What Narcissism Means to Meby Tony Hoagland Published 01 Nov 2003
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An eagerly awaited new collection of poems by contemporary favorite Tony Hoagland, author of Donkey Gospel
How did I come to believe in a government called Tony Hoagland?
With an economy based on flattery and self-protection?
and a sewage system of selective forgetting?
and an extensive history of broken promises?
In What Narcissism Means to Me, award-winning poet Tony Hoagland levels his particular brand of acute irony not only on the personal life, but also on some provinces of American culture. In playful narratives, lyrical outbursts, and overheard conversations, Hoagland cruises the milieu, exploring the spiritual vacancies of American satisfaction. With humor, rich tonal complexity, and aggressive moral intelligence, these poems bring pity to our folly and celebrate our resilience.
"What Narcissism Means to Me" Reviews
I came to Tony Hoagland in February snow. He's warmed my reading since. Discovering the work of a writer new to you--here a poet--is thrilling. Like new love. Returning each day to What Narcissism Means to Me was to quench the impatience felt before picking it up again, then to be relieved in its pages as it once again both satisfied and became the target of my devotion. Time after time, poem after poem, my affection for Hoagland and his poetry proved to be warranted. Too, like new love, his poems become celebrations. That's not to say he doesn't recognize dark in the world. But he uses humor and his quirky take on what he sees as the whetstone on which to sharpen the sensibilities of his vision and therefore to trim the shadow of what's askew in the world, so that silence is always a clever thing to say, or a woman hanging a windchime in nightie and work boots still has a kissable mouth, even if it has a nail in it. His silk and silver language has an edge as sharp as a rainbow's arc. If the pot at the end is overflowing and sticky with the grim grit of reality, it's not as if we didn't already know it. And we don't care, anyway, because the crackle of his words bring electric colors that dazzle the mind and illuminate the world we live in. Excellent poetry does that, and Tony Hoagland writes it.
Why am I the only person who doesn't like this piece of crap collection? It only got two stars b/c there were a few poems I liked, or liked parts of. But overall, I think the title goes beyond just being clever and really says it all: this collection is obnoxiously self-centered and self-indulgent. And I don't find the commentary on America particularly intelligent, considering that what he basically says is we're materialistic (no, really?) and like drama and pity parties. There's also some subtle sexism here, and some not-so-subtle racism (particularly in a poem where he likens Venus Williams to a giant black beast), and while I'm sure Hoagland will claim irony, I call bullshit. It's extra upsetting to me, b/c I thought Donkey Gospel was a brilliant collection and I know Hoagland is capable of great poetry. But this is a lousy, clumsy, arrogant collection that proves once more that well-known poets can get anything published. Shame on you, Tony.
Tony Hoagland’s poems in What Narcissism Means to Me shows us that poetry can still be possible during anytime period and enjoyed at any age. He reaches into society’s current topics and ideas and pulls out a real unapologetic interpretation. As the reader and an American, we secretly enjoy him “calling us out”. He brings our unconscious opinions to our attention and by doing this unites the reader to the poem.
Something has to quickly appeal to me at the beginning of the poem to draw me in. In What Narcissism Means to Me, I was immediately engaged. Hoagland’s passionate waywardness somehow represents the truth. That is what drew me in the most. The fact that I could look at almost every poem and not only be able to relate to it, but share the same opinion, made me crave more of Hoagland’s poetry. Furthermore, Hoagland addressed topics that gave me a different outlook that I would have before overlooked.
My first discovery of Tony Hoagland was when I read his poem, “Commercial for a Summer Night”. Not only are Hoagland’s poem titles inviting, but also they deliver the same attractiveness of the poem. For example his title, “Poem Which I Make the Mistake of Comparing Billie Holiday to a Cosmic Washerwoman” or “ Wasteful Gesture Only Not” matched with line: “ She knows her mother isn’t there but the rectangle of grass/marks off the place where the memories are kept, / like a library book named Dorothy. / Some of the chapters might be; Dorothy/ Better Bird-Watcher Than Cook;/ Dorothy, Wife and Atheist;/ Passionate Recycler Dorothy, Here Lies But Not”.
My four favorite poems out of What Narcissism Means to Me are: “Rap Music”, “Social Life”, “Hate Hotel”, and “Impossible Dream”. Each of these poems put social norms under a microscope, and then are dissected by Hoagland. His use of imagery in these poems place the reader in the scene. “Twenty-six men trapped in a submarine/ are pounding on the walls with a metal pipe, / shouting what they’ll do when they get out. / Or they are rolled up in a rug in the back/ of a rug truck that is wrecked. / No, it’s the car pulled up next to me in traffic.” This image of two separate situations sets a sarcastic tone that is led up to a honest judgment.
Hoagland’s metaphors describe America’s personality like an eHarmony application (if America was sincere and desperate to find true love). The certainty of his poems though his use of real issues and taken risks, represent truth. For example, also in “Rap Music”, the line “more alarming that going down Niagara on Viagra-” or in the poem “Hate Hotel” with the line, “I sip my soft drink of hate on the rocks” or “Sometimes I like to sit and soak/ in the Jacuzzi of my hate”. I don’t mean to give away the whole book with quotes, but the words are what draw me in and get me excited to share.
Tony Hoagland’s What Narcissism Means to Me is one of the few books I can pick up and re-read several times. It brings humor to contemporary issues but isn’t just funny. It is the substance and spot on individuality of his poems that truly make for memorable reading.
Here rests another instance where comedy reveals itself to simply be just sentimental realism; not that there is something that is "just" comedy. Despite what you might take the title to suggest, Hoagland tempts fairness, picking on himself as well as others: family, friends, popular music, enemies, trains. Regardless of whether narcissism is in fact "a heroic achievement in positive thinking," Hoagland's voice reads triumphant.
I've read some pretty amazing poems by Hoagland and so I had big hopes for this book. What I discovered is something I already knew: when I read poem after poem by the same author they have less impact, less punch. Yet, I believe if I'd read one at a time, savoring each over my morning coffee, perhaps I might have fallen more deeply in love with them all.
Still I enjoyed this book. I wasn't sure at first. It occured to me that I probably should have read Donkey Gospel first, but I'd already started my journey into Narcissism. The book is divided into four sections: America, Social Life, Blues, and Luck. I thought some of the America poems struck a chord. There is always a nugget -- a tangle of lines -- that speaks to me in nearly every poem and that is how I know I love Tony Hoagland. Yet, I haven't found a poem that reads like "Jet" did when first it was thrust into my world. By the time I got to the Blues section of poems I decided I loved this book after all.
Some specifics from the America poems...
"Commercial for a Summer Night" -- ultimately I didn't love this poem. I could see it and hear it. The images resonated and made me smile. What I did like was the turn at the end... how they were actually a commercial for THEIR lives.
"America" -- I liked what I thought was the "message" of this poem. But, it took me awhile to get there. The bit that did it for me were the lines about his dream from the night before:
...And then I remember that when I stabbed my father in the dream last night,
It was not blood, but money
That gushed out of him, bright green hundred-dollar bills
Spilling from his wounds, and--this is the weird part--,
He gasped, "Thank god--those Ben Franklins were
Clogging up my heart--
And so I perish happily,
Freed from that which kept me from my liberty"--
Which is when I knew it was a dream, since my dad
would never speak in rhymed couplets, ....
Tony Hoagland's poetry in this volume and in this section is heavy on the use of proper names--Larry, Greg, Alex, Susan, Sylvia, Ann, Peter, Carla, Jerry, Neal.
Some specifics on Social Life ...
Of course it only stands to reason that poems on social life would also feature plenty of folks like Carrie, John, Cynthia, Richard and Ann.
"Social Life," the first poem in this selection captures how I often feel at parties:
... whereas I prefer the feeling of going away, going away
stretching out my distance from the voices and the lights
until the tether breaks and I
am in the wild sweet dark
where the sea breeze sizzles in the hedgetop,...
In "A Color of the Sky" I love this bit of imagery:
...Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
and the police station,
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;
overflowing with blossomfoam,
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,
dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,
so Nature's wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
It's been doing that all week:
and throwing it away,
and making more.
"Phone Call" is a poem about a conversation with his father. It's clear that it's a complicated relationship. This poem certainly resonates and I think explains something I find difficult to explain, that in the midst of anger, hatred, disappointment with someone we have to acknowledge something else.
...and what I meant behind that
was that my father was split
into two people, one of them
living deep inside me
like a bad king or an incurable disease--
blighting my crops,
striking down my herds,
poisoning my wells--the other
standing in another time zone,
in a kitchen in Wyoming,
with bad knees and white hair sprouting from his ears...
Some specifics on The Blues section...
"On the CD I Buy for my Brother" is a poem I loved, not at first, but after about 1/2 the poem it all started to come together for me.
Here is a poem that once again demonstrates how Hoagland has a wonderful ease with metaphor.
... I mean this guy is always rowing upstream on the Bad Luck River
with a rusty hubcap for a paddle
or looking downward from the precipice of I'm No Good
at the base of which an ocean of whiskey and beer
has been performing erosion for years,
so it's possible that I am doing my brother no favor
by appealing to certain tendencies already in his disposition,
but then, why should I try to improve him on his birthday?
when at this stage of our lives what we are and what we aren't
is so very apparent...
"Two Trains" is also a wonderful poem about how people will interpret things--songs and poems--differently and are they really right or wrong?
In "Poem in Which I Make the Mistake of Comparing Billie Holiday to a Cosmic Washerwoman" he describes her sounds, her singing:
... she was singing a song I never heard before,
moving her voice like water moving
along the shore of a lake,
reaching gently into the crevices, touching the pebbles and sand...
...But here in the past of that future,
Billie Holiday is still singing
a song so dark and slow
it seems bigger than her, it sounds very heavy
like a terrible stain soaked into the sheets,
so deep that nothing will ever get it out,
but she keeps trying,
she keeps pushing the dark syllables under the water
then pulling them up to see if they are clean
but they never are
and it makes her sad
and we are too...
"Suicide Song" is a poem which explains so well my own thoughts on the issue. I think this is great pleasure in poetry, songs, stories--when we see ourselves reflected back--a thought or a feeling that is stated better than we could ever state it ourselves.
Some specifics on Luck...
"The News" explores a lot of different topics and is an example of a poem I'm not entirely sure I "get" still I can appreciate the bits and pieces... the part about health and tattoos are my favorite bits.
..This year illness just flirted with me,
picking me up and putting me down
like a cat with a ball of yarn,
so I walked among the living like a tourist,
and I wore my health
like a borrowed shirt,
knowing I would probably have to give it back...
I think "Narcissus Lullaby" is clever and lovely. And I did it too, midway through the poem I softly said his name...
And "Physiology of Kisses" is wonderful. It makes me thirsty for a few kisses of my own.
And finally in "The Time Wars" I loved this last bit...
...On June 14th, 1940, Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal,
"Windy day. I am the hare, far ahead of my critics, the hounds."
Something endearing about the mixture of weather report and vanity.
Something lonely about this image of success...
Check out Tony Hoagland. If you enjoy contemporary poetry, he's surely worth a read. I may have to add this volume to my collection after all.
Before reading this book, I had only encountered a few of Hoagland’s poems individually and read an essay he wrote about metaphor. One of those poems, “America,” was so moving to me that I decided to pick this collection up, as it includes that poem. Fortunately, it did not disappoint. Hoagland’s friendly tone and geeky straight guy persona make him a direct descendant of John Berryman and in a class with contemporaries such as Billy Collins and Dean Young. Like the aforementioned, his poetry drifts from commenting on his life and the life of an intimate group of friends and colleagues around him to pulling apart pop culture (the serious parts of it as well, with a few poems taking a direct but naïve approach to racism). He is also adept at pulling off extended metaphor poems, such as the seethingly funny “Hate Hotel” (51-52). His only fault is one he shares with Young, which is that some of the poems meander a bit too much and never connect or make a strong point; there are still plenty of vivid images and fresh language, it just doesn’t build to anything. Despite this, Hoagland’s aw-shucks philosophizing won me over in the end and made me read several of the poems multiple times. I’ll be interested to check out his earlier books and see how they compare to this one.
As I read this book, I thought about how poets such as Hoagland and Collins get labeled “accessible,” which sometimes is perceived as an easy way to write. Certain schools of contemporary poetry, such as the Language poets, continue to write challenging verse that pushes the boundaries of language and meaning, which can show how staggeringly high functioning the human mind can be, but also perpetually alienates all but the most discerning readers from being able to read and process it. I feel that somehow that type of writing gets put on a higher level in the academic hierarchy and poets such as Hoagland are de-valued because more people can pick up his book and feel something. To me, this thinking forgets how difficult it is to write a poem that shows the complexities of human existence in simple, relatable terms. Of course, I understand that the danger in calling Hoagland and Collins “accessible” is that it often becomes synonymous with “universal,” which the straight white males have had the pleasure of being perceived as since the dawn of writing. And I also know that poets who aspire to write in Hoagland’s camp throw just as much fire back at those “academic snobs.” I guess I wish that both sides of this spectrum would recognize the value in the others’ writing and admit what it adds to the rich quilt of American literature.
Reading this book also made me consider the positives and negatives of writing to a specific audience successfully, regardless of whether that audience exists or not. Hoagland’s persona in this book speaks to a group of men that I feel are getting increasingly bigger in American popular culture: the cool straight guy, the metrosexual, the evolved masculinity. He’s comfortable enough to admit he can love a gay man as a friend (“Dear John,” 29-30); he admits to his feelings of racism and prejudice in order to deal with them head on (“The Change,” 11-13 and “Rap Music,” 49-50) and he can show emotional vulnerability to his wife (“Physiology of Kisses,” 70). However, to those of us who have had to face these challenges earlier in our lives (because of NOT being straight, white men), some of these poems come across as precious, as in “isn’t it cute, he’s learning the world is a mighty big place.” Plus, the fact that Hoagland keeps getting published begs the question, have these “new men” evolved so much they may actually be reading poetry? Although I’m doubtful, it’s something to hope for, so I wish Hoagland a long career and along the way, maybe a few not-so evolved men will see his book on their buddy’s shelf, pick it up and be nudged a little closer to the rest of us. We need that in this country right now.