Posts Tagged ‘Tony Hoagland’

‘What Narcissism Means To Me’ by Tony Hoagland

‘What Narcissism Means To Me’ poems by Tony Hoagland   (2003) – 78 pages




No, this is not an autobiography by Donald Trump.  Instead it is a fourteen year-old book of poems by Tony Hoagland.  Why did I read this? There are three reasons:   1) I was tremendously impressed with Hoagland’s book of poems from 2015, ‘Application for Release from the Dream   2)  This Narcissism title is one of the cleverest book titles that I have ever encountered, 3)  When I find a poet whose poems make sense to me and which I enjoy, I want to continue with their work.

I will start with some lines from the poem “Patience” in the book which are a quote from his girlfriend at the time who is “running wild, cutting loose in an epileptic fit of telling the truth”.  She gives him “a mixture of good advice and slow-acting poison” :


“Success is the worst possible thing that could happen

                                       to a man like you,” she said,

“because the shiny shoes, and flattery

                                        and the self-

lubricating slime of affluence would mean

you’d never have to face your failure as a human being.” 

Now this is some really mean criticism this guy gets from this girlfriend, and I hope he didn’t wind up marrying her.  But these lines did win me over to the poet’s side, because I also have gotten this kind of severe criticism from an old girlfriend in the past.  I would call this irrevocable criticism.  Hoagland ends the poem with the following lines:

“I knew that if I could succeed at being demolished, I could succeed at anything.”

These lines do show two facets of the poet’s style; the poems are conversational and casual, yet they deal with strong emotions.

Now that I’ve read two books of poems by Tony Hoagland, which of the two did I like the best?  I do believe that the later collection,  ‘Application for Release from the Dream , is the stronger more direct work, but still nearly every poem in this earlier book, ‘What Narcissism’, has lines that I like.

I will finish with the first six lines from the poem “How It Adds Up”:

“There was the day we swam in a river, a lake, and an ocean.

And the day I quit the job my father got me.

And the day I stood outside the door,

And listened to my girlfriend making love

To someone obviously not me, inside,

And I felt strange because I didn’t care.” 

I wonder if it was his same girlfriend in both poems.



Grade:   A-         



A New Strategy for Reading and Writing about Current Poetry

‘Application for Release from the Dream’ poems by Tony Hoagland   (2015) – 81 pages


Who could not like a poet who named a previous collection ‘What Narcissism Means to Me’ ?

My old strategy for reading and reviewing poetry collections was to find a positive review of a single collection and then read that collection.  Too many times I discovered that I absolutely did not want to write about the selected collection due to my own lack of interest.  The collection wasn’t necessarily bad; it just did not captivate me.  Each person’s response to a set of poems is terribly individual.  Just because one writer’s poems do not interest me does not mean that someone else will not devour them hungrily.

I only want to review collections to which I have a positive reaction.  Therefore I don’t even mention the ones that I discarded due to my own lack of enthusiasm.

So I came up with a new strategy.

This time I started with four books of poems by different authors.  All four of these books showed up on ‘Best of Year’ lists for 2015.  Despite their being on the year-end lists, I figured that I would probably be enthused by at most only two of them enough to write about them.

I had hoped to find two books of poems that I really liked so that I could compare and contrast.  However it turns out that of the four, only one book made the grade by totally spurring my interest and enthusiasm.  Fortunately I consider that one book a mighty fine one indeed. I don’t want to overdo the praise, but ‘Application for Release from the Dream’ by Tony Hoagland is a humorous penetrating down-to-earth book of poetry.

Here are a few lines from his poem called “Misunderstanding” that I particularly like.

“All those years I kept trying and failing and trying
to find my one special talent in this life –

Why did it take me so long to figure out
that my special talent was trying?”

Clever, honest, and insightful.  What more can one ask from a poet?  That same poem has the following lines.

 “When I compared humanity to a flower growing in the shadow of a munitions factory,
it may be that I was being unfair to flowers.”

In his poem “A History of High Heels” he considers the wearing of high heels by women and their effect on him.

       “Because today is one of those days when I am starting to suspect

That sex was just a wild goose chase

In which I honk-honk-honked away

Three quarters of my sweet unconscious life.”

Nearly every poem in this collection has lines I would like to quote, but I won’t.  It is quite unusual for me to be captivated by nearly every poem in a collection like I am here, even when I’m reading masters like Philip Larkin, Robert Frost, and Emily Dickinson.   Throughout this collection, Hoagland’s outlook is quirky and original in a way that I can appreciate.

Of the countless lines I would like to quote, I will end with these from “Wasp”.

“a human being should have a warning label on the side
that says, Beware: Disorganized Narrative Inside;
prone to frequent sideways bursting

of one feeling through another”



Grade: A


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