Tony Hoagland, Professor of English at the University of Houston, recited a collection of his poetry during his visit to Andover last Friday, evoking mixed student and faculty responses.
Hoagland’s provocative, unorthodox poetry, which blends biting satire with poignant insight, drew a crowd to his reading. His distinct sense of humor brought a different take to contemporary poetry.
He began the night with “Commercial for a Summer Night,” which he described as a “summertime poem.” Combining humor with more serious poetic language, the poem concerns a Midwestern family watching television and complaining about attractiveness as portrayed in the media.
Hoagland expressed his opinion about modern media by inserting the line “the pretty ones the merchandise is wearing this year” in the poem.
Continuing his trend of analyzing American culture, Hoagland read a poem entitled “Food Court.” Addressing the culture of mall food courts, Hoagland said that he thinks these spaces function just as village squares did in previous centuries.
The poem’s witty opening line, “If you want to talk about America, why not just mention Jimmy’s Wok and Roll American-Chinese Gourmet Emporium?” drew laughter from the audience.
“I liked [Hoagland’s] candid humor that centered on critical observations of American society, and his delivery was entertaining,” said Henry Curtis ’15.
The evening continued with Hoagland’s reading of “The Beautiful American Word Guy,” a poem by fellow poet John Weir about the power of the word “guy” compared to other slang terms. Stylistically, the poem’s humor strongly resembled Hoagland’s own work.
One of the poem’s most amusing lines was about being referred to as a “brother” by an angry cab driver: “He twisted the word around to mean ‘Die, motherf—er!’ but I’m a romantic, and I heard him saying, ‘Cling to me as we plunge together manfully into the abyss!’”
Another light-hearted poem, “Romantic Moment,” followed. The humorous poem focused on a man who is unable to stop thinking of the mating rituals of various animals after seeing a nature documentary.
“I liked that he focused on the gritty details of life,” said Kaylee Llewellyn ’15.
Many of Hoagland’s poems are based on humorous topics, but he also presented poems that deal with thought-provoking issues.
The poem “Lucky” was inspired by Hoagland’s strained relationship with his mother and his rite of passage when taking care of her shortly before she died.
“Lucky” illustrated a specific memory of giving his mother a bath and seeing her so vulnerable.
While most of Hoagland’s funnier poetry was well-received, some audience members felt that it crossed a line with the heavier pieces.
“It was just difficult for me to personally understand the poem. Even if he had a traumatizing childhood, how can an individual have such cruel thoughts about one’s own mother or family?” said DJ Bierwirth ’14. “It’s hard to come to terms with the dark emotions [that Hoagland expressed.].”
When asked about how he first got into poetry, Hoagland said, “I was a deeply unhappy teenager in Southern Louisiana, and a friend of mine gave me a poetry anthology. I really needed some guidance. It grabs you in some way, and then you read a lot of it and begin to get great pleasure from it. It’s a natural response to try to write your own work. After it becomes a habit, you can’t live without it.”
The last of Hoagland’s poems was called “How It Adds Up.” Taking on a more poignant tone than some of his more tongue-in-cheek works, it portrayed a man who has realized that he isn’t in control of his own life.
Hoagland’s use of choppy sentences captured intense moments like pondering the path that one has taken in life. The emotions contained in the lines “The day I quit the job my father got me” and “The day I listened to my girlfriend making love to someone obviously not me inside and I felt strange because I didn’t care” were painfully realistic.
With a more personal touch, Hoagland recited a poem said to be written by a Native American known as Speaks-Fluently.
“I think this should be read at graduations,” said Hoagland on stage.
The poem, light and simple in language, dealt with having to do unenjoyable things things order to get further in life.
Hoagland has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has received two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, along with a host of other accolades.
Hoagland is this year’s Isham Fellow, and his poetry reading was sponsored by the English Department in conjunction with the Sandra Isham Vreeland Fund.