REAL SOFISTIKASHUN: Essays on Poetry and Craft

Portrait of the Artist as a White PigTony Hoagland
Graywolf Press ($15)

by J. MacNeill Miller

Tony Hoagland’s poetry has a tendency to take you by surprise. Somehow, from the unlikely combination of casual, everyday language and subjects that seem downright unpoetic—he has written a poem about visiting the chiropractor and has no qualms waxing sentimental about a young man practicing oral sex on a light switch—he manages to produce book after book of poignant and accessible verse. His latest work, however, has the award-winning poet trying his hand at a different genre: the essay. Real Sofistikashun, a collection of his writings about poetry, proves that Hoagland’s considerable talents lose nothing in the foray across genres.

Any fan of Hoagland’s work will recognize in these essays the same elements that make his poems so powerful. Hoagland is a master of the metaphor. He peppers his prose with little descriptive gems, like his depiction of Wallace Stevens’s images as “linguistic slide shows that bloom and vanish on the billowing clouds of his lyric” or his portrayal of unintended meaning as a kind of psychological stowaway, “some zebra mussel or termite / . . . / hunkered in the dark.”

Hoagland’s other great strength, his Whitmanesque populism, also works to his advantage here. As the title indicates, Real Sofistikashun never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. At one point, Hoagland quotes from John Ashbery’s “The Dusk-Charged Air,” only to confess that he himself has never read the three-page poem in its entirety. That kind of admission might sound embarrassing or even unprofessional, but Hoagland, in his folksy-but-sophisticated way, manages to turn it to his advantage: he charms the reader with his candor even as he uses the poem’s difficulty to illustrate a larger point about Ashbery’s poetry.

In fact, Hoagland’s approach to “The Dusk-Charged Air” serves as a neat summation of the unpretentious intelligence that makes Real Sofistikashun so widely appealing. Hoagland may be uniquely suited to guide less-experienced students of poetry through the chaotic contemporary scene. His writing never grows overly scholarly, and as a self-proclaimed “centrist” poet, Hoagland appreciates the diverse styles of poetry being produced in America today. The poems under scrutiny in the book run the gamut from the works of more conservative confessional poets to writing from the Language school. In essays that address topics like “the dialectical use of tone” and the value of cruelty in poetry, Hoagland gamely tackles the strengths and weaknesses of each style, allowing room for personal preference. His critical instrument of choice is the close reading, where he strings observations together into larger patterns intended to show what “works” in a poem and what doesn’t.

Hoagland has a sharp eye for the details that make great poetry unforgettable, and his insights more than compensate for the slightly formulaic structure of the essays. But as a commentator, Hoagland’s greatest gift may be his rare ability to dissect a poem without killing it—his line-by-line analyses actually increase the reader’s enjoyment of whatever poem he puts under the microscope. The end result is an intelligent and highly readable collection. Real Sofistikashun should be especially useful to the non-academic poetry lover, as well as poets hoping to learn a thing or two to better construct their own verse.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007