Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, November 13, 2005

The restless, pungent, intellectually ambitious and slyly colloquial poet Tony Hoagland has won the $25,000 Mark Twain Award "recognizing a poet's contribution to humor in American poetry."

Rarely do prize committees get anything so right. The comedy of Mark Twain cuts to what is complacent, unexamined and blandly corrupt in American life. Hoagland belongs to that tradition. His is not the mild, dismissive chuckle of standard "comic poetry," reassuring its audience that everything is either okay or can't be helped. Like Twain, Hoagland prefers the outrageous -- he has his nerve, as demonstrated by his recent volume's title, What Narcissism Means to Me . One joke in that title is how social this book is: Many of the poems recount conversations, and all engage society. They are the opposite of solipsistic. In the title poem, characters joke together while having a cook-out, including the kind of gag a lesser writer might have made the punch line:

Then Ethan said that in his opinion,

if you're going to mess around with self-love

you shouldn't just rush into a relationship.

Another character has preceded this remark with an easy, amusing riff:

There's Socialism and Communism and Capitalism,

said Neal,

and there's Feminism and Hedonism,

and there's Catholicism and Bipedalism and Consumerism,

but I think Narcissism is the system

that means the most to me;

and Sylvia said that in Neal's case

narcissism represented a heroic achievement in positive thinking.

The edgy, competitive banter illustrates what I mean by Hoagland's "restless" quality. He listens to many voices, interior ones contending inside himself as well as those of his characters. Here are the poem's closing lines:

the sunset in the background started

cutting through the charcoal clouds

exposing their insides -- black,

streaked dark red,

like a slab of scorched, rare steak,

delicious but unhealthy,

or, depending on your perspective,

unhealthy but delicious,

-- the way that, deep inside the misery

of daily life,

love lies bleeding.

The fiery insides of things are Hoagland's goal. His poem "The Change," in which he finds himself unable to keep from rooting for "the white girl" in a tennis match, has even succeeded in disturbing and angering some readers -- another contribution that makes him worthy of a prize named for Mark Twain.

The poem is in fact a celebratory acknowledgment that for all the backwash and bad faith in the world -- and in oneself -- things change. Social changes happen. The "little pink judge" climbs on a box to put a ribbon around the winner's neck. And the point is not that we are nice people saying or doing nice things. "The Change" ends:

Poof , remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,

we were there,

and when we went to put it back where it belonged,

it was past us

and we were changed.

Wisecracks and exclamations (Poof!) assist the poem's trajectory, like the feathers on an arrow. In shrewdly informal, seemingly casual language, Hoagland gets at important and hard-to-get-at feelings. And yes, he can be funny.

I congratulate the committee that gave him this prize.

(Tony Hoagland's poems "What Narcissism Means to Me" and "The Change" are from his book "What Narcissism Means to Me." Graywolf. Copyright 2003 by Tony Hoagland.)

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