, prosaic.

–Available November 4th from Graywolf Press


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