Tony Hoagland, 1953-2018

There are a lot of great things about getting older (hopefully more stability, more positive experiences, the deepening of relationships, maybe even the growing of wisdom), but one of the sadder things about getting older is that sometimes people who you never knew, but who you admired, pass away.  That happened for me when the poet John Ashbery passed away, as well as when the novelist Philip Roth died.  They were heroes of mine, and it felt like someone I knew closely had died, someone who had changed my life.  Today I heard the sad news that the American poet Tony Hoagland passed away, who wrote really wonderful poems in casual, accessible language that could break out suddenly into great beauty.  Hoagland created poems from ordinary language (his poems did not show off their innovation, nor were they so extraordinarily difficult as to baffle interpretation), but that ordinary language, and the light it shone on our lives, could open up, and open us up, to something truly special and moving.  In honor of Hoagland, I wanted to post a poem of his, that I found on the Poetry Foundation website, which is a great resource.  Here it is, called “A Color of the Sky”:

Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
driving over the hills from work.
There are the dark parts on the road
                     when you pass through clumps of wood
and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,
but that doesn’t make the road an allegory.


I should call Marie and apologize
for being so boring at dinner last night,
but can I really promise not to be that way again?
And anyway, I’d rather watch the trees, tossing
in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.


Otherwise it’s spring, and everything looks frail;
the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves
are full of infant chlorophyll,
the very tint of inexperience.


Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio,
and on the highway overpass,
the only metaphysical vandal in America has written
in big black spraypaint letters,


which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.


Last night I dreamed of X again.
She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.
Years ago she penetrated me
but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,
I never got her out,
but now I’m glad.


What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.
What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.
What I thought was an injustice
turned out to be a color of the sky.


Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
and the police station,
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;


overflowing with blossomfoam,
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,


dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,


so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
It’s been doing that all week:
making beauty,
and throwing it away,
and making more.


The poem is on the surface about ordinary things – driving from work, calling a friend or partner to apologize about something, hearing songs on the radio, thinking about dreams, noticing liquor stores and police stations – but underneath this surface there is a great attention to, and love for, life in its rich and complex variety.  The poem is this thoughtful and quietly funny celebration of how strange and miraculous it is to be alive – to drive a car, to see a tree “overflowing with blossomfoam.”  It’s so easy to forget how joyful life can be, and the poem ends on this image of a tree “making beauty, / and throwing it away, / and making more.”  The tree, without thought, sometimes without anyone noticing, is “dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,” this amazing image that Hoagland chooses to see and chronicle.  He did this in so many poems.  I encourage you to check out his poems, which can be found in the CLEVNET system, for a dose of that wonderful Hoaglandian ordinariness made beautiful.  May he rest in peace!

Image result for tony hoagland

Tony Hoagland


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