Tony Hoagland on D.H. Lawrence

I was sad to hear this week that the poet Tony Hoagland died. I’d only met him once, but when I got married eight years ago my wife and I never discussed whether to have one of Tony’s poems read at our ceremony. We only discussed which one.

We settled on “The Time Wars,” a poem that hit some unexpectedly dark notes for a wedding, but got one of the points of a wedding across: that we plan to get old together.

I also frequently cite his poem “When Dean Young Talks About Wine,” when I encounter a certain kind of connoisseur, in wine, in food, or in literature:

“His mouth is purple as if from his own ventricle
he had drunk.
He sways like a fishing rod.

When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension.
When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest.

But when a man is hurt,
he makes himself an expert.”


His Times obituary rightly focusses on his humor and accessibility, and surprising wallops of truth, and I guess that’s what drew me to him too. I first found him when I asked my friend the poet Jay Leeming the impolite question, “Who does what you do but better?” and he did not hesitate: “Tony Hoagland.”

I’ve enjoyed turning many people onto his collections Donkey Gospel and What Narcissism Means To Me. The latter book makes a cameo appearance in Joe Swanberg’s film Drinking Buddies. (I can’t find our copy, so I must have given it away, again.) Donkey Gospel includes a poem called “Lawrence” that captures his fun, slightly cranky voice.

Good night, sweet prince.


by Tony Hoagland

On two occasions in the past twelve months
I have failed, when someone at a party
spoke of him with a dismissive scorn,
to stand up for D. H. Lawrence,

a man who burned like an acetylene torch
from one end to the other of his life.
These individuals, whose relationship to literature
is approximately that of a tree shredder

to stands of old-growth forest,
these people leaned back in their chairs,
bellies full of dry white wine and the ovum of some foreign fish,
and casually dropped his name

the way pygmies with their little poison spears
strut around the carcass of a fallen elephant.
“O Elephant,” they say,
“you are not so big and brave today!”

It’s a bad day when people speak of their superiors
with a contempt they haven’t earned,
and it’s a sorry thing when certain other people

don’t defend the great dead ones
who have opened up the world before them.
And though, in the catalogue of my betrayals,
this is a fairly minor entry,

I resolve, if the occasion should recur,
to uncheck my tongue and say, “I love the spectacle
of maggots condescending to a corpse,”
or, “You should be so lucky in your brainy, bloodless life

as to deserve to lift
just one of D. H. Lawrence’s urine samples
to your arid psychobiographic
theory-tainted lips.”

Or maybe I’ll just take the shortcut
between the spirit and the flesh,
and punch someone in the face,
because human beings haven’t come that far

in their effort to subdue the body,
and we still walk around like zombies
in our dying, burning world,
able to do little more

than fight, and fuck, and crow,
something Lawrence wrote about
in such a manner
as to make us seem magnificent.


The Shipwreck We Missed in History Class

The first time I heard Stuff You Missed In History Class, I knew I’d found some some kindred spirits in Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson. Each episode is like you drove a Subaru hundreds of miles through the Appalachians, to arrive at a college town just in time for a dinner party where everyone’s educated, and you sit between two engaging women with subtly different Southern accents, who tell you all about a topic in thirty minutes. All that, except you didn’t have to leave your Subaru.

The conversations – and there are hundreds of them – could be about Victoria Woodhull; about Copernicus; a concise history of air conditioning; the Lumiere Brothers (two episodes); Martin Luther’s wife; the woman who led the repeal of Prohibition; the Sepoy Rebellion; or anything else.


I mention them today because they recently told the harrowing story of the sinking of the S.S. Princess Sophia, which left Skagway, Alaska on October 23, 1918, around 10 pm, three hours later than it should have, going a lot faster than it should have, and you can either guess the rest or listen to them tell it.

Theirs is the only podcast I’ve ever truly binged on, more than once in fact, and what’s remarkable about it is how spare the story-tellers are at injecting any kind of first person. Sure, they’ll say “I think” here or there, or leave you with some impression about them while having an ironic chuckle, usually at the expense of some ill-informed or overly confident participant in their stories, but they graciously keep that to a minimum.

I guess I do know that one of them is a mother and the other an animal lover, and any mention of cruelty to animals or kids gets a “You know this pushes my buttons” comment. Otherwise they leave out any of the personal-voyage-of-discovery anecdotes that tend to flatten every story in the National Public Radio orbit. It’s like, you can’t hear about a murder-mystery without the narrator mentioning the nature of the epiphany she had while on her way from the coffee shop to the crime scene.

Others have written about them with more access than I have. They have lots of stories about women, a sympathetic appreciation for religious subjects, and a sense of wonder about entrepreneurs.

Stuff You Missed History Class has that rare balance, both a sense of humor and a reverence for its subjects. In those hundreds of hours you rarely hear any theoretical rhapsodizing, though Holly Frey has a knack for stepping back and reminding you of the context of the story. In the case of the S.S. Princess Sophia, she muses, the end of World War I and the world flu pandemic kept us from committing this utter disaster to public memory.

What a vision, by the way, to think of a ship full of the bodies of the dead pulled from the water, arriving at a Canadian port on November 11, while people are celebrating the just-announced Armistice that ended the war.

I, for one, would have been tempted to stop the story and say “Think about that! Now that’s irony.” The Stuff You Missed History Class ladies, however, almost always stick to the third person and keep answering the question every story-teller should: Then what happened?

The Environmental “About Right” Point

I took a trip down Hippy Lane last month staying with old friends in Ithaca, New York. This is a guy who was a mentor of sorts, though he’d bristle at that responsibility. I used to tease him about his being a descendant of pilgrims on the Mayflower – often enough that I suspect he regretted ever telling me that.

I hit it off with his wife too, but hadn’t been to visit in years, since their wedding, and their daughter is now 6. My texts from the road saying I was running late had gone unanswered, and when I got there we sat right down to dinner.

Like friends in the city, you tend to “lose” them when they have a child. You naturally get replaced by their peers in childbirth and child-rearing. They’ve entered a new economy of baby-sitting favors and pre-school fundraisers, and when you do get together it takes a lot of explaining the new reference points. Since I’d hardly had a chance to see these friends anyway, we wasted no time apologizing for being out of touch.

I’ve always taken pride in good manners, and still feel the need to excuse myself to use a cell phone, even to check a message, when I’m with real people having a real conversation. I was expecting an email and excused myself once to check it after I got there. Then I remembered to text my wife that I’d arrived. After that I figured I’d better wait and see what the local customs were regarding cell phone use.

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 12.48.56 PM

E-Waste processing in China.

And I waited, and waited, and the phones never came out. It was just good conversation late into the night in a house full of books – “late” with a different numerical meaning upstate, in a house with a child in it.

That’s when I realized I’d forgotten my iPhone charger. The only one on offer was the older, wide “30 pin” model, circa 2010. I said “No problem!” I’d figure something out the next day. Which I quickly realized meant buying another. I admit that I kept this to myself in a house where we composted walnut shells and wore sweaters instead of hitting the thermostat on chilly fall nights. (“Chilly” in Ithaca meaning “cold” in points south.)

The next morning on my way to make the purchase, at the local gas station of all poetic places, I thought about a private message I’d gotten back in July after posting about Apple, the company.  I’d accused Apple of the environmental crime of planned obsolescence, among other things, and a friend of mine called me out on it. Instead of pissing and moaning about having to buy a new iPhone, did I even think about buying a new battery for $29?

Answer: Well, no.

The conventional wisdom among everyone around me was that I just had to suck it up and buy a new one, and I didn’t question that.  This would not have happened if I’d just called my friends in Ithaca – on their landline.

If there’s a spectrum from environmental angel to environmental devil – with the hero being the vegetarian who carpools to work and only takes airline flights when he knows he’ll stick around for a few weeks on the one end, and the villain tossing plastic bottles one after another in the trash (or littering them! I mean, why not?) while driving a Hummer to a ribfest with outdoor air conditioning – I feel I’m more conscientious than most, closer to angel.

I also suspect that most of us would place our own position on that spectrum at the “about right” point, and it’s never a bad idea to revisit that.

When presented with a basic consumer choice I decided not to question, but to dig a little deeper in the cobalt and nickel mines for a new phone because that just sounded easier. I could blame the nice guy at the iPhone store for not saying, “You could just get a new battery,” but then I’d be holding Apple to a higher standard than any other business.

Puritanism and its effects on the American pscyhe is something I honestly think about every day. Those Pilgrims on the Mayflower, my friend’s ancestors, are still with us.


John Calvin.

On the one hand, their perverse belief in predestination – that we are already chosen or damned by God  when we’re born, and that our life is a series of signs that illustrate that choice – can make us maniacal in our pursuit of being good. As if the decision about whether or not to carry the seltzer can the extra few minutes to the recycling bin is more than a practical choice, it’s a reflection of one’s soul.

But Puritanism also gave us our faith in the perfectibility of our community or society. Without John Calvin there’d be no Billie Sunday, and no Ted Cruz, true. But without John Calvin there’d be no Karl Marx, and no Bernie Sanders either.

So here we are, the generation that has to make the biggest decisions yet, with implications for centuries to come. And we’ve got 16th Century minds to do it with. You don’t get to pick the cosmological hand you’re dealt.