Tony Hoagland’s Poems are Tools for Contemporary America by Christopher McDermott

“We just want to be manipulated with a little fucking consideration” —Tony Hoagland from Application for Release from the Dream

Cover of the poem collection, "Application for Release from the Dream."
Cover of the poem collection, Application for Release from the Dream.

Tony Hoagland’s poetry doesn’t mince words but it will proudly mince people and ideas. He can be funny and saddening, often in the same line. His fifth collection, Application for Release from the Dream, is ambitious in its scope and direct in its approach.

Hoagland’s verse is tight and lively. Much of it comes out in sharp couplets or triplets with a conversational tone. He demonstrates a love for language and awareness of the quirks in how people talk. In “Eventually The Topic,” he writes:

“The surgeons compare the human heart to an engine;

the car mechanics compare the engine to a heart.

The metaphor works for both of them,”

The poet then goes further. “Special Problems in Vocabulary” (as the title would suggest) chews on some of the shortcomings of our language. It speaks wistfully of specific (yet somehow also universal) situations and concepts for which English has no designated word. For instance:

“There is no single particular noun

for the way a friendship,

stretched over time, grows thin,

then one day snaps with a popping sound.”

The appeal and irony of this particular poem is that it weaves together those situations into a stanza (if not in one word) in a way that the reader feels these are intuitive experiences we all know intimately.

In his lectures and essays, Hoagland has said that the role of the poet should be to take in the broader ills of a group and express them unabashedly. At the Chicago Ideas Festival in 2013, Hoagland gave a presentation, “Articulate Deformity: Poet as a Wounded Citizen,” where he summed up this philosophy:

“The poet is and should be the designated complainer of the tribe, the one with a grudge, the one with a chip on her shoulder, a tumor in his gut. He is the one who is going to talk about the way the birds shit on his car, about the quality of food served in this restaurant life.”

Hoagland’s poems are tools, especially those in Application for Release from the Dream. The book contains meditations on language and its effectiveness. The poetry within shows the tension between language’s occasional inability to describe human moments, while also reminding the reader of the writer’s burden to extract as much as possible from it.

The titular poem is a subtle one. Its finishing couplet is something of a call to action, something of a challenge:

“If you aren’t learning, you have not been paying attention.

If you have nothing to say, it is because your heart is closed.”

Application for Release from the Dream is a book of poems about intimacy and frustration tempered with a grander perspective. In his lectures, Hoagland has repeatedly driven home the poet’s need to personalize politics and politicize personal experiences.

This collection features poems that launch anger at an ineffectual father (“Wine Dark Sea”) alongside descriptions of men’s choice to retire from traditional masculinity (“But the Men”), recollections of terrible things men have done (“The Roman Empire”), with an introspection on what a future “second fiddle” post-imperial America might mean for its people (“Ode to the Republic”).

Hoagland constructs ideas, pitches them to the reader, then challenges reader and poem to come to their own conclusion.

The universal is in the specific. Application for Release from the Dream ponders the place of man and human in a changing America and a changing world. These are political statements, but they hit the hardest in their most intimate moments.

In “Don’t Tell Anyone,” the speaker’s wife tells him:

“that she screams underwater when she swims

that, in fact, she has been screaming for years

into the blue, chlorinated water of the community pool

where she does laps every other day.”

And then Hoagland sticks the landing, in the final poem, “Note to Reality.” It feels heavy, of course, standing under the weight of all that he’s discussed in the previous forty-seven poems. His writing is beautiful. It’s human. It’s worthy of cringes at times, laughs at others, and gut movements at others.

These are poems to learn by, lead by, and quietly vent your seething frustration at the shortcomings of human existence into some kind of a constructive principle by.

Christopher McDermott is an English and Journalism major at the University of Connecticut. He is a poetry panelist and Copyediting Coordinator for the Long River Review.

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