A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
From Tony Hoagland’s third book, What Narcissism Means to Me, his poem “America” flaps the self-loving flag of his marvelously ironical title. As Tony explained in a 2003 interview with Miriam Sagan, he regarded the myth-based concept of looking at yourself in a mirror as both healthy and not — noting presciently that “some people give self-love a bad name” — and meant his title to signify a dilemma:
to recognize that self-centeredness is often a kind of confinement in a small space, a blindness, a self-made separation from the world, an entertaining prison. A swamp. At the same time the self is a necessary address, and without self-love, where would we be?
In “America” Tony expands his reflections — carefully chosen word — on self-love to a collective conceit for American consumer capitalism. The unspoken intertextual frame is Ginsberg’s great poem of the same title. The second poem in What Narcissism Means to Me, Tony’s “America” is the keystone of the book’s first (of four) sections, also titled “America,” and the most ambitious of his many poems that integrate personal insight and social satire.
The poem launches in media res from a college-classroom discussion — perhaps triggered by Ginsberg’s poem — in which a blue-haired, tongue-studded student rants about capitalism. The poem’s speaker, we surmise, is a professor of poetry, presumably Tony, but also not entirely Tony — as much narrative device as real person. At first he hears the student’s attitude as cavalier posing. As the poem proceeds, however, the student marshals fierce awareness of his pleasure in rap music and malls as a prison in which he’s “Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds/ of the thick satin quilt of America.”
From a biographical perspective, it’s worth noting that What Narcissism Means to Me came into being, in large measure, in Pittsburgh. For two years, before leaving for the University of Houston in fall 2003 with his freshly published new book, Tony served on the University of Pittsburgh’s creative-writing faculty. Pittsburgh gets several mentions (“Argentina” and “Parade”), although the mentions are as stereotype butts of condescension from a voice of sophisticated, worldly taste. Pittsburgh also figures as the site of “Poem in Which I Make the Mistake of Comparing Billie Holiday to a Cosmic Washerwoman,” inscribing Tony’s intersection with Terrance Hayes.
Ironically enough, two years in Pittsburgh marked Tony’s poetry by opening its quarrelsome conversation with post-modern critical theory. The work gained in its sense of intellectual sophistication. Not apparent in Donkey Gospel (1998), Tony’s previous book, this dialogue with (relatively uncomplicated) aspects of critical theory enters Narcissim not least by the title itself, interrogating the idea of “the self.” “Still Life” extends this interrogation. “America” draws on theory by quotation from Marx: “I was listening to the cries of the past,/ When I should have been listening to the cries of the future.”
This Marx sentence came from near the end of his life, says the poem. What text? — you may wonder. It’s an interesting, initally deflating collision with reality to learn that Tony invented this sentence. Here’s Lowell Jaeger from his blog for North American Review, “Bending the Facts to Tell the Truth”:
I emailed Tony Hoagland. Turns out that the poet had invented those words from Marx, and at first I was startled by that revelation. I wondered, can poets do such a thing, put words in someone else’s mouth? Is this a dangerous infidelity to the facts? After further reflection, I shivered at the eerie realization that if Marx hadn’t indeed said such a thing, history strongly suggests he should have.
As a whole, “America” is a poetic exposition of Marx’s idea of “commodity fetishism” updated to 21st century USA. To quibble about accuracy of the invented sentence misses the thrill of Tony’s aesthetic boldness, his sense that the poem gained texture by a quote from Marx — the name itself, Marx, imparting gravitas. Tony granted primacy to aesthetic truth over literalism. Obviously, in less artful hands this could be unsuccessful, and it may be another essay to consider how knowing the quotation is an invention affects receipt of the poem.
Likely originating from one of Tony’s University of Pittsburgh courses, “America” makes a turn as the speaker rethinks what the student is saying. He seems to remember a younger version of himself, recalling a Fellini-esque dream about his father. This remarkable dream, as if from a Ken Russell movie, is the Aristotelian climax of the poem — itself a five-act play — exploding the classroom setting into vividly present time-space.
From there the poem briefly relaxes with comic relief about rhymed couplets. Then for a few lines it coils like a spring slowly tightening before releasing a sinuous, river-like, additive sentence (incorporating three “and” statements). This drawn-out allegorical image is one of the more un-ironical moments in Tony’s oeuvre. What kind of nightmare is it, asks “America”
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?
“America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set,” said Ginsberg circa 1956. “It occurs to me that I am America.” I’m tempted to imagine that Tony had cruised — via The Three Rivers Queen or one of its sister paddleboats — up and down the waters of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio. What better orientation is there to our city of steel-muscled beauty, its heritage of mind-numbing Blakean mills and immigrant sacrifice to capital? — as good a place as any, better than most, from which to pivot a poem that wades into murky depths of the nation’s selfhood.
Copyright 2019 Mike Schneider.
Mike Schneider, who once raked leaves with Tony Hoagland, won the 2016 Robert Phillips Prize in Poetry from Texas Review Press, which in 2017 published his second chapbook: “How Many Faces Do You Have?”