I’ve just finished reading (and reviewing) Tony Hoagland’s third collection, What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf, 2003). An interesting one. But not entirely in a good way. Normally I love his writing, especially his critical prose. But this book had me alternating between frustration and satisfaction. It was … soft where I expected it to be sharp. And definitely on the self-indulgent end of the scale.
One thing that leaped out straight away – and that really bugged me – was his litany of names. In just thirty-eight poems he refers to 37 different people by name: Alex, Anabelle, Ann (twice), Bethany, Boz, Carla, Carrie, Cindy Morrison, Cynthia, David (twice), Dean Young (and just Dean), Donna, Dorothy, Em, Ethan, George, Greg, Jerry, Joe, John, Kath (four times), Larry, Mack, Margaret, Margie, Marie (twice), Rus, Ruth, Shannon, Sharon, Susan (twice), Sylvie and Terrence. I’ve never encountered this issue in a poetry collection before, but it’s a useful thing to keep in mind: too many names without any information about why the person is important and/or how they relate to the story end up making the reader feel alienated. Of course, this could be a deliberate strategy – the book’s title means that everything should be read through an ironic lens. But if that were the case, you would expect to encounter no (or almost no) poems which don’t use any names at all. But there are twelve poems (and they’re some of the best in the collection) that content themselves with only using pronouns like ‘you’ or ‘she’, or titles like ‘my father’. So that doesn’t wash as an explanation. It also means that the name dropping is even more concentrated than I first thought … 37 names in twenty-six poems. Yikes!
His other bad habit is what I think of as the whoopee-cushion ending: deflating a growing seriousness or poignancy with something silly, or tacking on something that really labours the point. It reminds me of the way adolescent males act sometimes – you know, when things have suddenly become serious or tender, and being emotionally immature, they do something borish to get a laugh from their mates. (Farting, usually.) Maybe it’s a form of self-protection?
But … it’s still a largely enjoyable collection. There are loads of great descriptions, an unfairly brilliant selection of first lines, and a couple of poems that just sing – “Phone Call” and “Windchime” being two of my favourites. He can write some sublime poetry, and in his best work there is definitely a sharpness, an almost aggressive ruthlessness, that makes you just about ready to forgive him anything.
Just, please – no more whoopee-cushions.