Tony Hoagland’s books include What Narcissism Means to Me and Donkey Gospel. He teaches at the University of Houston and in the Warren Wilson Program. An excerpt from his essay “Idiom, Our Funny Valentine: Its Cunning, Its Romance, Its Power” can be found here, and the entire essay appears in the Spring 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Tell us a little about your KR essay “Idiom, Our Funny Valentine: Its Cunning, Its Romance, Its Power.” How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
I decided to try to write about idiom with the awareness that it is a poetic device I’ve trafficked extensively in, as a reader, speaker, and writer, but didn’t really understand. It’s related to figurative language, and slang as well, but different too.
Is idiomatic speech crude, or is it highly sophisticated? Is it populist? Unconscious—? All three of these? It’s an “indigenous” region of language use—highly social, yet almost unconscious for us. Perhaps the main insight of the essay is the truth that these familiar speech-bytes have a counter intuitive power, and generate a thrill, even in poetry. Idiom connects to some special reservoir of linguistic imagination and creativity.
Your essay discusses several poets who “dig deep into the black dirt of American tribal speech-bytes.” In your own work as a poet, do you see yourself engaging in a similar endeavor? Are you ever deterred from using a particular conversational phrase because it is overly time-bound, or do you see every coinage and new expression as fair game?
Yes. I am happy to be part of the contemporary homeboy Americanski tribal speech-culture. Idiom advantageously plants a poem right there in the jetstream of the contemporary lingo-river. And of course, all coinages are “fair game,” as you put it—anything that works is fair game. Still, there are ways to use idiom that are cheap, and ways that are elegant. Some turns of phrase seem too transient or trendy for me to use in a poem,—“friend” and “unfriend,” for example—some coinages seem too much like playing for the crowd, going for the cheap laugh or the cheap frisson. Who wants to skim the most superficial surfaces of culture in the massively superficial twenty-first century? The challenge is to use idiom and slang as a means to delve down into the very guts of the human, the age and the culture.
One of the topics that rises up in the background of the essay is the status of humor in American poetry—and the way, perhaps, in which comedy is aesthetically undervalued or devalued as a mode or style in American poetry. Some of the poets whose work I employ for the essay—Ferlinghetti, for example,—have been condescended to because of their exploitation of idiomatic gestures. There’s a way in which high culture values poetic difficulty, and poetic gravitas far more than poetic amusement. Make them laugh, and readers will enjoy it, but they may not respect you the next morning. I myself can’t make up my mind—yet I know we have wonderful contemporary poets—David Kirby would be one example, James Tate another,—whose richness, amplitude, and seriousness is undervalued probably because they are comic poets.
Maybe this uneasy snobbery is a manifestation of the old persistence of social class—between the bardic and the minstrel poets—the high and low—cultures. But then again, in my essay I myself make fun of John Ashbery for being silly! And I certainly enjoy mocking some forms of high culture. So perhaps I share the prejudice of the general culture. To be idiotic is to make speech no one can share; to be idiomatic is to make speech that many can participate in—speech that is entertaining, and popular for a good reason.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
In critical writing, I now find writing essays easier than I once did. I have more confidence in the literate legitimacy of my ideas, and I find that ideas come to me more freely because of work I’ve done in the past. Plus, I want to say things more clearly and more compactly than before. Poetry is so marvelously various and thought provoking—there is always something new to say about them; and essays about poetry should be clear and stylish too.
In the writing of poems, I believe I’m trying to be more openly emotional than previously; to let passion and heart into the poems more directly, and to be less qualified, or “insured” by tonal play, wit, and irony. I see now how very direct expressions of true feeling are often the moments I care for and remember most in poems. To feel deeply is itself a kind of talent. To skillfully position that moment of declared feeling inside the housing of a poem is a kind of mastery.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
The speechless marvels of nature, and the serious conversation of friends—these are two of the sweetest things in life.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
Poems saved me when I found them by accident in my teens and twenties, and poetry has never let me down as a source of deep pleasure and guidance. Whenever I am lost, it harbors and renews my spirit.
Then there is the making. To have a deep, mostly daily, relation with a craft like writing has been its own sustenance. In a mechanical age, (and an age of infinite technological redundancy) how many people get to make distinct, individual art objects with their own hands? Poetry is still countercultural. It affirms and develops individuality.
In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
More than ever, to a degree the New Critics could not have foreseen, the speed and volume of contemporary media and capitalism works against the development of interiority and stillness. “It is hard to drop from the self into the soul” says the psychologist James Hillman. I don’t have any doubt that literature and poetry are a refuge and a reservoir for the maintenance and cultivation of soul-life. The importance of such a value can’t be reiterated and emphasized enough; Sven Birkerts wrote last year in Poetry about the embarrassment felt in the academy—including even the poets—about the word soul. Wrong! We have to recover our self-respect and use the vocabulary of our values. We need to resurrect and declare our allegiance to the intrinsic worth of art, introspection, and engagement. Everything matters, and in an era that annihilates the conscience of consciousness, literature should be biting back.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
For some years now I’ve been attempting to write plays. Most of them I’ve abandoned; the ones I’ve finished have been entertaining and ambitious but flawed. I’d like to make a good one. I want to know what that feels like.
Moreover, I would like to write a poetic handbook that has fifty short, highly useful craft instructions. I want to continue to make the pleasures and challenges of contemporary poetry available to interested citizens.