On Poetry

Poetry as argument: A poem by Tony Hoagland

A poem by Tony Hoagland provides an opportunity to consider how an argument can be crafted into a poetic form and how the poetic form can convey a proposition

By Henry M. Seiden, PhD, ABPP

I Have News for You

There are people who do not see a broken playground swing as a symbol of ruined childhood

and there are people who don't interpret the behavior of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process.

There are people who don't walk past an empty swimming pool and think about past pleasures unrecoverable

and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians. I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings

do not send their sinuous feeder roots deep into the potting soil of others' emotional lives

as if they were greedy six-year-olds sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw;

and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without debating the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality.

Do you see that creamy lemon-yellow moon? There are some people, unlike me and you,

who do not yearn after fame or love or quantities of money as unattainable as that moon; thus, they do not later have to waste more time defaming the object of their former ardor.

Or consequently run and crucify themselves in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha.

I have news for you—there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in and let it touch them all over their faces and their bodies.

It is not always obvious that a poem is a kind of argument. For example, it might be an argument of persuasion, as in “How do I love thee / Let me count the ways” or an argument in praise—in praise of the king, for example (which is how poet laureates got their jobs), or in praise of God or of life itself. Often the argument is for a political or moral or theological point of view, as in “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” And with increasing frequency in contemporary writing, the argument might be epistemological, that is, about what is real and how we know what we know.

Most important, whether obvious or buried, the argument in a good poem must point to a truth, be it an acutely observed reality or an emotional truth. The reader takes pleasure in being persuaded of that truth—surprisingly, skillfully, or entertainingly.

The parallels with our own art—the art of psychotherapy—are apparent. In our work, it could be argued, there is a very large argument going on, something on the order of, “Here is how you have always seen the world; but here is a way you might see it more profitably or more comfortably or more sanely.”

The parallels with poetic argument extend even to the use of language. The therapist’s words (or withholding of words) are of value only as they move the argument along, not because the language is impressive or inspirational. We know that plain words usually work better than fancy ones. This is so in either art. It’s not poetic diction that makes a poem beautiful. Indeed, in the contemporary aesthetic, overly “poetic” utterance is seen as a kind of lily-gilding. We want simple words to point us to deep truth.

Here’s an example from contemporary poet Tony Hoagland. Vivid but frankly unpoetic images lead us into and through a kind of cranky argument—and, surprisingly, into the experience of a lovely truth.

Despite the unpleasant contemporary images (the broken swings, empty swimming pools, flies in motel rooms, greedy 6-year-olds) and the complaining, world weary, and conversational tone, Hoagland’s poem has a hidden classical form—there’s a sonnet buried in it. And the sonnet form is argument.

A word of background: the structure of the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, from which the English or Shakespearean derives, is in structure a 14-line argument. The opening octave (actually two quatrains) states the “proposition” or “problem”; this is followed by a six-line sestet that proposes a resolution. The ninth line, the “volta,” signals the turn from proposition to resolution—and communicates a promise of proof, or at least of illumination.

Although there are no 14 lines in Hoagland’s poem and no iambic pentameter, the discourse has the deep structure if not the literal form of a sonnet. There is the statement of a problem (what most people do) and a resolution (what some people manage to do). And there is a volta: “I have news for you.”

The problem is all too familiar. Some people may by habit look away from the immediacy of experience in their search for meaning. Or they may impose preconceived politically or theoretically correct notions or prefabricated symbol systems on their experience, or allow their thinking to be guided by extraneous ambitions. For most of us, the poet says, our thought process takes us away from our experience and not into it.

Of course, the “I” of the poem is on both sides of the argument here. He accuses himself of looking away from sweet, simple experience and at the same time urges all of us to move toward it. There is an honesty in this. We know that the nature of psychological argument is complicated—and that just who the parties to it are is never entirely clear. Self and other? Aspects of self? In psychoanalytic conversation: analyst and patient? Often analyst and patient are on the same side in an argument with an unknown other. And often, of course, that other is an internalized imago rooted in the patient’s history. Perhaps it is here that poetic argument—and good psychoanalytic argument—diverge from the classical and rhetorical: we expect no final proof, only an openness in which an ongoing argument can take place freely.

The view Hoagland urges on us, of course, is not a new. “I Have News for You” reminds me of a short poem of Walt Whitman’s that makes the same argument. The poem is called “A Clear Midnight.

A Clear Midnight

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless, Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done, Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best, Night, sleep, death and the stars.

Ah, says Hoagland, echoing Whitman, there are people who just “open a window and let a sweet breeze in.” For most of us this will be good and corrective counsel—in our consulting rooms and, indeed, in any room.

“I Have News for You” can be found in Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (2010), Greywolf Press. Reprinted by permission.

Tony Hoagland teaches at the University of Houston and at Warren Wilson College. Psychoanalysts will find one of his book titles particularly amusing: What Narcissism Means to Me. Learn more about him and other poems.