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March 04, 2011


Hi Jennifer,
I've followed a number of discussions on the Hoagland- Rankine issue, including your posts here about the poem itself. I, too, have held off, though reading this latest post is enough to make me comment.

There were a number of interesting issues in what happened during the AWP panel in which one highly-regarded poet wrote a critical response to a provocative poem by another highly-regarded poet. Questions about the privacy of correspondence, the appropriateness of the steps Rankine followed in bringing this issue to her peers, Hoagland's reported "this poem is for white people" response to Rankine's question about his intended audience-- all of these are meaty issues I could roll around in all the live-long day.
So are questions of the relative usefulness of varying critical lenses which might be used in examining the poem in question. Laura McCullough has probably spent hours on both Facebook and Contrary Magazine trying to move the conversation forward in this way.

I think your writing style is breathtaking and you clearly know history, but I don't believe you're moving the argument along by focusing on racism per se. Racism stinks. Every thinking person knows it; every sentient person, regardless of her own race, understands how it diminishes all of us.

The poem is what's in question. It features a speaker (of unclear gender; half my students thought the speaker was female) and the speaker's friend. The speaker rooted for the thin-lipped Eastern European blonde (ouch!) and appears to be both awed and intimidated by the Vondella Aphrodite character. There is talk of change all through the poem. This is a poem of a time and a place. A great discussion can be had about the speaker's racial biases and the tone of the poem in general.

But I'd argue that by using this poem to make any inferences about the poet is time wasted at the least, and beneath us at the most. This sentence is what I'm talking about:
"For a white American man to watch a tennis match between a pale European woman and an dark American woman and bemoan the strength of the American is sad."

I'd also argue that not one of us has any more credibility than the other when it comes to racism. And this includes education.

Last, I appreciate your bringing Irish and Irish-American history into the discussion. I'm the product of an Irish Catholic great grandfather and an Irish Protestant great grandmother. The two sides of the family didn't speak. When I go to visit my ancestors' graves, I go to separate cemeteries on opposite ends of New Haven. Upon marrying my grandfather, my grandmother gladly left her maiden name, and all the connotations of an Irish surname, behind. These stories were painful to hear, but they're my history and I think I'd be a little less empathetic if I never knew them. It's why I took my grandmother's maiden name, McGrath, for my own. It's why Hoagland's poem is being so widely discussed. There is reason to remember not such the facts but the feelings around racism.

Hi Leslie,

Thanks for your response. Maybe you think when I say that that I am saying he shouldn't be allowed to write that poem or publish it.
But I'm not. It's just that if he does write it and publish it, it
calls for this response from me. I wish no one wanted to publish it. I wouldn't publish it. But if it is there, it sits there as a mean wound
for some of the people that read it, many even, and I feel a
responsibility to tend that wound when I hear someone say "ow," right in my own home genre, so to speak. I am answering the wounded and also the speaker of the poem, who I see as wounded in another way and to whom I hope to be of assistance.

The most offensive thing in poetry is dishonesty. When Hoagland admits that he is rooting for the pale tennis player because she is of his tribe--basically verifying that he experiences a racist impulse--that seems extraordinarily honest to me. I don't see how that in itself can be offensive.

However, he uses insensitive terms to describe the girl from Alabama. If something in a poem is aesthetically offensive to its audience, then the audience is right and the poem is wrong. Finally, the audience chooses the poems that it likes. If a poet refuses to conform to his audience then he looses the audience.

Ms.Hecht, you have pretty much hit the proverbial nail upon it's aching head. To lament for times long past is the sign of a mind seduced by prejudice and privilege. Ironically, as a poet of color (whatever that really means) I am criticized for putting my humanity first and this is seen by some in the Latino and American Black community as sacrilege. In short, I see the same useless tribalism as you did in that troglodyte's poem. I hope we all one day realize that we are all human...

I've learned something from each of these responses and I want to thank you all deeply for taking the time to write on this difficult and fascinating subject. I'm still giving thought to what each of you said and it is helping me to understand things I very much want to understand better. Thanks again.


Hi, Jennifer. Thank you for telling me about your post. It caused me to finish my thoughts because, as I said in my original post, I had not written fully what I thought yet. I'm only posting in part here what came to mind as I read your commentary tonight because I don't like to leave essays on other people's blogs. :-) However, I do have a link to the rest of my commentary below the following introduction.

---- If Tony Hoagland chooses to elevate the voice of those in white America who fear the kind of change that makes the U.S.A. a nation struggling to live up to its ideals, if he wants to echo the hysteria of some white people who lament little losses of their great power over people of color and a passing away of ideologies that equate "only-white culture" with "American culture" (and we learn from another of his poems, "Food Court," discussed on another blog that "The Change" is not the only poem he's written that echoes this fear or concern), then I gladly leave him to his own devices. One published poem on this topic is a comment; more than one is a timbre of his authentic voice emerging. But do we need his poem to hear this kind of American voice?

To be clear, I don't think that's really what Hoagland wanted to do with the poem. I think ... more ... ---

I think it's an awful verse on many levels. But although I think the poem perpetuates racism rather than exploring or criticizing it, it is not the poem itself that gives me pause about Hoagland. It's his dismissive reaction to Rankine's response. At the very least, he should have asked himself some hard questions about what he wrote. Isn't that what each of should do about anything we write? And on this subject, which is so fraught, that should be particularly true. I am disturbed by the impulses behind the poem, disturbed that it was published, but amazed that Rankine's criticism didn't cause Hoagland to challenge himself. That's what tells me a great deal about him personally. And the remarkable statement, "This poem is for white people." Huh? Since when does one write serious poetry just for one set of people? In any case, I think this piece cuts through the dross and makes an important statement about race, and I'm grateful for it.

If you are talking about the Williams sisters I do have to say that they aren't enjoyable to watch. They just whack the heck out of it. I do miss Martina Hingis' style of play where there was more footwork, more dropshots, and more nuance to the game. It has little to do with race. It's just that it is boring to watch two women in a back-n-forth slugfest.

It's not "beneath" us to consider the poet and racism, the poem and racism, or racism in and of itself. (Addressed to Leslie.) Blithely said that racism stinks. No kidding. But it prevails and I don't know how you separate fact and feeling when both are real and in this case connected. My father's side of the family had its feuds (as you mention your, also white, relatives) but they were nothing --NOTHING-- compared to the rancor of hate via racism. We stopped using the term somewhere along the line, but institutionalized racism is very real and very alive and why a car with my great-nephew in it gets stopped by the L.A.P.D. and not a car with me alone. Racism is well alive in the poetry "community." I go to reading after reading at local NEW YORK CITY institutions and the room is all white, or 99 percent so. It sucks. It's ugly. But we move forward, we do. I stay in the open mic community because it's not separatist.

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