Thursday, November 02, 2006

My Reading List-Book 1

Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft by Tony Hoagland (Graywolf Press, 2006)

Tony Hoagland is a fixture in the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College and I seem to recall that several of these essays (sometimes in slightly different form) were delivered as lectures during my time there (January, 1998-January, 2000). Others I've read more recently in journals such as Poetry, The American Poetry Review and Writer's Chronicle.

Hoagland does not take sides in the ongoing poetry wars. He writes in his Forward:

"No program or prescription for American poetry is being argued here. Nevertheless, there are underlying orientations and affections. If a vision of poetry comes through, I expect it reflects an allegiance to experience as much as art; a love for the sinuous human voice, for elaborate sentences, and for a certain brashness of imagination."

Hoagland's lack of an agenda shouldn't be mistaken, however, for a reluctance to state an opinion. Writing in favor of that poetic bugaboo, rhetoric, in an essay entitled "Altitudes, a Homemade Taxonomy", Hoagland concludes:

"Rhetoric has been a skill in atrophy in contemorary poetry. Maybe an American cult of individuality, our obsession with identity as a sort of divinely granted personal possession, makes us suspicious of the study of writerly techniques. Yet rhetorical facility is a sort of index of relative power--the shy, the earnest, the low-to-the-ground can be distinguished from the lofty, the free, the assertive by their relation to rhetorical authority. There is a quality of boldness and freedom in some poems and poets that others seem never to attain. The instinct for rhetoric is often a defining factor."

In "Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment", Hoagland both celebrates and cautions against the limits of a contemporary poetry that glorifies associative leaps and "a hip contemporary skittishness." He writes:

One can understand how dissociative poetry has become fashionable, celebrated, taught, and learned--it is a poetry equal, in its velocity, to the speed and disruptions of contemporary culture. It responds to the postmodern situation with a joyful crookedness. And one can also see why poetics that assert sensible order (which, admittedly, can be predictable and reductive) have fallen a bit from fashion: after all, the pretense of order is, in some way, laughable. Art has to play, it has to break rules, to turn against its obligations, to be irresponible, to recast convention. Some wildness is essential to its freedom. Yet every style has its shadowy limitation, its blind eye, its narcissistic cul-de-sac. There is a moment when a charming enactment of disorientation becomes an homage to dissociation. And there is a moment when the poetic pleasure of elusiveness, inadvertently, commits itself to triviality."

Other esays, all in Hoagland's readable and witty style, argue for poetic obsession, for hyperbole and excess, and comment, poignantly, upon the work of the late William Matthews and Larry Levis.

Real Sofistikashun is a brilliant addition to the ongoing debate over the state of contemporary poetry. I hadn't planned on passing out reviewer's stars in writing about my reading list, but if I were, this book would merit a constellation's worth.