Thursday, July 3, 2008

Real Sofistikashun

Probably one of the funniest two or three poets writing in English, Tony Hoagland is also one of the more humane, thoughtful, and helpful writers of work on how to write and read contemporary verse. His collection of essays Real Sofistikashun has a wonderful opening piece on Image, Diction and Rhetoric that I am likely to include in a future course packet. Other useful essays from the collection can be found on line.

Fragment, Juxtaposition, And Completeness: Some Notes And Preferences

How to Talk Mean and Influence People or here

Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment

Three Tenors: Glück, Hass, Pinsky, and the Deployment of Talent or here

One of my favorites is on the dilemma of Self-Consciousnes. Hoagland writes of the initial loss of innocence that comes with studying writing:

The gradual intrusion of self-consciousness is one inevitable side effect of an education in art. To read ten poems, or a hundred, is one thing. To read ten thousand is another. As we internalize more of the tradition and become progressively less shielded by our ignorance, we realize how local our upbringing has been, how much there might be to know, and perhaps even, sigh, how limited our talent. T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock comes to know that he is not Prince Hamlet; we must deal with the fact that we are not Eliot. When a person takes the step toward learning more of craft and its history, more of artifice—when, for example, a person crosses the threshold of an MFA program—she chooses to end a childhood in artlessness. She gives up some of their innocent infatuation, the naïveté, the adolescent grandiosity, maybe even some of the natural grace of the beginner. “They are good poets because they don’t know yet how hard it is to write a poem,” I have heard a teacher say, a bit tartly, of her beginning poetry class.

Yet, he goes on to point out, that is part of the necessity of poetic growth:

Self-consciousness in writing, as it does in life, open up a kind of delay between impulse and action, between thought and word. That pause—as these examples show—offers the opportunity for calculated intensifications and angularities that would never occur in “natural,” uninformed speech.

And he concludes with this helpful notion about intelligence, cleverness, and the reader:

Self-consciousness often provokes an overexertion of cleverness. But intelligence, when used well in a poem, never makes the reader feel less smart than the writer, or left behind. Rather, it gives the reader the exhilarating pleasure of being smart in concert with the speaker. . . . To learn what a poet needs to know is to become an initiate; that initiation imposes burdens as well as powers. We have the obligation to make real poems, to contribute to the living, evolving heritage of poetry. . . . Finally, if our awareness of the great Past makes us self-consciously anxious, it is good to remember that Everything has not been done. Possibility has not been exhausted. More reality is being made at the reality factory every day, and new ways to handle it are being invented—language is a technology, after all. Its adaptations are legion; its evolution is hardly over.

In the spirit of this blog, here's an excerpt from his poem Requests for Toy Piano:

Play the one about the family of the ducks
where the ducks go down to the river
and one of them thinks the water will be cold
but then they jump in anyway
and like it and splash around.

No, I must play the one
about the nervous man from Palestine in row 14
with a brown bag in his lap
in which a gun is hidden in a sandwich.

Play the one about the handsome man and woman
standing on the steps of her apartment
and how the darkness and her perfume and the beating of their hearts
conjoin to make them feel
like leaping from the edge of chance—

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