Not only am I thoroughly enjoying his poems, but he also has great book about poems called “Real sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft” which is stretching my tethered insights. Tony has given me permission to share a 2-page chapter from his book which I find delightfully insightful and stated with poetic clarity.
Comment suggestion: After reading Hoagland’s short chapter below, please share with us your obsession(s) and how you have used them or how they have used you.
Obsession: “Are you still writing about your father”
by Tony Hoagland
A real diehard, indestructible, irresolvable obsession in a poet is nothing less than a blessing. The poet with an obsession never has to search for subject matter. It is always right there, welling up like an Artesian spring on a piece of property with bad drainage. It is a pressing subject that subjectively expresses; it will infiltrate the innocent description of a cloud and inveigle its way into the memory of a distant city. Emily Dickinson’s critics say that death was her “flood subject,” the theme that electrified her language whenever she approached it. A poet without a true obsession, a foundational fracture, a mythic wound, may have too much time to think. The poet without a compelling, half-conscious story of the world may not have a heat source catalytic enough to channel into the work of a lifetime.
The danger of obsession, of course, is the potential for redundancy: immobility, stagnation, narrowness of aperture, confinement, paralysis, arrested development. Neurotic recitation can be boring. The talent of Poet Z may be tethered to lascivious narratives of twenty-something erotic encounters–but can she write them for forty years? Won’t the subject of choice eventually come to seem like watching colorized TV reruns? However, we should be cautious in judging the possessed writer. To say Poet Z is fixated makes it sound like a petulant and willful choice; better to say she is crucified. A well-known American fiction writer discovered his first full power in writing two novels about his Vietnam War experience. Despite earnest and ambitious attempts at a different subject matter, he has been unable to transplant that infusion of genius to another subject. His subject matter owns him. “And ghosts must do again / What gives them pain,” says W.H. Auden.
Still, those without a primary force to drive and aid them, like a spirit guide, or a revenant, have reason to look with envy upon the blessed. Passion is the greatest gift a poet can have, and nobody is mildly obsessed. Violence of feeling can compensate for many other weaknesses in a writer. Stanley Kunitz advises young poets to polarize their contradictions, which we might translate to mean, “cultivate your obsession.” Rather than therapeutically resolve it, try to make a full relationship with it.
In the work of a good poet, it is usually possible to discern one or two characteristic emotional zones in which he thrives: melancholy, rage, pity, vengeful rationality, seduction. A mature poet may not know how to command obsession, but understands how to transfuse material into it and then to surrender. The obsessed psyche knows unerringly where to go, like a Geiger counter to uranium, or a dog to his mater’s grave. Lucky dog, to have a master.