In continuing my thoughts on the 4 modes of poetry (read part 1 here), I want to expand on the idea of mainstream poetry by looking at Tony Hoagland’s chapbook, Hard Rain. I am looking at this collection as mainly mainstream,
because of my previous assertion that this style of poetry is easier to understand, purchased by more people, and not really pushing the limits in form or language. I don’t bring these topics up with negative connotations either, especially because I enjoyed many of these poems. The first impression the reader gets is the cover (I know, no duh, right?). The artwork has nothing to do with rain, which suggests something about the collection. Rain, especially when hard, has negative connotations. It suggests a storm–maybe welcome precipitation, but still a potentially destructive storm. Mix this with a big red neon PLEASURE sign and the reader is presented with an automatic, “Huh?” So, before even opening the book, I was thinking about the topic of destruction and torment, and how that relates to pleasure. So on with the reading.
This chapbook has 22 poems in it (kind of long for a chapbook, but I won’t complain). The very first poem, “Foodcourt,” begins with the line, “If you want to talk about American, why not just mention” and continues to talk about various culture collisions one would find at the mall. There’s a food court with various food choices, working women in skirts and walking shoes, fake trees and cheap fountains, white boys smoking wanting to look (and sound) like tough guys–and all these people and objects are tossed into the stir-fry, while Jimmy, the owner of the Chinese food court option, watches with “practical black eyes.”
In this poem alone, the reader sees normal, accessible things found in suburbia America and they are critically thrown into the wok for analysis. Nothing in this poem suggests pushing the envelope in terms of poetic form–there are lines and stanzas, nothing about rhyme sticks out, and the words used mean what they mean (sorry language poets). The collection continues by looking at how we judge people we see on tv (“Forty-Year Old Wine”), materialism (“Dialectical Materialism”), living with a memory rather than enjoying the present (“Visitation”), terrorism, social gatherings, what we teach kids about war, the values of men, etc. The poems I would like to spend the most time on are the last two, Hard Rain and Voyage.
by Tony Hoagland (c) 2005
After I heard It’s a Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
played softly by an accordion quartet
through the ceiling speakers at the Springdale Shopping Mall,
I understood there’s nothing
we can’t pluck the stinger from,
nothing we can’t turn into a soft drink flavor or a t-shirt.
Even serenity can become something horrible
if you make a commercial about it
using smiling, white-haired people
quoting Thoreau to sell retirement homes
in the Everglades, where the swamp has been
drained and bulldozed into a nineteen-hole golf course
with electrified alligator barriers.
You can’t keep beating yourself up, Billy
I heard the therapist say in television
__________________________to the teenage murderer,
About all those people you killed–
You just have to be the best person you can be,
one day at a time—
and everybody in the audience claps and weeps a little,
because the level of deep feeling has been touched,
and they want to believe that
the power of Forgiveness is greater
than the power of Consequence, or History.
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?
I used to think I was not part of this,
that I could mind my own business and get along,
but that was just another song
that had been taught to me since birth–
whose words I was humming under my breath,
as I was walking thorough [sic] the Springdale Mall.
The Dear Abby letter reconnects this collection to America and the American journey. This poem sums up the collection–we go to malls where products and advertising wash away everything else in our minds–war, genocide, politics, and even consequences. As I’m writing this, I have the book propped open and upside down (the way that teachers always tell you not to put the books because it will break the binding) and the pleasure sign is flashing at me. So what is pleasure? Going to the mall (for high school girls maybe…)? Reading poetry? Buying something new? Making money? Having cooler toys than your neighbors? Hoagland makes his statements about American lifestyles through his thoughts, images, and experiences–not through his form or language. Yes, he uses language to communicate, but he uses it the way it is supposed to be used (as if you and me were conversing). So the reader has only the job to digest the images and ideas that Hoagland presents through lines and stanzas, the suburban-type poem.
The last poem, titled “Voyage,” takes the thought of Hard Rain a step further.
by Tony Hoagland (c) 2005
I feel as if we opened a book about great ocean voyages
and found ourselves on a great ocean voyage:
sailing thorough December, around the horn of Christmas
and into the January Sea, and sailing on and on
in a novel without a moral but one in which
all the characters who died in the middle chapters
make the sunsets near the book’s end more beautiful.
–And someone is spreading a map upon a table,
and someone is hanging a lantern from the stern,
and someone else says, “I’m only sorry
that I forgot my blue parka; It’s turning cold.”
Sunset like a burning wagon train
Sunrise like a dish of cantaloupe
Clouds like two armies clashing in the sky;
Icebergs and tropical storms,
That’s the kind of thing that happens on our ocean voyage–
And in one of the chapters I was blinded by love
And in another, anger made us sick like swallowed glass
& I lay in my bunk and slept for so long.
I forgot about the ocean,
Which all the time was going by, right there, outside my cabin window.
And the sides of the ship were green as money,
______and the water made a sound like memory when we sailed.
Then it was summer. Under the constellation of the swan,
under the constellation of the horse.
At night we consoled ourselves
By discussing the meaning of homesickness.
But there was no home to go home to.
There was no getting around the ocean.
We had to go on finding out the story
___________________________by pushing into it–
The sea was no longer a metaphor.
The book was no longer a book.
That was the plot.
That was our marvelous punishment.
I don’t think Hoagland is a simpleton or an idiot or a poor poet, partially due to this poem. With this poem, Hoagland links with finality his critique of suburban America with life’s journey. By placing this poem after “Hard Rain,” I interpret the first two stanzas as a glance towards our country’s history, and then a trudging forward and participating in forging a new path. Like history, the speaker in the poem experiences hardships in the middles chapters of life, making the sunset of life that much more meaningful. I think it may be too much of a stretch to say that Hoagland suggests the sun is setting on America, but there is a tone of reflection and maybe even regret as the speaker compares the present to the past.
So in critiquing both culture and the human journey, a few themes are possible, but the idea of losing sight of where we are (individually, socially, politically, and/or globally) may cause nostalgia or homesickness, but we still face that ocean, that adventure, that life, that quest for meaning. And this, I think, is one of the main differences between mainstream poetry and the post-avant/language poets. I see doubt in Hoagland’s poetry, but he hasn’t abandoned the search for meaning in his experiences. Meaning isn’t bound to the actual language itself, isn’t limited to the language itself, and seems to send out an SOS hoping for some sort of understanding, salvation, unity, or whatever other “meaning” word you want to include. Some may hate the mainstream poets for this sentimentality, but I wonder if the p-a crowd is missing out on something innate within humanity. Or maybe the p-a crowd has a leg up on the others by finding some sort of unity in language itself, thus ultimately returning to the human experience (however indirectly).
Regardless, Hoagland has provides a collection of poetry that is more thought provoking than American Idol and more acessible than the high modernists. Stay tuned for a discussion about the beats, hybrids, and language poets (in numerous posts).
Edit: Read Part 3 here.