English, Literature

Don’t Know Much About Poetry


Of all my shameful English teacher confessions—skipping over Shakespeare, celebrating “non-standard” grammar, and letting students curse in narrative essays (but only twice; make em’ count)—I’m most embarrassed by the fact that, honestly, I’m not that into poetry.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s the hardest genre to write (in academia, economy of words is not our strong suit). But for some reason, to me, a lot of poems sound like they’re working too hard to sound like their genre. It’s odd, but sometimes poems just sound too much like poems.

Which is why I admire Tony Hoagland. I’m not literary enough to put my finger on it, but his poems don’t sound like they’re trying to be poems—they just are.

Recently, in a conversation about the many useful words that simply don’t exist in English, I remembered this particular gem of Hoagland’s.

There Is No Word

There isn’t a word for walking out of the grocery store
with a gallon jug of milk in a plastic sack
that should have been bagged in double layers

—so that before you are even out the door
you feel the weight of the jug dragging
the bag down, stretching the thin

plastic handles longer and longer
and you know it’s only a matter of time until
bottom suddenly splits.

There is no single, unimpeachable word
for that vague sensation of something
moving away from you

as it exceeds its elastic capacity        
—which is too bad, because that is the word
I would like to use to describe standing on the street

chatting with an old friend
as the awareness grows in me that he is
no longer a friend, but only an acquaintance,

a person with whom I never made the effort—
until this moment, when as we say goodbye
I think we share a feeling of relief,  

a recognition that we have reached
the end of a pretense,   
though to tell the truth

what I already am thinking about
is my gratitude for language—
how it will stretch just so much and no farther;

how there are some holes it will not cover up;
how it will move, if not inside, then
around the circumference of almost anything—

how, over the years, it has given me
back all the hours and days, all the
plodding love and faith, all the

misunderstandings and secrets
I have willingly poured into it.

(Source: Poetry, July/August 2012).

An ode to language. No flowery metaphors. And best of all, no contrived alliteration in an attempt to sound patently poetic.

If anyone more literary than I can put a finger on Hoagland’s what makes this poem lyrical, powerful, but not too poem-y, please let me know. Similarly, if you know more like him, do send their names my way!

Regardless, enjoy the poem, and relish in those little stretchy holes in the plastic bag that is our language.

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