Tony Hoagland on modern American life

Poet Tony Hoagland is one of those joys to read, not because his work is particularly joyful, but because it is filled with moments of recognition. He deals with issues of race, class, and consumerism with a deft and witty pen, and reading his latest collection “Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty” had me both laughing outright and groaning in despair. Take “At the Galleria:”

At the Galleria

Just past the bin of pastel baby socks and underwear,

there are some 49-dollar Chinese-made TVs;

one of them singing news about a far-off war,

one comparing the breast size of an actress from Hollywood

to the breast size of an actress from Bollywood.

And here is my niece Lucinda,

who is nine and a true daughter of Texas,

who has developed the flounce of a pedigreed blonde

and declares that her favorite sport is shopping.

Today is the day she embarks upon her journey,

swinging a credit card like a scythe

through the meadows of golden merchandise.

Today is the day she stops looking at faces,

and starts assessing the labels of purses;

So let it begin. Let her be dipped in the dazzling bounty

and raised and wrung out again and again.

And let us watch.

As the gods in olden stories

turned mortals into laurel trees and crows

to teach them some kind of lesson,

so we were turned into Americans

to learn something about loneliness.

Hoagland will be reading at the Loft Literary Center tonight, and I spoke to him this morning, in particular about his thoughts on American life. Here’s an excerpt:

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Hoagland, who teaches at the University of Houston, is an advocate of making poetry accessible and relevant to young readers. He says that poets don’t necessarily have extrasensory powers of perception, but that they simply are able to give voice to what we all feel with particular perception. He says it’s when you are forced to slow down – due to crisis, or aging – that we are most likely to turn to poetry for solace.

Hoagland mused that America is home to great poetry in part because of our childlike, unrefined nature as a nation. But he sees an end to that innocence in our future. He imagines that, as we become increasingly lonely in our cultural solitude, we will be forced to decide what we are willing to live with (food courts? flat screen TVs?) and what we must change. Can we survive seeking comfort with a credit card? Or will we return to the balm of nature to find greater meaning in our lives?

Hoagland also read a few of his poems, which you can access below:

The Big Grab

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Romantic Moment

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Expensive Hotel

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