Tony Hoagland Engages Students and Faculty

English professors were muttering to each other about the weather and attendance as they waited anxiously at the front of Persson Auditorium at 4:30 p.m. last Wednesday afternoon. But as student after student blew into the already packed room up to 10 minutes late, it became clear that Tony Hoagland’s poetry reading, sponsored by the English department, would be wildly popular.

Hoagland, a professor at the University of Houston, has twice won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, in addition to a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry and a place as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

“Tony Hoagland brings together pieces of American poetic tradition…in order to find what’s true, hard and real,” Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor in Humanities, Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing Peter Balakian stated in his introduction. “He finds the comic in the grotesque, the grotesque in the ordinary…His lines often work like a swivel saw; you get a sense of the edge sliding between dangerous parameters that define his work.”

Hoagland, a wispy-haired man in his sixties, was part of a larger weekend program on the theme of education in America created by the Colgate Arts Council and Associate Professor  of Educational Studies Barbara Regenspan. He wrote an article which can be found free online in Harper’s Magazine called “Twenty Little Poems that Could Change America: Imagining a renewed role for poetry in the national discourse-and a new canon.” In it, he argues how poetry has and hasn’t played a role in education, and what it could do to change the country and the world.

“As part of this whole theme I was thinking, as I have before, what is poetry good for? I think it’s three things: one, it gathers unlikely things together…another thing it does is it focuses…and then, the last thing it does is it expresses the whole range of human emotion. Anyway, I’ll just start out reading and maybe as I go through them I’ll be able to classify them into these three absolutely encompassing categories,” Hoagland said, ending on a wry note after his introduction.

Hoagland began with his poem “Candlelight,” which was based on a saying of one his friends in Arizona: “You can’t live without causing

some damage.”

The poet prefaced each of his poems with a not-so-brief explanatory introduction that provided insight into his life, his writing style and his personality. There was so little change between the conversational tone he used to discuss the poems and his reading voice that sometimes he would slip naturally from one to the other, making it difficult to distinguish where his impromptu meditations ended and the written ones began.

Yet, as witty as Hoagland was in person, his poetry was even cleverer. “Candlelight,” for example, quietly points out, in the manner of “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” by Laura Numeroff, that one thing is always connected to another; saving a marriage means steak dinners from cows raised on land that was once rainforest, which damages the atmosphere and will one day cause a grandchild from said  marriage to contract skin cancer.

This kind of intricate – and sometimes disheartening – interconnection continued throughout the readings but with increasing, significant humor. One poem was about what Hoagland described as “the very odd sensation of feeling sorry for Britney Spears,” while another described the mating habits of various species as witnessed by a couple on their second date on a nature documentary. The audience snickered as Hoagland calmly described the bull penguin vomiting into its mate’s mouth and the female Brazilian leopard frog pummeling its mate in a pond; how a poet managed to include an orange refrigerator magnet carrot into a poem; and, finally, how Hoagland struggled with the existence of his parents, resulting in the purely fictional death of his father in many poems.

All in all, everyone was well-entertained for the hour during which Hoagland read, spoke and mused.