Real Sofistikashun and Contemporary Poetics

Tony Hoagland’s Real Sofistikashun, a collection of essays, provides one of the most unified and cohesive views of the issues surrounding contemporary poetics that I have read so far. It provides a perfect companion to my undergraduate study of poetics dating from before the modernists, and shines light on so many of the issues in contemporary poetics that I have been groping through darkly: the relationship between language poetry, postmodernism, confessional poetry, surrealism, image, tone, juxtaposition, deconstructionism, the need for some central “heat” in a poem and the dance of the trust relationship with the reader.

Hoagland brings so much insight to bear on the strengths and perils of writing to the contemporary sensibility–a sensibility that seems to simultaneously crave both cohesion and disjunction. He does not dismiss anything within the spectrum, but finds virtue in everything from Ashberry to Oliver. His essays progress with almost dialectic momentum, bouncing from pole to pole before evenutally settling, in the final essay, on Hoagland’s own personal approach to reconciling the emotional, confessional, romantic and imagistic with a modern distrust of all of these qualities.

Before he gets there, though, Hoagland covers an awful lot of ground. His opening essay on comparing the poetic elements of image, diction and rhetoric to the progressively more refined energy centers in the body, called chakras in Hindu theology, gives a balanced view of these “hierarchical yet equal” elements of craft: the primal power of imagery, the more self-aware delight of diction and the persuasive seduction of rhetoric.

Though Hoagland reinforces that a great poet can and must use any (and often, all) of these types of energy to great effect, he also betrays a bit of his preference for the “higher” and more clever qualities of diction and rhetoric by the amount of attention and enthusiasm he lends to these poetic chakras. Part of this may be an attempt to counterbalance the tremendous reliance on imagery and diction that has pervaded poetry since the Romantics. Clearly, Hoagland sees himself as wanting to advance the art, reconciling new sensibilities without admitting any loss of regard for basics. This man cares a lot about contemporary poetry.

His own approach to reconciling the schizophrenic modern condition seems to be the use of meanness. He extols meanness as “thrilling and valuable,” because, “the willingness to be offensive sets free the ruthless observer in all of us, the spiteful perceptive angel who sees and tells, unimpeded by nicety or second thoughts. There is truth-telling, and more, in meanness.” In a sense, meanness seems to represent the right mix of emotional heat and intellectual detachment, sarcasm and pathos. Pperhaps ironically, in Hoagland’s mean poems in his collection What Narcissism Means To Me, the speaker also achieves a remarkable degree of seemingly unintended confessionalism–something that, done overtly, Hoagland is outright sick of in contemporary poetry.

One example of this is Hoagland’s incredible poem “When Dean Young Talks About Wine”–a poem that compares a snarky critic to a wounded animal, thereby equally exposing the derisive speaker of the poem as wounded and smarting as well. The poem serves to illustrate everything that is dangerous and degenerative about a life lived in cynical cleverness and evokes, above all, a profound sense of empathy–that thing that makes Hoagland queasy–in exposing the real cause of all meanness: hurt. This seemingly inadvertent turn of the tables makes this, in fact, a highly confessional poem and one which gives the measure of the speaker above all.

Hoagland’s final digression into extolling his own unique style is offset by truly insightful studies of contemporary poetry all along the way that make this book required reading for anyone serious about trying to understand the dynamics at work in contemporary poetry. Each essay is a keen and thoughtful study. Combined, they illuminate the poetic issues of our time in ways that might have taken other critics decades of removal and historical commentary to finally shake out. Though I cannot necessarily agree with Hoagland’s final conclusion and direction in light of his findings along the way, the journey through each essay was, for me, none the less an important and edifying ride.