Travels with Steve, and Good Writing

Tony Hoagland

Dec 03, 2018

Editor's Note: We at Gulf Coast were heartbroken to learn of the death of Tony Hoagland, whose talents as a poet were rivaled by his talents an essayist. Since early May, we were in conversation with Hoagland about the publication of a number of short craft essays, one of which appeared on this blog—with his final edits—less than two weeks before he died. We had Hoagland's blessing to publish three more essays on the craft of poetry, including one in our next Fall/Summer issue. Hoagland was a tireless editor of his own work, so the circumstances suggest that the versions we publish might be missing a last coat of polish. We've done our best to honor the spirit of Tony's meaning and have only made the slightest corrections to the last versions he sent us. 


My old friend and former teacher Steve Orlen and I walked many miles together along the wide avenues of Tucson, Arizona. Our promenades usually took place after the dinner hour, in the evening, when the blazing heat of the Sonoran day had at last relented. An evening breeze would finally have arisen, and the little desert sparrows flew back and forth between the lofty crowns of the palm trees that line those streets. 

Our pace would never have been called brisk. I remember Steve's big flat feet, clomping methodically along, encased in the giant battered leather brogans he wore for ankle support. By that point in his life, Steve had acquired a serious beach ball of belly. Though the fabric of his shirt was capable of considerable stretch, one feared for the buttons that held that shirt in place. Somehow, they never broke. Nor, no matter how much we walked, did that monumental Taj Mahal of a stomach seem to shrink.

The real motive for our promenades was two-fold: foremost, perhaps, was Steve's secret after-dinner smoke, a vice that he preposterously imagined was unknown to his wife. But equally important, I am sure, was our deep mutual need for talk—as much passionate, serious talk as possible. And, of course, our talk was all about poetry. We needed to discuss what we had been reading, to vet the work of our friends, and heroes, our former classmates, our ancestors. For me, it was the greatest sweetness to amble block after block with my friend, deep in the serious discussion of poetry. It was a conversation that had already been going on for years, since I had been his student. Our conversation was like a neighborhood of its own, one that we had walked through together many times before. 

And—also like a neighborhood—we would find ourselves in front of some of the same addresses again and again, like familiar houses on a street. I still think about one of our most recurrent and intractable exchanges—the issue of what, finally, is the priority of good poetic writing. 

This is how our argument typically went. The name of a poet whose work one of us liked would come up in conversation, Let us say, for example, I mentioned the latest collection of poetry by X. Pausing to light another cigarette, Steve would stare at the slab of sidewalk in front of him, shake his head sadly, and say, in a tone of deep regret: "Yeah—I just wish he was a better writer."

Then I would find myself saying: "Really? That's so odd, because I wish that M, the poet whom you say you admire so much—I wish he was a worse writer. He's such a good writer, I can't even tell what he's talking about!" Then we would both laugh out loud, knowing that, in fact, each of us was dead serious.

That exchange, even now I wonder—what exactly did it reveal about our differences in taste? For my part, I was expressing my basic suspicion of fluency, of the ways in which facility itself can counterfeit profundity. Too much gorgeous writing, like a cake frosted with sprinkles and colored sugar, can disguise whether the writer even HAS something to say. Mine is a very fundamentally American suspicion. I instinctively prefer the plain Protestant style, and its values of directness over beauty and elegance.

But then, what was Steve talking about when he praised Y or Z? When he asserted that writer Y was a wonderful writer? Really, even now, I cannot quite say.

I didn't know much about the music of poetry back then, whereas Steve belonged to a generation that had been trained how to listen. He heard metrical complexities inside words and beneath the surfaces of lines to which I was simply deaf. Eventually—in part thanks to him—my sense of verbal music improved. 

Even so, even then, as now, I was drawn towards different dimensions of poetry than Steve—call it voice, idiom, or personality, call it angularity or the twisted turns in meaning that pressurize a poem, that make its language a little awkward or rough. That is always what I have loved.

Here's a poem that Steve and I never specifically discussed, but one that I believe we would have disagreed about. It is a poem that Steve might well have admired for its "skill," but which I find deficient of much besides art and music. It is "Sloe Gin," by Seamus Heaney:

                             The clear weather of juniper
                             darkened into winter.
                             She fed gin to sloes
                             and sealed the glass container.

                             When I unscrewed it
                             I smelled the disturbed
                             tart stillness of a bush
                             rising through the pantry.

                             When I poured it
                             it had a cutting edge
                             and flamed
                             like Betelgeuse.

                             I drink to you
                             in smoke-mirled, blue-
                             black sloes, bitter
                             and dependable.

"Sloe-Gin" is surely a well-written poem. Irish and Anglic poetry is characteristically more concentrated in sound than American, and Heaney's poetic singing is audibly more consonantal, heavily-stressed, and alliterative than the standard American voice: "it flared like Betelgeuse," he says, and "smoke-mirled, blue-/ black sloes." 

That is fancy, pretty, and skilled poetic language. Nevertheless, musical or not, Heaney's poem to me is sadly unambitious, weak in psychic complexity, lacking in challenge to the writer or reader. The poet Allen Grossman says that "A poem is spoken by a person with a problem." But Heaney's speaker in "Sloe Gin" has no apparent problem. Consequently, for me, the character of the speaker remains invisible and unrevealed. "Sloe Gin" seems little more than a well-executed piece of occasional writing.  I would rather read a "sloppy" poem by a less skilled writer with more at stake, one whose voice and music show more strain and recklessness than this, which is unmarked by the experiential need to connect. I prefer the poem as an impelled, pressurized, necessary event, versus the poem as ceremony. I don't think my ear will ever improve enough to change that.