The following is a transcript of an interview with Tony Hoagland conducted during the 2006 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, New Jersey.
Poets.org: Can you name a particular moment when you became truly committed to poetry?
Tony Hoagland: Well for me, I found poetry when I was a very troubled adolescent. Looking back, I can see that it was mysterious to me; it was attractive because it seemed to be trying to solve the problems of human nature and staying alive that I was grappling with.
But I think that I got deeper and deeper into the world of poetry simply because it was the only thing that stayed constant in my life continuously, year after year, and then decade after decade. I couldn't seem to sustain continuity in any of the other typical realms of life: in relationships, in education, and the idea of a career path was simply laughable to me. But poetry was always there, and I remained engaged in reading it and writing my very bad versions of it—I was terribly untalented.
But looking back, as I started say, poetry—poems themselves—became a culture for me, a culture that I carried with me. My parents were disconnected from their parents. We were middle class. There was no religion in my family. So there was an absence of ceremonial knowledge, there was an absence of inherited knowledge, there was an absence of family stories, and there was an absence of instruction.
Looking back, I can see that my surrogate for the kinds of connectedness that other people might have in a more conventional way were the poems I was reading. I would have an experience and I would think of a Philip Larkin poem, or a W. H. Auden poem, or a Louise Glück poem, or a James Tate poem. The stories in the poems correlated with my experience of walking around the world, and the emotional knowledge—or the behavioral instructions that I needed—were in some ways coming out of the poems. And so it was very instructive for me.
I know that people often say "you want to learn poems by heart so that if you ever go to prison you can say them to yourself, and it will give you consolation and comfort and companionship." I think that was true for me, and that it still remains true for me. I am a very typical American: I'm de-racinated, I'm rootless, I have no root system. At least a very typical middle-class American, I suppose. Poetry has been that culture for me.
Poets.org: What are some of the influences or tributaries that enter your work?
Hoagland: I think that's a good question, because I do perceive poetry as having a lot of different bloodlines, you could say. And spiritual lines, lines of imagination, lines of linguistic experiment.
I don't think I could possibly name all the ones that appealed to me, and that I've tried to integrate into my own writing and reading life. But I certainly would say that there's a line of vulgarity which has always been important to my work, a certain kind of adolescent violence, or sensibility, or language, or emotional outburst, which to me validates a poem, makes it seem like a real document of a real person who has been in the world of experience, and who is in the world of speaking at the time of writing the poem. So people like Apollinaire, and certainly Frank O'Hara, and W. S. Merwin, those are only some of the poets I would name. I can't even imagine who I'm forgetting. But that's part of my line: a colloquial poetry, a poetry which is also engaged with pop culture.
At the same time, there's a line of wisdom poetry that I've always been infatuated with, which delivers itself with a kind of elegance of syntax and diction. Auden was very instrumental to me in providing a model for the educated voice. Wallace Stevens was very important musically, and also to some degree as a wisdom poet, but I think that Stevens might have been one of the poets in whom I first heard what people had been referring to for years as the music of language. It was a comical language, it was rhythmic, it had a certain kind of elegance and comedy at the same time, and moments of dignity—take a poem like "A Postcard from the Volcano," for instance.
Then, as I've gone on, poets who ventriloquize many voices together in their poetry are important to me, poets like John Berryman. The poetry as well as the criticism of Robert Pinsky was very useful to me in systematizing what I was already hearing and studying, without knowing it, in terms of diction and tonality, and in his arguments that a poem is an integrative device for gathering together in conversation all the voices of different classes and elements of American society, or of any culture. Those are some of the influences that I can name off the top of my head.
Poets.org:Do you believe that poets or poetry can effect political and social change?
Hoagland:That is a huge and difficult question. Over and over, I meet poets of all ages, but especially older poets, who are really embittered at the lack of cultural cache or force that poetry has in America. If that is true, I have a willful blindness about it. I don't wish to become bitter about that, although I can see how it can happen. One of the ways in which I would argue with myself about a position of futility, about the utility of poetry, is that I see it as enormously useful to people.
In my early poems, poetry helped me to fight the psychological battles, and to assemble the psychological knowledge, information, and architecture, that I needed to understand my experience, and to engage it. I still find that young people, and people of all ages, find that enormously useful.
As I've gotten older, and less preoccupied with the levels of psychology, and that sense of emotional entrapment that young people have so much of—and I had a lot of—my attention has turned to realizing that the self and life is composed not just of family relations or psychological issues, but also of economic ones, and racial ones, and consumer culture ones. And so my poems have taken into account that sort of material and texture, both as a source of entertainment and as a source of meditation, engagement, and argument.
I feel that we are so drowned in a culture whose media forces and spin-doctoring are so powerful, so pervasive, and so hard to ignore, that poetry is actually well-equipped to present a model of what our experience is like right now. It is able to name it, to name the affliction which is very, very hard to name. To name that affliction that an ordinary American experiences walking around: the enormous confusion of hierarchies; the value and information; the bombardment; the difficulty of finding stillness.
I feel like poetry is an instrument that can diagnose, and also proclaim, what is of value and what is contamination or disease. By naming what is of value and what is not of value, one can somehow find a way out of the labyrinth. One thing that I think poetry can do is hold up a snow globe of contemporary American experience, so we can look at it from a safe position from outside and say "yes, it really is demented, and there actually are some choices I can take to make myself less crazy, and to be less complicitous with these structures of collective dementia."
Poets.org: What are some of the tendencies that you see in contemporary poetry, and how does your work fit in?
Hoagland: There's no mistaking that a paradigm change came into American poetry in the 90s that seems as large, though I don't know whether it's as profound, as the revolutions that took place in the 1950s with Confessional, Deep Image, Beat, Projective Verse, New York School, all those poetries, as well as the huge paradigm shift that took place at the beginning of the century. Historically, there seem to be three huge tidal waves of aesthetic change in twentieth century American poetry, and we are in the midst of the third of those revolutions.
It seems to be predicated on a number of things: the instability of language as described by French literary criticism; the difficulty of saying anything true; and the jettisoning of that as a criteria for making poetry—the jettisoning of an obligation to truth or wisdom. Accompanying those kinds of disillusionments is a great sense of linguistic or semiotic play, which is informing a lot of poetry by young people right now. I don't want to mention Language Poetry because that doesn't really account for it. But this is an era of enormous wit and verbal linguistic play, and a lot of different kinds of rhetorical play that we haven't seen in a long time.
That's the good news. It's a very effervescent poetry that's being written right now. But it's also a poetry that doesn't have very much allegiance to experience, and not necessarily a deep vision of how it has consequence to living and to walking around in the twenty-first century. In other words, it seems to be largely a poetry of entertainment. It's a poetry that could be labeled "aestheticism."
Anyway, enough about that stuff. My poetry is different from that. I believe it's good to be linguistically self-conscious, to be aware of language as a plastic substance, and the innate instability of language and naming. To have a consciousness of naming seems important, but my poetry has a loyalty to experience. It has a loyalty to poetry which grows out of suffering, and which attempts to name the sources and architecture of suffering as an act of empathy and analysis.
My poetry is very much congruent with mid-century poetry, and also what is still the mainstream of poetry. I still believe in poetry—I believe in its values of helping us to live our lives, and of connecting with each other and continuing to perform operations on the diseased patient of American culture and individual psyches.