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.”

IMG_5615

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.

LAWRENCE

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.

 

Comments

  1. Jennifer Dorsey says:

    Thank you for turning me onto to this guy and his poetry. I’m hooked and will be looking for more – let me know if you recommend a starting place.

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