What narcissism means to me as I write these words is, among other things, a memory of when I first met Tony Hoagland. It was late November 2002, though I remember the day as spring-like, a couple weeks after a Dylan concert that happened a few days after the first George W. Bush mid-term, when the US firmly set course to make a war that re-routed history. By poetry carbon dating, it was post-Donkey Gospel and during the gestation of Tony’s next book, the one with the marvelously loopy title that got me started on this essay.
On the strength of Donkey Gospel, Tony had joined the University of Pittsburgh’s creative writing faculty for the 2001-02 academic year. While his first book, Sweet Ruin (1992), gained attention, Donkey Gospel (1998), tossed a comic firecracker into the relatively grown-up domain of American poetry. Notoriously, there was “Dickhead”—reflecting on crude talk as rite of passage for a boy coming into the cultural space where “wild jockstraps flew across the skies of steamy locker rooms”:
But dickhead was a word as dumb
and democratic as a hammer, an object
you could pick up in your hand,
saying dickhead this and dickhead that,
a song that meant the world
was yours enough at least
to bang on like a garbage can . . . .
I venture that few men, American or otherwise, can’t recall their own version of this moment. With “Dickhead” Tony recognized collision with raw language as a station along the pathway of the Jungian hero’s journey, one that hadn’t before been assayed, at least in poetry, though nearly everyone has been there, done that. He wrote about it with wit, alert to the innocence-lost sadness and necessity of this transition.
People talked (and laughed) about “Dickhead” not only because it stretched the topical range of poetry, but also because, as with Donkey Gospel in general, it dropped poetry’s cultural altitude by 10,000 feet or so. In effect, it said it’s time for something different than confessionalism—not only as a matter of topic but also diction and tone.
Others had said it before, of course, and comic tone in poetry had predecessors, such as Kenneth Koch’s “Fresh Air” and many other poems. Among New York School poets, Tony has acknowledged the influence of Frank O’Hara, and it’s easy to taste O’Hara-esque exuberance in Tony’s work. Still, poetry hadn’t much taken a humorous pathway. The voice unfurled in Donkey Gospel was self-knowing, subtly ironic, and often funny—a revelatory, fresh voice that rang with authenticity. One felt a poetry sensibility that renewed American plain talk: comprehensive, Whitmanic in the conception of audience, and straight-at-it in style à la Tom Paine.
I’d read Donkey Gospel with pleasure, but hadn’t met Tony, nor had any expectation I would, until February 2002 at the Vermont Studio Center. Visiting poet Dean Young, learning I was from Pittsburgh, suggested I reach out to his friend. So I elicited Tony’s thoughts for a book review I was writing on Carl Dennis’ Practical Gods, which had recently won a Pulitzer Prize. From notes that Tony generously e-mailed to me, I quoted this sentence, the most cogent in my review: “From beneath that comforting, tranquil, processional hum of reason,” said Tony of Dennis’ work, “a subterranean order arises, subverting its intended ends.” I didn’t know then that Dennis had mentored Tony as he was developing his own sense of idiomatically-oriented poetics, as he later acknowledged on the dedication page of Real Sofistikashun (2006).
The review appeared in May, but it took six months more and Dylan to pry Tony briefly away from his busy life as a poet-professor. With Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft—released, remarkably enough, on September 11th, 2001—I was undergoing a personal renaissance of Dylan appreciation. No talk of that had passed between us, but when I learned of the November concert, I thought, why not invite Tony?
Although he couldn’t go, we set the soonest-possible date after that for Saturday morning coffee. I wish I could remember with certainty the line Tony quoted as he sauntered to the table where I sat—it’s pretty to think it was “There must be some way out of here,” or maybe “Don’t think twice it’s alright.” At any rate, I responded with “Once upon a time you dressed so fine.” The game was on. Tony’s affable charm wasn’t what I’d expected, being a little over-awed by his work, but talking with him was instantly, surprisingly easy.
After a half-hour or so of getting to know each other, Tony mentioned the manuscript of his next book, which he was finishing and for which he’d just arrived at a title: What Narcissism Means to Me, he said and paused for my response. I didn’t have one. It sounded not at all like any poetry title I’d ever heard. How thick I was, I think now, although soon enough (later that day) it hit me—a one-line poem, a title in the league of Simone Signoret’s memoir, Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be.Tony recognized collision with raw language as a station along the pathway of the Jungian hero’s journey, one that hadn’t before been assayed, at least in poetry.
Before Tony left Pittsburgh in early summer 2003, we talked several times about politics, love, music. Mainly, even when it wasn’t the topic, we talked about poetry. Tony would enunciate precise, brilliant summaries of a poet’s work, or someone’s lasting influence, for good or ill, or someone who should be more appreciated than she is—see Tony’s “Unarrestable: The Poetic Development of Sharon Olds,” in Twenty Poems That Could Save America (2014).
Sometimes it was as if he were testing ideas, practicing a verbal style —with thoughts zoomed-in from outer Tony-space—that previewed some of the prose later gathered in Real Sofistikashun. He seemed to have read each new book of every US poet as it came out, and to have thought through to a view of it.
In conversation as with poetry, Tony wasn’t confessional. His active listening drew more from me than vice-versa, and as with his poetry, Tony liked to provoke. Well-aimed wise-cracks could sting and awaken something in me, as I sometimes needed a slap to be alive to possibility I hadn’t thought about before. More than anyone I’ve known, Tony was a wellspring of friendly, satirical pokes that could spark thought.
Once, for example, with semi-braggadocio posing as chagrin, I told him about a grad-student who’d visited me, left with a paperback of Noam Chomsky interviews, and promptly stopped responding to or acknowledging my e-mails. “I guess I’ll never see that book again,” I said. “You weren’t going to read it anyway,” said Tony. We talked briefly (unless memory is tricking me) about Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent—speaking of memorable titles and a brand of thought, as well, that informs What Narcissism Means to Me (2003).
Among phrases I learned from Tony, the deepest strike announced itself when he hadn’t been getting work done and ascribed the situation, tersely, to “fighting with the inner tyrant.” A dark image loomed up—both of us, men contending with a father. I sensed that his real-life father was, for Tony, a refractory subject, even as he took interest in poems I was writing about mine, who’d died a quarter century earlier. Without any purposeful thought, “inner tyrant”—a novel phrase to me then—became a handle with which I can, when lucky, take hold of foggy mind-talk that waylays me from the task at hand, usually writing.
“Quiet yourself, please; I’m getting there at my own pace,” I’ve been able to say sometimes to him—father, grandfather, father of judgment—with gratitude to Tony. As far as I know (until better informed), Tony hasn’t used the phrase “inner tyrant” in his work, and seldom since Sweet Ruin, his first book, has touched directly on father-son dynamics. An exception is “Phone Call” from What Narcissism Means to Me, a poem extended by “Rain-Father” in Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God (2018), a title itself pointing toward comrade dictator of the soul.
Speaking in second person, “Rain-Father” imagines a letter you write to your father when he’s “sick, maybe even dying far away”:
Tell him no matter how far off you are,
you are always living in his country;
tell him you yourself are an envelope
mailed from his address,
posted with a stamp that has his face on it.
He is the language that you use
when you speak harshly to yourself,
trying to hide the fact that you are lost.
“Rain-Father” leads me to another Tony phrase, the one with which he commended my friend Jeff Worley on his poetry, as if they were allies in a project to “rewrite the male narrative.” I like the phrase, although I’ve not soberly reflected on what Tony meant, having taken for granted that the received male narrative, however understood, could use serious revision—a project Tony had underway, as in these poems I’ve visited: locker-room talk, fathers, the inner tyrant.
Add to that the narcissist, an archetype that rears its head, metaphorically speaking, with a sharp turn at the close of Tony’s funny, affectionate “When Dean Young Talks About Wine”:
When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension.
When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest.
But when a man is hurt,
he makes himself an expert.
(Young’s response, “Poem on a Theme by Tony Hoagland,” sustains the theme, starting with its quotable first line: “I have a big erection.”)
To this tentative list of signposts on the male narrative highway that Tony’s poems notice, I’d add male desire, expressed often as humor-inflected eroticism—for example, “Visitation” from Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (2010). To quote a few lines loses the delicacy by which, over its full arc, “Visitation” represents lust as a matter of reverence and joy. Nevertheless:
. . . when I kiss her breast and feel
the tough button of the nipple
rise and stiffen to my tongue
like the dome of a small mosque
in an ancient, politically incorrect city,
I feel holy, I begin to understand religion.
From the same book, “Love” honors marital love-making conditioned by erectile dysfunction and mastectomy, saying the unsayable without falling into shock for its own sake. “Hostess” (from Narcissism) has sly fun with the tease of loose spaghetti straps on a black dress. These poems, and others, for grown-ups—in a voice distinctively Tony—elucidate murky connections between sex and love.
Of What Narcissism Means to Me, Tony said (in an interview with Miriam Sagan) that he meant to represent 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?
Yes, and at the same time he said “some people give self-love a bad name”—which I expect leads many readers to politics. More than most American poets, Tony’s writing reached into the public sphere. “Inexhaustible Resource” from Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God calls out our collective fear to look reality in the face of climate change. His title phrase Unincorporated Persons refers to the Citizens’ United decision of 2010. From the same book, Tony’s intrepid—some might say audacious—forays into the disputed territory of culture war and socio-politics include “Hard Rain,” “Expensive Hotel,” and “Disaster Movie.”
From Narcissism, “The Change” purveys, not without irony, a white male take on the perceived phenomenon of American culture turning—for his speaker—almost frightfully black, female, and changed, personified by TV imagery of a black woman tennis champion overwhelming a white opponent. It spurred negative reaction from some poets—notably Claudia Rankine—and an edifying (to me) discussion, including Major Jackson’s essay (American Poetry Review, Sept/Oct 2007), “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black.”
Also from Narcissism, “America,” vividly expands the metaphor of narcissism to a collective conceit for media-driven consumerism. With Ginsberg’s great poem of the same title as unspoken intertextual frame, Tony’s “America” launches in media res from a college-classroom discussion—perhaps in response to Ginsberg’s poem—in which a blue-haired, tongue-studded student rants about American capitalism. The poem’s speaker, a professor of poetry like Tony but not entirely Tony (a frequent Tony device), responds at first from within his own cynicism, hearing 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.”
Seeming to remember a younger version of himself, the speaker recalls a grotesque and comic dream about his father. From this climactic interval, the poem turns and, like a coiled spring slowly tightening before release, winds up and then lets go with a river-like, additive sentence (three “and” statements); 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?
This gets me to “meanness”—in particular Tony’s essay, (the last in Real Sofistikashun), “Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People,” which may be one of the more-talked-about of Tony’s ideas. In it he posits that poetry, unlike social life, has a place for the truth-telling inherent in meanness, “the spiteful perceptive angel who sees and tells, unimpeded by nicety or second thoughts.” This voice, says Tony, has been nearly banished from poetry by its “culture of Nice-ism.” One needs to look back, maybe as far as Poe’s macabre revenge tales, for meanness in American literature, or maybe no further than Dylan’s anti-romance love songs.
In several poems from Narcissism, meanness comes out to play. Tony read one of them, “Hate Hotel,” on March 19th, 2003 in a small Pittsburgh club. It was a reading against the war that, by the event’s start, hadn’t yet begun. As a series of performers took the stage, however, the first images of the horror-show that planners called “shock and awe” flashed on an above-the-bar TV.
Tony took the stage late, the small crowd already saturated with poetry, noisy talk, and clinking glasses. Within a few lines, he silenced the place. There aren’t many just-right occasions for hate poems, but at that moment a right answer, maybe the only one, to the evening’s palpable sadness and pain, itself a pale shadow of the pain that rained on people as he spoke, was “Hate Hotel”:
Sometimes I like to sit and soak
in the Jacuzzi of my hate, hatching my plots
like a general running his hands over a military map—
and my bombers have been sent out
over the dwellings of my foes . . .
Tony was one of those people—probably most of us know someone like this—who makes you feel smarter merely by virtue of having sustained a few conversations with him. You felt a reflected glow from his creativity, his sense of humor, mainly. You felt—if you’re like me—you must be cool because he seems to enjoy your company, and he’s not the type who’d fake it.
What Narcissism Means to Me, the book title that at first blew through me like a ghost, seems to me now a unifying metaphor for the extraordinarily wide and deep range of Tony’s work: simultaneously inner and outer directed, enmeshed in experience and drawing from reservoirs of language, personal and collective, to make poems from the interaction. More specifically, one feels with Tony’s work a sense of the self as a performer lost within and fascinated by the enveloping circus of life, a self insulted by tawdry reality, suffused at times with anger, arriving often at the comic good sense of “What else can you do?”—except to say, as best you can, what you think and feel.