Prose on Poetry: A Reading Group (of sorts)

Sometimes I take pride in my own ignorance about poetry; other times I feel like a fool. I’ve read millions of poems (and I’m not sure if that’s hyperbole), thousands of books, but I’ve read very little prose on poetry, and my understanding remains intuitive. It’s the poems that are interesting to me, not people writing about them, and since it was never my goal to become a poetry scholar, I’ve never bothered with what I don’t naturally enjoy. But I do love this stuff, and I’m sure that love would become more attuned if I listened to other people who love it, too.

To that end, I’m going to start reading books on poetry, blogging as I go. It’ll be my own little homework assignment.

I’m going to start with Tony Hoagland’s Real Sofistikashun, which was given as a gift from a friend almost two years ago. It’s about time. Hoagland has long been one of my favorite poets, What Narcissism Means to Me one of my favorite books, and “America” one of my favorite poems:

by Tony Hoagland

Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud
Says that America is for him a maximum-security prison

Whose walls are made of RadioShacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes
Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials,

And as I consider how to express how full of shit I think he is,
He says that even when he’s driving to the mall in his Isuzu

Trooper with a gang of his friends, letting rap music pour over them
Like a boiling Jacuzzi full of ballpeen hammers, even then he feels

Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds
Of the thick satin quilt of America

And I wonder if this is a legitimate category of pain,
or whether he is just spin doctoring a better grade,

And then I remember that when I stabbed my father in the dream last night,
It was not blood but money

That gushed out of him, bright green hundred-dollar bills
Spilling from his wounds, and—this is the weird part—,

He gasped “Thank god—those Ben Franklins were
Clogging up my heart—

And so I perish happily,
Freed from that which kept me from my liberty”—

Which was when I knew it was a dream, since my dad
Would never speak in rhymed couplets,

And I look at the student with his acne and cell phone and phony ghetto clothes
And I think, “I am asleep in America too,

And I don’t know how to wake myself either,”
And I remember what Marx said near the end of his life:

“I was listening to the cries of the past,
When I should have been listening to the cries of the future.”

But how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable
Or what kind of nightmare it might be

When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you
And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river

Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters

And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher?

As you can see, Tony Hoagland is a master at using humor like a knife, and this bodes well for a collection of essays on poetic craft. If he can dissect the elements of poetry in the same way he dissects our world, it will be illuminating, and his wit should keep it entertaining.

The first essay, and the only one I’ve read so far, breaks poetry down into three chakras, which he also describes as “altitudes”: image, diction, and rhetoric. It’s actually very similar to my Three Features pie chart in content, though not necessarily in structure. As we move up from the loins, through the gut, then the heart, then the mind, we become less base and more cerebral — though, as Hoagland reminds us repeatedly, this isn’t a hierarchy, but simply a physicality. A poem written from the gut can be just as powerful as one written from the mind, if not more so, it’s merely less self-conscious. Of the three chakras he describes, image is the lowest, and rhetoric the highest — images “embody the intuitive and unmediated knowledge of the unconscious,” whereas rhetorical interjections from the poet, “the willful shaping of a poem,” are the most overtly conscious.

Honestly, I don’t understand his taxonomy. The metaphor of chakras as poetic centers makes sense, but the way he applies them to certain stylistic conceits really doesn’t. Images do often appear spontaneously from the inner depths of our minds, but they can also be used very overtly, as in Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” or a lot of Wallace Stevens’s work. Similarly, rhetorical devices can be used just as effectively to plumb the depths of the unconscious — a certain voice or a certain cadence can lead the poet to startling revelations. The power of poems do come from different “altitudes”, but they don’t have anything do do with the poetic tools the poet chooses to employ.

Though I disagree with his arrangement, I did enjoy the essay — the examples he brings us, from Sharon Olds to Mary Ruefle, are illuminative, and fun to read. We’ll see if Hoagland and I can find a bit more common ground in the next installment.

5 thoughts on “Prose on Poetry: A Reading Group (of sorts)

  1. I’ve read lots and lots of prose on poetry, so much so that I came to realize it doesn’t really affect how well you write, which was my goal. But may I suggest Koch’s “Making Your Own Days,” and Richard Hugo’s classic “The Triggering Town.”

  2. I read lots of prose on poetry, too, mostly in regards to my teaching of creative writing. One of my favorites is a book titled The Eye of the Poet edited by David Citino. This book contains essays by six (I think) different poets including one of my favorites, Maxine Kumin.

  3. Thanks for the suggestions, I’m making a list!

    That’s one of my goals in reading more — I plan on teaching at some point, so I need to start building a body of material that I’d want to pass along.

  4. Ypu’ve picked a good one to begin with. I loved Hoagland’s collection of essays. Even emailed him about his response to Louise Gluck’s Purple Bathing Suit (you’ll get to this essay). I second the recommendation for Triggering Town. The essay “Nuts and Bolts” is wonderful on revision.

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