When he gets on a roll, Tony Hoagland is very entertaining, almost like a warm-up act for a big name comic; but then he’ll veer suddenly towards the more serious—like films with famous comics that display the comic’s sad, sentimental side: behind the laughter there’s a wound needing love, honesty and affection.
The themes of Hoagland’s poems, such as ‘men are such clods, will women ever really love them?’ are perfect stand-up comedy material. Hoagland is not fully ‘stand-up,’ though, because he can’t get the non-poetry guys who have been dragged to his readings by their pretty poet girlfriends to laugh along; Hoagland cannot reach that audience; I imagine if he could, he would be making millions with his comedy, and not merely a thousand here or there with his poems. But comedy has that problem, too; if you really connect with the males in the audience, there might be some females in the audience who hate you, and vice versa. Comedy is about hate as much as it is about laughter.
If there’s no one being ridiculed in some way, there’s no comedy. We all know that all men are not clods, but the comic goes with this idea and we laugh because…well maybe all men are…we don’t finally know and our implicit ignorance is what unconsciously makes us laugh—we are being ridiculed—for our intellectual nature which is trapped in categories. We laugh at ourselves by participating in categories; we are those failures being ridiculed the moment we accept the comic’s categories: men, women, whites, blacks, Democrats, Republicans, etc. To laugh is to intellectually surrender to an abstraction—this is the basis of all humor. It is the lowest form of communication: low, but powerful. Humor is the intellectuality of the unlearned, and humor’s intellectual force is all the more powerful for not being understood as such.
I saw the poet Hoagland read in Salem, Massachusetts the night before last at the Salem Athenaeum.
Salem State College, which sponsored the reading, also was in the middle of a student invitational poetry seminar; college students read their poems before Hoagland took the stage.
The difference between the students and Hoagland, the U. Houston professor, was startling. The students’ poems were heartfelt, some were even metaphorically interesting, if somewhat artless and sentimental. The chief difference between the students and Hoagland was that Hoagland exploited categories: the student poets (they were all female) read poems about some particular man; Hoagland poems were about men, or some category, and thus his poems rose to the level of humor, and when they weren’t humorous, they were metaphoric in a very grandiose way; in one Hoagland poem which recalled an ex-lover’s sexy body, a graveyard was the analagous relic: bodies, graveyards…Hoagland’s abstractions are…palpably abstract. Thus, funny.
Hoagland confessed that he was a bad poet for many years, didn’t learn anything from Iowa in the 1970s…”my teachers told me my poems didn’t work…I knew they didn’t work!” Another insight about Iowa in the 1970s: “I couldn’t believe how depressed and serious everyone was…this was before anti-depressents! How many poems could people write about Italian statuary? I knew I didn’t want to be a funereal poet.”
Bad poetry in the 1970s was serious poetry unintentionally funny; and why? Because it couldn’t avoid the landmine of the grandiose; the details kept sliding away into categories and abstractions. Like visiting an ex-lover’s body in one’s mind and comparing this mental visit to visiting a graveyard? We’ve all seen it, known it, done it, and poets who were writing in the 1970s espcially know this, and Hoagland, by his own admission, was writing this bad stuff in the 1970s, and he also realized he didn’t want to be too serious.
Enter the Iowa poem of the 1980s: Billy Collins and Mark Levine and Dean Young and Tony Hoagland. The serious poets who lived through the Great Depression and World War Two and the Bomb and the Vietnam War gave way to a Ironic, Smart-Aleck, “What, Me Worry?” Generation who grew into poetic awareness during the goofy, corporate 1970s, and learned from O’Hara and Ashbery and Koch, the funny guys from the 1950s, when TV comedy was on the rise and things were relatively prosperous and stable.
The invention of the funny Worskshop poem of the 1980s was the bad 1970s Workshop poem diligently pursued until it worked as comedy.
Hoagland is overtly 1960s as well; this is where Hoagland parts ways with a sophisticated, apolitical, and essentially 1950s poet, like Ashbery. Ashbery kids in a blank sort of way; Hoagland wants to talk about what’s real, man. Hoagland is exciting in a curious, engaged, politically and socially sincere, albeit somewhat naive, 1960s kind of way.
I reflected on why Hoagland and many other poets have taken on a 1960s sensibility even as society at large has passed it by, and then it struck me: the demographics of the 60s was such that half the population was under 30, and what is the MFA teacher’s audience? Twenty-somethings. Voila! The MFA is a demographic microcosm of the 60s.