By Victor D. Infante
It almost seems as though we should be done talking about Tony Hoagland’s poem, The Change, after the uproar centering around the poem at this year’s AWP conference and the subsequent responses published by Hoagland and poet Claudia Rankine. If nothing else, the poem’s a bit old, having appeared in Hoagland’s 2003 book, What Narcissism Means to Me. But then, sometimes the pace at which poetry is closely examined is slow, and it takes a while to permeate a culture, unlike examinations of other art forms, such as fiction or cinema. And still, the grumbling persists, the discussion unsatisfying to any party. Perhaps, then, there are still things left to say in the matter. And perhaps those things neither begin nor end with Hoagland or his poem. But alas, it is the poem which is in front of us.
In The Change, the poem’s persona observes a tennis match and realizes that he wants the African—American female player – a coded Venus Williams – to lose to her European opponent, simply based on the fact the tone is white and the other not. And certainly, there’s no artistic crime in examining the brain’s dark impulses. Often, it’s good art. Except, in this instance, it’s not. Frankly, The Change is among the weakest poems in an otherwise strong book, with lines such as, “The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,/and the new president proves that he’s a dummy” or, “hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation/down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,/like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission” being the sort of awkward claptrap that one would expect from a high school creative writing class, not one of the country’s preeminent poets. Furthermore, while Hoagland writes in his response to Rankine that, “The Change is not ‘racist’ but ‘racially complex,” nothing could be further from the truth.
Let us assume, for a moment, that the persona is unfamiliar with tennis, and thus, not hampered by an intimate knowledge of the subject which would lead him to informed preferences. Certainly, it would be difficult to deny that race would be one of the odd impulses floating throughout the persona’s brain. To think otherwise would be naïve. But, assuming the persona is male and heterosexual, would that impulse be complicated by the players’ physical attractiveness? And while the personal likability of the players, their aggressiveness and fire, seem to lightly figure into the persona’s preferences, it almost seems unusual that the racial aspects of the preference seem to overwhelmingly trump nationalistic interests, which isn’t a common reaction when observing a crowd watching, say, an Olympic event or a World Cup match on a barroom TV, where unbidden chants of “USA! USA! USA!” would be more likely than not, no matter the race or, indeed, even the birthplace of the competitor.
No, this is a flaw at the heart of the poem, a feeling that the whole scenario is forced and, therefore, a bit of a racial straw man. From most other poets, this poem would have likely been rejected out of hand, but because the poet is Tony Hoagland, a poet who has garnered a great deal of success, and because the poem was published in a book that’s among contemporary poetry’s best-sellers, The Change persists, and cannot be entirely ignored. Rankine and others have been completely right to challenge the poem. Indeed, it’s been their only recourse.
But really, it’s been Hoagland’s defense which has been most galling, particularly his assertion, as recounted by Rankine, that “this poem is for white people. Did he mean it was for white people to see themselves and their thinking? He did not say that. He said it was for white people.”
Which is nonsense, in that in this era of instant communication and massive multiculturalism, in this “changed” world which Hoagland’s own poem refers to, no poem is ever just for one group. Even if we were back to the bad old days of poetry being passed around in brown paper bags, it would be an impossibility. No, while a poem may indeed have an intended audience – fellow white people who need to be made aware of their own racist behavior being as good a target as any – the poet must surely be aware that the audience that actually reads the poem will be largely mixed. The audience for poetry now is white, black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern and more, and the higher profile the poet, the wider that audience will be. Certainly, Hoagland didn’t have the stature in 2003 that he has now, but Narcissism’s publisher, Graywolf, is no slouch, and one imagines he must have known this conversation would be coming, some day.
Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe Hoagland really is as naïve about his stature as he seems. Certainly, it was eye-rolling when, in 2008, Hoagland accepted the $50,00 Jackson Poetry Prize, “which honors an American poet of exceptional talent who has published at least one book of recognized literary merit but has not yet received major national acclaim.” This, after the publication of three collections and winning the Mark Twain Poetry Prize. Certainly, he’s no Stephen King, but what exactly is the cutoff for “not yet received major national acclaim.” It seemed, at the time, a smack in the face of every deserving emerging poet in the country.
But perhaps it’s this seeming lack of self-awareness that’s the crux of the problem. Perhaps, as Rankine says, if he had taken the discussion one step further on the face of it, and expressed a willingness to openly discuss the poem and its perception, most of this outrage would have blown over. One can understand poets not wanting to critique or discuss their own work – it’s an ugly, painful process – but at a certain point, that ugly, painful process is a price of stature. Hoagland, for all of his faults and strengths as a writer – and The Change really is an awful poem, not befitting of the scrutiny it’s gotten, just as Narcissism is, for the most part, a good book worthy of the praise its received – has come to the point where he can no longer remain inside the bubble of his own work and fame. This is not the 1980s, where poetry remained in an odd, isolated world disconnected from the push-and-pull of reality. No, this is the 21st century, and the world is now at the poet’s door. To ignore that is to force the poets’ work back into isolation, to disavow the art form’s relevance, but to embrace the world, even at the cost of being criticized, is a victory, it says that poetry is a worthwhile and vital art form, that has an effect on people’s lives. And that, Mr. Hoagland, is a worthwhile change.