At the recent AWP conference, apparently a hubbub erupted over Tony Hoagland's "The Change." I didn't attend the conference myself because I couldn't book a room. Not because I waited too long--I had the itch, just not the scratch. But like some guy who stayed at Holiday Inn Express--that'll make you scratch--I heard Hoagland read several years ago. He'd prefaced "The Change" then by saying that it bothered him that poets tend to write self-contragulatory pieces; poets should examine the negative self as well, no matter how uncomfortable the truth. At the time, I found it vaguely unsettling, but given his introduction, if not my intoxication, I took the poem, albeit bland, as a confrontation of one's deep-seated, albeit regrettable, racism.
However, Hoagland has been of late roundly & soundly ripped on the Internet as the snarky, conceited, racist, sexist, mysogynistic, golden (read white supremacist) boy of poetry. Some have suggested that Hoagland exemplifies the racism/sexism inherent in literary history, dubbing all so-called great white poets of the past as nothing more than a school of Moby Dicks--er, well, so to speak--while others have called "The Change" the most racist poem ever written.
Ok, hot button issues, such as racism--which, by the way, sucks & sexism too--often cause people to make hyperbolic statements in anger, which is understandable, but the most racist poem ever? Anyone who's ever read Hoagland's What Narcissism Means to Me knows that's not true. "The Change" isn't even the most racist piece in the book. That dubious distinction belongs to "Rap Music," in which the speaker, hearing rap booming from a car pulling up beside him at a traffic light, imagines "a lot of dead white people in there," beaten to death with bricks so that their skulls can be used to "drink blood from."
For me, that trumps anything in "The Change."
Tempting though it may be to leap to accusation, neither poem necessarily means Hoagland is a racist. For example, what if--as an astute friend astutely asked--Hoagland had written in the third-person? Indeed, readers often, though erroneously, equate the "I" of the poem with the poet, though oddly, these same readers seldom presume that the first-person narrator of a novel or short story is actually the writer. Few people, besides myself, think Stephen King should be declared a deranged madman & stopped before he writes anything else, but I digress. The point is that Hoagland probably would have insulated himself against the brunt of ad hominem attacks through the use of a third-person persona.
On Facebook--oh, to what depths I've sunk--at least one person may not have found third-person narration a solution. Her problem--with the poem, I mean--is that even though the speaker acknowledges Venus Williams' superior athletic skills lead to her victory, his opinion of her race & gender don't change, which teaches the wrong moral. (Good point. In a related matter, who can forget Jesse Owens winning all those gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, impressing Adolf Hitler so much that the Fuhrer realized the folly of his whole Aryan master race thing? Remember?) Poems such as this, the Facebook-er lamented, make it more difficult to teach students about race.
Should poets write with the classroom in mind? If so, maybe I should pen a sonnet sequence on avoiding the passive voice. Also, abstractions! Beyond that, I disagree with the implication that only literature as didactic as an ABC After School Special can facilitate classroom discussions. In fact, the firestorm of reaction to "The Change" suggests that it may generate student interest; surely an enlightened instructor could turn this into a teaching moment.
I don't know Hoagland's racial views. Perhaps he is, as some have suggested, a bigot. Or perhaps he hopes to provoke, with his combustible statements, open dialogues about race. Perhaps he simply sees himself as true to his aesthetics. Perhaps he just isn't hitting the mark. Whatever the reason, it would seem prudent at this juncture that he stop drinking the Kool-Aid marked "Whites Only." The bad taste alone would turn anyone away.
As for the poetry on the whole, I doubt if many would call What Narcissism Means to Me one of Hoagland's best efforts. Much of the volume, as the title suggests, seems self-absorbed, with the poet--or rather persona--rambling on about his friends & the mundane middle-class life of the literati, the kind of poetry Frank O'Hara, had he lived, might write today if, instead of witty, he were boring.
I won't say there's nothing good here. Take, for instance, the closing lines to "Man Carrying Sofa":
this damaged longing
like a heavy piece of furniture inside you;
you carry it, it burdens you, it drags you down--
then you stop, and rest on top of it.
Now that sounds like a splendid idea.