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Tony Hoagland. Hard Rain

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Tony HOAGLAND, Hard Rain. Hollyridge Press, 2005, 48 pp., €8.35, ISBN 0-9772298-2-3

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1Tony Hoagland is still little known in Europe and yet he made his way into the prestigious British encyclopaedia Contemporary Poets at a very early stage. Since then he has also published Donkey Gospel and What Narcissism Means to Me, books that have won him a swathe of awards in North America. As these titles suggest, Hoagland’s characteristic tone is marked by a deep devotion to hedonism in all its manifestations, humour being one of its mainstays. While Hoagland’s aesthetic dedication to the pleasure principle is unremitting, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him as a neo-pop poet, the way Frank O’Hara was initially branded, for as one of his earlier poems puts it:

I shove joy like a knife
into my own heart over and over
and I force myself toward pleasure,
and I love this November life
where I run like a train
deeper and deeper
into the land of my enemies.

2Like O’Hara’s this is a levity that is achieved at the cost of hard-won penetrative thrusts at the unyielding fabric of existence. As often with exuberant and impulsive poets such as Paul Durcan or Frank O’Hara, this jauntiness is a cover up for an equally powerful urge towards the sombre. In the field of contemporary poetry, quite a number of the apparently upbeat writers seem to engage in exuberance as a kind of manic defence. Even Peter Redgrove, the arch-enthusiast and supreme purveyor of spray-drenched celebration, was wont to say that his collections tended to come out of depression. This is not to suggest that the current trend for humour and light-heartedness necessarily stems from bi-polar tendencies but it’s a sign of the times that the manic propensity is steadily gaining ground. Couéism in poetry is popular because it helps the poet to steer clear from the brink of emptiness. Eliot’s answer to the modern wasteland was to create and salvage fragments from the debris; Hoagland’s is to fill the gaps and cracks in with the warm cement of humour.

3In interview Hoagland has said that if he were to place himself “on some aesthetic graph, [his] dot would be equidistant between Sharon Olds and Frank O’Hara”. Despite the fact that his recent poems tend to veer considerably closer to the second pole of experience, social wit as well as a more polyphonic departure from introspective family-based narratives, Hoagland claims that for him poetry should still be “about open heart surgery” or being “taken somewhere unexpected and dangerous”. While this still remains true of quite a number of the poems in What Narcissism Means to Me, it’s hard to get much of a glimpse of the poet’s or anyone else’s penetralia or to feel that you’re dodging Big Daddy or Baghdadi bullets in Hard Rain , his latest collection. Many of the poems have a very relaxed and warm let’s-crack-a-bottle feeling to them, which is by no means an adverse criticism but they sometimes seem to be a far cry from the intensely arresting narratives of “Lucky” or “Benevolence” (Donkey Gospel), poems in which the speaker describes a mesmerising and somewhat disturbing account of washing his aged mother from top to toe, or conjures up a bittersweet fantasy in which his father comes back as a dog:

What I’ll remember as I tower over him,
holding a dripping, whiskey-flavoured cube
above his open mouth,
relishing the power rushing through my veins
the way it rushed through his,
what I’ll remember as I stand there
is the hundred clever tricks
I taught myself to please him,
and for how long I mistakenly believed
that it was love he held concealed in his closed hand.

4As in O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, quite a few of the poems in Hard Rain focus on delectable edibles. Hoagland’s recent collection is something of an experiential doggy bag to take home yet unlike the intimate nature of his dog-daddy’s “whiskey-flavoured” ice cube, the food bonanzas are a far more social affair. The “Wok and roll” restaurant he mentions also serves as an extended metaphor for converting America’s melting pot back into the less globalizing image of a frying pan that allows every ingredient to keep its flavour. Another poem, “Dialectical Materialism”, takes us to the very heart of consumerist America, to that locus introduced to poetry by Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”. In fact, quite a number of American poets have grappled with the genius loci of the supermarket. To mention but a selection of the more salient ones, Randall Jarrell called his collection of essays and fables recounting cultural impoverishment A Sad Heart at the Supermarket and one of Greg Pape’s most engaging poems in Storm Pattern is entitled “In Line at the Supermarket”. Hoagland’s poem stands at the top of the queue in a genre one could call the checkout meditation. Like Ginsberg’s poem, Hoagland’s supermarket lyric strikes a winsome balance between the moral scruples of the Macspaunday poets and the carefree Pop Art celebration of mass consumerism. His poetry offers a certain amount of resistance to the reign of money, to a world in which, as Louis MacNeice’s Charon puts it, “if you want to die, you will have to pay for it” and yet there is an equally strong relish for living it up in the lap of luxury as the pricey poem “Forty-Year Old Wine” illustrates. On the other end of Hoagland’s two-sided political spectrum, “Allegory of the Temp Agency” offers a cool-headed critique of the difficulties of creating effective socialist art. Politics does play an important role in these poems resolutely committed to satirising a society which needs to pull “the blame-trigger”, an American government which as one of the poems’ titles puts it seems to be motivated by the idea that “To Remember History You Have to Repeat It”. The collection’s title poem epitomizes Hoagland’s manner which as ever manages to be both allegorical and engagingly personal at the same time:

Dear Abby:
My father is a businessman who travels.
Each time he returns from one of his trips,
his shoes and trousers
are covered with blood –
but he never forgets to bring me a nice present;
should I say something?
Signed, America.

5Hoagland’s poems also preoccupy themselves with other kinds of responsibilities such as poetic craft. Quite a number of the poems engage in self-referential questioning, exposing the poetry’s clockwork. “Cement Truck”, for instance, resists symbolism in favour of objectivist aesthetics, implicitly proceeding from William Carlos Williams’s belief that there are “no ideas but in things”. Another poem, “Responsibility in Metaphor”, responds in a playful way to the kind of artistic controversy triggered by Sylvia Plath’s use of holocaust imagery to express personal angst: “When I say she looked at me like a motel looking at a highway, / I mean the light was on above her parking lot”.

6Much of Hard Rain also ponders the wonders of women. Hoagland has always paid attention to the fate of cock-pecked wives and their primitive husbands. Men in his work are often simultaneously derided and pitied. Of course, with Hoagland the criticism is generally laced with humour that is most often simultaneously scornful and amused. One of his reformed New Men puts out a classified ad that reads “‘Good listener would like to meet lesbian ladies / for purposes of friendship only’”. Hoagland is very effective at dovetailing this kind of levity with abrupt tonal changes towards the darkness of male violence: “A pool of testosterone is spreading from around their feet, / it’s draining out of them like radiator fluid, / like history, like an experiment that failed”. Veering towards the Oldsian erotic pole of his sensibility, Hoagland is capable of confecting such exquisitely wry pieces as “Visitation”, a poem which takes a melancholy yet rapt male look at former loves. The narrator stares through the clean window of his memory seeing, in daring half-rhymes:

the fine blond purse of her pussy
and I kneel and weep a little there.
I am not the first person to locate god
in erectile tissue and the lubricating gland
but when I kiss her breast and feel
the tough button of her 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.

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Référence électronique

Erik MARTINY, « Tony Hoagland. Hard Rain », E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, document 2, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 15 décembre 2017. URL :

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