Saturday, April 13, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 13: “Personal” by Tony Hoagland

Read “Personal” on the Poetry magazine site here.

Since his death in October of last year, so many of Tony Hoagland’s earlier poems, like this one from 2009, now seem prescient. I suppose it was a result of his having had cancer more than once, of being ill several times. I often got the feeling he’d walked out to the edge of life and looked over, and had come back to tell us about it.

This poem is vintage Hoagland; the everyday, down-to-earth language of it mixes with images and metaphors that are sometimes funny, sometimes beautiful, and often both (“I don’t / believe in the clean break; // I believe in the compound fracture / served with a sauce of dirty regret”). This poem starts out static and then suddenly is in motion with the wheeling birds and the trees in the wind, and at that point comes the exclamation—“Oh life! Can you blame me....” And the great last line. He had a thing with last lines.

I am forever telling my “date with Tony Hoagland” story, and I'll trot it out again for a moment here. We went to a play one night; he was in town doing a reading and some workshops, and the organizers asked me to tag along with him to see Troilus and Cressida. It was cold here in Oregon, and when I met up with him at Starbucks, he didn’t look well, bundled up in a stocking cap and heavy coat that made him look small and much older than he was. Later, while we sat in the theater and talked about mortgages and washing machines—he was a great date, just as funny and arch as you’d expect—I kept wondering if he had the flu, or was recovering from chemo. All the travel and the workshops he had to teach that week, I thought, had to have been exhausting for him. But there he was, out late, going to a play (which he enjoyed), and being a gracious companion. I’ve thought of this so often, how human people are when they’re busy being famous.

[All through April, I’m featuring a favorite poem every day, along with a link where you can read it. Some are classics, some are newer, but each one is the kind of poem that I read, love, and immediately want to tell all my friends about. What better to time to share them than National Poetry Month?]

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