What Narcissism Means to Me, by Tony Hoagland

Many of these poems start with conversations with particular people (“Sylvia said . . .”; “Joe says . . .”) which made the poems appear glib at first. Casual conversations seemed to me unlikely material for poetry. But then I came to appreciate the solid base that the exchanges provided for his reflections.

In Zadie Smith’s On Beauty the poetry professor sighs because her students and her public are less interested in her current poems about trees and water and mountains than in the wildly successful poems of her youth that were about emotional—usually sexual—encounters. Now, me, I love poems like those by Mary Oliver and Louise Gluck that start with a bear or a forest flower and then take me to some unexpected and true insight.

Poems that I like best are those that come from some wrenchingly honest place and, being the kind of person I am, it is hard for me to imagine getting to that place in a social situation such as a barbecue or a conversation about a blues song. Yet Hoagland in “Two Trains” turns that conversation on its head several times before bringing it to exactly that place. I don’t even want to quote it because, without the buildup, the images won’t have the full resonance.

Another poem I liked a lot was “Man Carrying Sofa”. It gets to the heart of Hoagland's conversational, seemingly casual style where it describes “this ordinary life of ours” and the depth and complexity behind it. He talks about his resistance to the passing of time: “It’s January and I’m still dating my checks November.” After telling a friend he is sad, ” . . . I discovered / I really was miserable / —which made me feel better about myself— / because, after all, I don’t want to go through time untouched.”

With these lines, Hoagland has brought to light a great, unacknowledged need: to be marked by time, so that you can feel that you have actually lived. An authentic life requires scars as proof. He has helped me understand something that has puzzled me: why some people magnify even the tiniest of tragedies—a dead battery, a spilled coffee—into great drama, with themselves as the poor, put-upon victim. I thought it was just wanting to be the center of attention. I couldn’t believe they had ever suffered a real loss.

For me, the legacy of great pain has been to make all other setbacks and sadnesses merely trivial. As Garrison Keillor said in a wonderful monologue about a boy and his horse (I’m quoting from memory here): “I know what bad is, and this isn’t it.”

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