Real Sofistikashun Essays On Poetry And Craft

Tony Hoagland recently won The Poetry Foundation's Mark Twain Award, recognizing a poet's contribution to humor in American poetry, and also the Folger Shakespeare Library's O. B. Hardison, Jr. Poetry Prize, the only major award that honors a poet's excellence in teaching as well as writing. Real Sofistikashun, from the title onward, uses Hoagland's signature and complementary abilities to entertain and to instruct while he examines and exposes how poems behave and how they are made.

In these taut, illuminating essays, Hoagland explores aspects of poetic craft--metaphor, tone, rhetorical and compositional strategies--with the vigorous, conversational style less of the scholar than of the serious enthusiast and practitioner. Poets such as Louise Gluck, Robert Hass, Larry Levis, William Matthews, and Robert Pinsky are studied for their examples, and essays on fragmentation and the uses of experimental methods describe innovative modes in the contemporary period style. Throughout, Hoagland points out the winning complexities of the poetic art, which connects us with verve and economy to experience--to our internal understanding, to the templates of human nature, and to the facts of the world at large.

Hoagland is the rare poet who is as readable and enjoyable in critical prose as he is in poetry. Real Sofistikashun is an exciting, humorous, and provocative collection of essays, as pleasurable a book as it is useful.

1

Over the last couple of years, I have been hearing complaints from a great many of my friends, poets and readers I respect and admire, about the essays of Tony Hoagland. And poor Mr. Hoagland. For these complaints, some of them rather fierce, gravitate more generally around certain kinds of essays and reviews, and about the kinds of mean or dismissive things that have appeared therein, and for which Hoagland has, for some, become an improbable poster boy. Here, then, is the first virtue of Tony Hoagland’s Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft (Graywolf, 2006): these essays, which I have read piecemeal in such venues as Poetry and American Poetry Review with a mix of admiration, irritation, and amusement, and whose jaunty style and chummy intelligence will not save them from the universal decay of matter, have triggered such strong and lasting feelings in those whose judgment I value. And I suppose that my interest is more than a sporting one, since as someone who writes or edits a fair share of essays and reviews I always find it useful to know what will ruffle feathers, so that said ruffling might be more judiciously applied. Prose about poetry, after all, should be challenging and provocative. It should not, like gossip columns, estranged cousins, or American foreign policy, remind us of a drunk wielding a broken beer bottle.

If that last simile sounds harsh, I should note that nearly all writers about poetry have, at one time or another, allowed themselves to be carried blissfully into the intoxication of their own critical asperity. For poets to comment publicly on aesthetics and craft, and on their fellow poets’ successes and failures in executing same, is something I regard as a matter of professional obligation, and let me be the first to admit that I have occasionally failed to meet that obligation with due professional courtesy. When the book is unsatisfying or the poem too fitting an example of a personal peeve, it is all too easy to enjoy one’s resentment of the perceived crime against the art, the time lost in reading it, and the nuisance of having to write about it. Almost imperceptibly, the task changes. It no longer suffices to say something meaningful about how poetry works or what it means; now one feels an overwhelming need to broadcast that resentment in a manner befitting Dr. Johnson. For an art that is at once absolutely vital to our shared culture and undeniably marginal to our public attentions, this form of cannibalism strikes me as wasteful and small. If I refrain here from listing those poets who seem to take particular pleasure in their own aptitude for hatchet jobs—and I expect that you may have one or two names in mind—it is in the sincere hope that we will all grow up and cut it out.

Tony Hoagland is an unlikely victim of the backlash against such vitriol, since his essays are more commentaries on craft than reviews in the strict sense. Most often they are simply crafted pedagogical sketches with examples: there is a short piece on “Self-Consciousness” in poems, another fine—if fragmentary—discussion of “Fragment, Juxtaposition, and Completeness,” and a superb longer essay “On Disproportion” that could easily become required reading for students of creative writing.

It is difficult to overestimate the value of this undertaking, given the general landscape of books by poets about poetry. These usually fall into one of four categories. First there are the instructional manuals, ranging from Paul Fussell’s classic Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, to John Hollander’s brilliantly playful Rhyme’s Reason, to Mary Oliver’s user-friendly Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Reading and Writing Metrical Verse. Sometimes these style sheets are replete with fun examples, as we find in Mark Strand and Eavan Boland’s The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. Others, such as Ted Kooser’s recent The Poetry Home Repair Manual, may flesh out the basic mechanics of writing, but perhaps offer the reader more encouraging, grandfatherly pats on the back than substantive discussion of the art.

The second category includes miscellanies of reviews, short takes, and mini-memoirs written over many years. While these collections are sometimes entertaining and often instructive, they rarely feel like a book, fully and singularly conceived, because they’re usually not. Yet here, too, one is likely to find some gems, including Richard Hugo’s consistently valuable The Triggering Town, Louise Glück’s Proofs and Theories, or Robert Hass’s Twentieth Century Pleasures.

A third, much smaller genus includes scholarly monographs about particular authors or issues. These are few and far between, and they are usually so idiosyncratic as to tell us more about their authors than about their subjects. One might point to Ted Hughes’s Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being and Anne Carson’s wonderful Economy of the Unlost.

These lists are by no means exhaustive, nor is this taxonomy rigid. Books principally about craft often contain personal reflections and polemical statements, and miscellanies surely address themselves to issues of craft. But a final pigeonhole—since we are dealing in pigeonholes—sets itself apart insofar as these books coalesce around what politicos and anchormen inappropriately call an “agenda”: while the essays may have been written for different venues and occasions, they seem to flow toward an identifiable, sometimes contentious, set of ideas about the art. On the shelves of poets on poetry, these are the books we could really use more of, the ones that give readers something to disagree with or live by or, at their best, the kernel of an otherwise unforeseeable notion. One such book is Alice Fulton’s Feeling as a Foreign Language. Another is Tony Hoagland’s Real Sofistikashun.

There is a serious danger, however, whenever a poet takes up the task of commenting on the state of poetry, and that danger is that one cannot stand both within an endeavor and comment on it from above without flirting with disingenuousness or self-deception, or what Hoagland calls simply “rhetoric.” While reading Real Sofistikashun, a single unlikely phrase came to me repeatedly as a commentary on the experience: Theodore Adorno’s famous dictum that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” This deserves some explanation.

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Adorno’s condemnation of poetry is repeated with a frequency nothing less than extraordinary, especially given the fact that it is patently, obviously, and undeniably untrue. And that’s the first thing it has to teach us: when it comes to poetry, an art that relies so much on tone, imagination, and a peculiar cooperation of the two that might properly be called sleight of hand, the truer something sounds, the more guarded a consideration it deserves. This goes just as well for prose about poetry.

The second lesson is that, when we work through difficult ideas about difficult subjects, it is always worthwhile to do our homework. As often as Adorno’s assertion that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz has been recycled in essays, trumpeted from lecture halls, and bandied around seminar tables with that thoughtful nod-humph thing that broadcasts one’s recognition of Truth, it is not really what Adorno wrote. A more comprehensive quote from the very end of Adorno’s long essay, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” looks like this: “Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.” Here we find a much more complicated set of assertions: that writing poetry is not impossible as a point of dogma, but that it has become impossible as a statement of condition; that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, that is, against the grain of culture, which suggests both poetry’s potential and its complex value; and that this talk about poetry has to do with a broader conversation about culture, to which it is a strikingly minor aside.

When we step back and look at that broader conversation, we discover another valuable lesson for readers of Hoagland’s book and others of its ilk: that broad commentary is simultaneously useful and inherently untrustworthy. For Adorno’s essay is not about poetry, but about criticism, about how generalization dehumanizes us by removing the marks of our own particularity, rendering individuals members of their tribe, and poets practitioners of their school. Instead, Adorno argues that the writer about culture—and I believe that the same applies to the writer about poetry—should maintain a vigilant presence both inside and outside the object of his study. In effect, he should be dialogically engaged with his audience, his subject matter, and himself, providing us with a “thick description,” to borrow Clifford Geertz’s beautiful term: this is what I see, this is where I am standing when I see it, this is who I am at the moment of my seeing.

Much to his credit, Hoagland tries to do just that, though his not infrequent potshots at academe suggest he might take issue with the way I have gone about saying it. After all, the back cover of Real Sofistikashun praises its style as nonscholarly and nonacademic. Instead, this is a book in a buoyant conversational style less that of the scholar than of the serious enthusiast and practitioner. Never mind the fact that most scholars of poetry have taken their love for it to monastic heights, and that a great many fine poets (including Hoagland) live and thrive in university settings. This is all part of having it both ways, as the anecdote that opens the book suggests: “My friend Paul once said to me, ‘Scholars look things up; poets make things up.’ Though I would not justify ignorance in such a blithe, prideful way, there’s something true and Emersonian about what he says, about finding out for yourself.” Well, what Paul says might sound Emersonian, but not if one is thinking of Emerson’s 1838 Oration at Dartmouth College, in praise of the intellectual virtues of scholars. Paul’s formulation might sound true, but it is difficult to imagine it holding water with anyone who has thought seriously about the creativity behind good literary exegesis or the vast store of data—linguistic, historical, philosophical—that informs some of our best poems.

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The “though” that follows Hoagland’s quote of his friend Paul provides an excellent index of how he sometimes stands creatively within and outside his own discourse: he doesn’t agree with Paul, but he does. Hoagland performs a similar maneuver at the end of the book’s foreword: “No program or prescription for American poetry is being argued here. Nevertheless, there are underlying orientations and affections. If a vision of poetry comes through here, I expect it reflects an allegiance to experience as much as to art; a love for the sinuous human voice, for elaborate sentences, and for a certain brashness of imagination.” Again, Hoagland seems to be saying, “I don’t have a position, but I do. I wasn’t there, but I saw everything.”

To judge by the strong responses his essays have provoked—and he has at least as many enthusiastic supporters as detractors—his readers also find a strong program in Hoagland’s writing. After his essay “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment” was published in Poetry last March, letters to the editor continued to appear in the magazine through June. Most tended to agree with Hoagland’s basic premise, that the current scene in American poetry is one of “great aesthetic self-consciousness and emotional removal,” that “systematic development is out; obliquity, fracture, and discontinuity are in.” That is, instead of narrative or, at least, logical progression in today’s lyric poems, Hoagland sees a “hip contemporary skittishness,” “skittish” being the word the author applies semi-pejoratively to poems that evade our best efforts at interpretation. In his essay on fragment and juxtaposition, for example, Jorie Graham’s “For One Must Want / To Shut the Other’s Gaze” is characterized as having a “skittish and agitated style,” even if the poem as a whole is not much more resistant to interpretation than its rather direct title. And this is how many of my friends, poet-professors like Hoagland, read him, whether, like Francine, they think that he is spot-on, or, like my own friend Paul, they think he’s just some fogy who “doesn’t like whatever he can’t do.” (Some names have been changed to protect no one but myself.)

Neither Francine nor Paul is quite correct. Although Hoagland does advance a strong point of view in many of these essays, he is not nearly consistent enough in his thinking across the book for us to be able to say what kinds of poems he likes and what kinds he shuns. This is largely to his credit. Hoagland writes that “it is in the throes of self-alteration that a poet proves herself or himself most professional.” For Hoagland, there should be room in a writer’s career for evolution and movement. Throughout this volume, he insistently places himself fluidly in between the narrative lyrics he claims have gone missing and the more resistant, “dissociative” poems he describes, with endearing un-hip-ness, as “hip.” Of course, even a cursory examination of current literary journals reveals so dense a field of every kind of poem as to render such polarities laughably obsolete, just as a brief consideration of the history of the interplay between clarity and opacity in poetry shows us how many times this debate has played out or, more accurately, played over. For a stimulating treatment of the current debate, one might readily turn to John Sparrow’s Sense and Poetry: Essays on the Place of Meaning in Contemporary Verse, published in 1934.

Where Hoagland falters, however, is not in the difficulty of cornering him into one position or another, but rather in that he writes in a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-thought manner, not always doing his homework or thinking his points through, and quite often saying things that sound true but are not. What does it really mean, after all, to call a poem “skittery,” to imagine that it will not eventually yield intellectual and even emotional dividends to those who are drawn in enough to spend the time? When Hoagland says that, “in reading a dissociative poem, we may also miss a kind of recognition, the resonance between experience and art that verifies them both,” how can he account for the great many readers who do read these poems and not only discern accurate reflections of their own experience, but are moved by them? When he writes that these poems have plenty of play but too much distance, “distance that might be seen as antithetical to that other enterprise of poetry—strong feeling,” is he not confusing what the poem brings to the reading—as knowable as the words on the page—with what the reader himself brings? The rest is not a closing of the distance between the poem and its reader, but the reader’s identification with an emotional or intellectual moment within the poem, an identification that is no less idiosyncratic and fleeting for being heartfelt.

This is not to say that Hoagland isn’t aware of these paradoxes, just that he does not always develop a vocabulary that will help us better understand them. He characterizes one “quintessential poem of the moment,” Rachel M. Simon’s “Improvisation,” as “fast-moving and declarative, wobbling on the balance beam between associative and disassociative, somewhat absurdist, and, indeed, cerebral.” “Fast-moving” and “declarative” are descriptive enough; “between associative and disassociative” could describe virtually any human utterance and a great many animal ones; “somewhat absurdist” is anyone’s guess; and “cerebral” speaks to a fissure between intellect and emotion that is not only false, but that history has shown us time and again to be potentially catastrophic. Hoagland is a smart reader, and like any smart reader he gets frustrated when he feels that a poem is jerking him around. But he does not necessarily know how to formulate that frustration in a way that tells us something new about how these poems work. Then, in one of those instances of backpedaling I have come to admire greatly, Hoagland points out that “dissociative doesn’t necessarily mean detached, or empty, or even hyper-intellectual. . . . The spirit of the poem—if we can recognize what it is—makes all the difference.” We do not yet know what “dissociative” means in Hoagland’s lexicon (in most lexicons it does mean “detached”), and yet here we are told it does not have to be “empty” or “hyper-intellectual,” suggesting again that the reader is likely to lose his appetite for a poem if it makes him think too hard or, God forbid, Google something. Not that this is necessarily what Hoagland is saying, but it is difficult to say what he is saying. Even his entirely agreeable proposition that poems project the rules for their own engagement sounds vaguely like George W. Bush talking about looking into Vladimir Putin’s soul: it sounds fine until we consider what’s really at stake.

In the case of one poet—let’s call her Sarah—it was her poem at stake. Hoagland features it in a way that I read as flattering, but she was so exasperated by the discussion’s vagueness that she felt her work had been sorely misrepresented. It just goes to show that the greatest threat to good ideas is posed not by their conceptual opponents, but by the intellectual or articulative complacency of their authors. This can be true for anyone—see a good many of Theodor Adorno’s essays—and this makes it all the more important that we do our homework, guard our tone, and remain scrupulous in our application of key concepts, especially when we generalize.

4

“For the purpose of generalizing,” Hoagland begins his marvelous essay “On Disproportion,”

the world of poems could be divided into two large camps: the classically wrought, well-behaved, shapely poem, and the deformed, lopsided, zany, and subversive poem. Of course, most poems don’t exclusively belong to either category—they are neither Democrats nor Republicans; they don’t wear jerseys stenciled with A for Apollonian or D for Dionysian. Any good poem is an act of taming the savage or savaging the tame. Even the best-mannered poem holds certain opposing energies in dynamic balance and bulges with the effort. Likewise, poems admirable for their lack of orthodontia obviously possess qualities of integrity and unity, of proportion, that make them recognizable as poems.

The string of adjectives Hoagland initially deploys in his struggle to define each of these two camps is so cumbersome and cross-purposed as to thwart his very effort at definition, and he knows it. And the author’s awareness that he is attempting to define the indefinable, that it is a lost cause, and that the process of losing is worthwhile and instructive in itself lets us know that this will be an essay in the classic sense—an attempt, an investigation, in which what will be unearthed is foreknown neither to the reader, nor to the author. This allows Hoagland to go wherever the subject matter takes him and to make many fine observations along the way, for example, that our positive response to proportion in a poem has more to do with our training than with the inherent virtues of a poem’s form:

We reveal the presence of such biases when we say a poem should be “economical” and “efficient,” or when we apply commercial terminology to art: we go to workshop, not to playshop, where we decide whether a poem earns our attention or not. A real poem gets its work done without dallying or distraction. But, of course, control has a cost, too: it is often achieved at the expense of discovery and spontaneity.

It is refreshing to see Hoagland, a veteran workshop instructor, deconstruct the watchwords of his trade. Since he is not often rigorous in defining his terms in these essays, shattering definitions allows him a palpable freedom to riff, invent, and entertain his way through varied examples, from Wallace Stevens to Denis Johnson, from Susan Mitchell to Tess Gallagher, with a little Horace and Freud thrown in for good measure. One gets the feeling that in this instance the author had his examples firmly in mind and perhaps a more general notion of what themes might connect them to form an engaging ideational constellation. At the same time as that process energizes his prose, the discoveries he makes along the way seem both genuine and provocative. His nuanced reading of proportion in Stevens—“If maturity is defined as the ability to defer immediate gratification in favor of long-range goals . . . Stevens is an often immature poet”—walks a dynamic tightrope between admiration and reservation. His identification in Susan Mitchell’s Rapture of an “ongoing tension . . . between the desire to be consumed by experience and the conservative indifference required by life in the material world” is an apposite response not only to Mitchell, but to a great many other poets as well.

And since Hoagland emphasizes how “form and value are perennially associated,” it is worth underscoring how, in this essay, the prose is livelier and more relaxed, straining neither to achieve an ideological aim, nor to defend that aim against unseen “hyper-intellectual” attackers. If something is missing from “On Disproportion” and from Real Sofistikashun as a whole, it is the sharp, incisive humor rightly praised in Hoagland’s poems. In this vein, one might recall the sage advice of the Martians who visit Woody Allen toward the end of Stardust Memories: “You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.” After all, most assumptions about poetry are worth entertaining only so long as they remain entertaining to us.

Real Sofistikashun is entertaining, but because its tone is more contentious than amusing or speculative, Hoagland sometimes sounds downright mean when he may not mean to. For instance, he writes the following when describing the movements of Susan Mitchell’s poem “The Kiss”: “As the imaginary replaces the literal and physical, linguistic excess replaces the anatomical actuality. The tame and savage here are laughably or horribly joined.” An attentive reading of Hoagland’s essay reveals these statements as approving and apt. In isolation, they seem snippy. I suspect that many of those who react strongly against what Hoagland says have not been sufficiently generous as readers to cull his many valuable ideas. For his part, Hoagland is not always sufficiently generous as a writer to flesh out his ideas and save them from being overwhelmed by tone. This is a bit ironic, since the book’s central essay, and one of its longest, is about tone.

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“Sad Anthropologists: The Dialectical Use of Tone” opens promisingly enough. “Tone is such an ambient, fluid, and internal quality of writing,” Hoagland tells us, “that to define it is an elusive, probably impossible task.” In the discussion that follows, Hoagland attempts to describe how tone works (rather than what it is) with the help of “angular tone,” a term usually applied to music and here signifying points of fracture between disparate moods or attitudes. In the first, highly instructive half of the essay, Hoagland describes these conflicting tones locked in a dialectical conflict with each other, energizing the poems under discussion, feeding into each subsequent tonal conflict and moving the lyric moment forward. We still do not have a provisional definition of what tone is, but Hoagland helps us see it at work. This is for the best. For all his flirtations with prescriptiveness, Hoagland’s underlying demand, echoing that of Tim Gunn on the fashion reality show “Project Runway,”is to “make it work.” And since Hoagland never quite nails down how that might be accomplished, it’s good that he can show us many strong examples of things working. We feel that we are getting somewhere. The few attempts Hoagland makes at a definition of tone—as when, quoting Ellen Bryant Voigt, he says that “tone is a representation not just of the essences, but also of the forms of feeling”—are less availing. Again, Voigt’s quote sounds lovely, but do we really buy that tone is the essence and form of feeling?

Hoagland is upfront about his preference for poems with what he calls “attachment,” the sense of an emotional core around which the poem’s tonal shifts are organized. It is when he launches into an extremely brief, and therefore seemingly gratuitous, attack on Peter Richards’s poem “Which Oval Her Ministry” that his argument—or rather his tone—begins to falter. A difficult poem with nevertheless strong intimations of adolescent sexual awkwardness and emotional uncertainty, it does not speak to Hoagland as a reader: “This poem might conjure up critical jargon about indeterminacy and nonabsorbability, but we aren’t truly inspired to do the labor of such engagement because the poem intentionally offers no clear axis that connects its language to feeling or experience.” While any reader, especially one as astute as Hoagland, is well within his rights to resign from the interpretive problems posed by a particular poem, why blame such resignation on “critical jargon”? Why isn’t indeterminacy, which does not necessarily describe the mood of Richards’s poem, a rich emotional axis in itself?

This is where I get a little lost. Hoagland goes on to distinguish between dialectical tone and what he calls, with the help of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories about novelistic discourse, “dialogic tone”: “Like the dialectical poem, the dialogic poem presents multiple tones; but unlike the dialectical, such a poem aims to dislodge perspectives, not to achieve them.” I laud Hoagland’s deft application of Bakhtin’s ideas about heteroglossia, or multi-voiced-ness, to poetry, a use that Bakhtin rashly and unequivocally rejected, and I find it wholly compelling. But now more than ever we need at least a working definition of tone. Is it the same as voice? When we hear multiple tones in a poem, are we to assume multiple voices?

Hoagland’s praise for Robert Hass, in his very fine portrait “Three Tenors: Pinsky, Hass, Glück, and the Deployment of Talent,” repeats this confusing equivalence of tone and voice: “Above everything, Hass’s work is stamped by its fluent, disarming naturalness of voice. Were it not for this amazing on-the-page naturalness of affect, Hass might have been a scholar-poet; he has something of the disposition for it, that all-you-can-eat appetite for learning and cross-referencing.” Hass is, of course, a professionally trained scholar and a poet, and not one whose language and interests are quite demotic. Why it might be surprising that his erudition does not cancel his naturalness of emotion is beyond me; why “naturalness of voice” and “naturalness of affect” are treated here as the same thing is even further beyond me.

If we can define tone, at least provisionally, as that quality of voice that most readily communicates one’s momentary affect, one’s ephemeral emotional condition, then we can also understand it as the difference between Hoagland’s admiration for intellect, on the one hand, and his anxiety about scholasticism, on the other. We see this in his odd defense of Robert Pinsky, from the same essay: “Those who see Pinsky as bookish or academic are mistaken; it is more true to say that he is an avid polyglot, who loves to fuse different materials and styles into his music.” What harm is there in calling someone as erudite as Pinsky bookish? In my book, anyone who produces a painstaking translation of Dante’s Inferno with fifty pages of notes has a certain bookishness about him. The kind of writer who injects Adorno into a review of Hoagland’s book is also bookish, or thinks he is, or wants other people to think he is. What is strange in all this is how someone can write a book about other books and still use the word “bookish” pejoratively. No small number of people who make their livings in the academy, including myself, count among Hoagland’s admirers. Unless he intends to perpetuate the beside-the-point bickering between town and gown, between “narrative” poets and what he reductively calls the “postmodern cadre,” Hoagland might pay closer attention not only to his critical definitions, but to his tone as well.

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The title of Tony Hoagland’s book promises a homegrown sophistication divorced from sophistry. In discrete moments, his failure to flesh out ideas or consider his own tone fosters too much of the latter, and it provides unnecessary ammunition to anyone predisposed to call him dismissive or single-minded. Conceptual failures, major and minor, are inherent features of any discussion worth discussing. The difficulty is in whittling those failures into ever finer points, opening them into new conversations, and fostering a tone that invites new participants instead of turning them away.

The essay that closes Real Sofistikashun is called “Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People.” It begins: “Meanness, the very thing that is unforgivable in human social life, in poetry is thrilling and valuable. Why? Because the willingness to be offensive sets free the ruthless observer in all of us, the spiteful perceptive angel who sees and tells, unimpeded by nicety or second thoughts. There is truth-telling, and more, in meanness.”

I tend to disagree. In real-life social interactions, as in wittily spiteful essays and reviews, I find meanness self-deceptive and self-satisfied, maybe because it is free of the second thoughts, the extra considerations, that tell us that our first impressions may not be accurate, that our most convenient knowledge may not be truth. If Hoagland’s formulation sounds correct, it strikes me as more correct when “meanness” is replaced with “bluntness.” And even then, bluntness is only valuable when coupled with honesty. I wonder if he would agree, since every poem he quotes in his essay is bluntly honest, but not especially mean.

So allow me to be blunt. If in this essay I have sometimes nitpicked my way through the terms and tones of Hoagland’s essays, it is not out of meanness, but out of a sincere devotion to his book’s enterprise and a hope that, by lobbying for greater clarity and consideration, we might delve deeper into a difficult art without resorting to or fueling the squabbling of entrenched camps. In his best work as a poet and critic, Hoagland shows that it is indeed possible to be smart, kind, opinionated, and engaging, all at the same time. This is a lot, but it doesn’t seem too much to ask.


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