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Self-Improvement -- Tony Hoagland

Guest poem sent in by Sashidhar Dandamudi
(Poem #1236) Self-Improvement
 Just before she flew off like a swan
 to her wealthy parents' summer home,
 Bruce's college girlfriend asked him
 to improve his expertise at oral sex,
 and offered him some technical advice:

 Use nothing but his tonguetip
 to flick the light switch in his room
 on and off a hundred times a day
 until he grew fluent at the nuances
 of force and latitude.

 Imagine him at practice every evening,
 more inspired than he ever was at algebra,
 beads of sweat sprouting on his brow,
 thinking, thirty-seven, thirty-eight,
 seeing, in the tunnel vision of his mind's eye,
 the quadratic equation of her climax
 yield to the logic
 of his simple math.

 Maybe he unscrewed
 the bulb from his apartment ceiling
 so that passersby would not believe
 a giant firefly was pulsing
 its electric abdomen in 13 B.

 Maybe, as he stood
 two inches from the wall,
 in darkness, fogging the old plaster
 with his breath, he visualized the future
 as a mansion standing on the shore
 that he was rowing to
 with his tongue's exhausted oar.

 Of course, the girlfriend dumped him:
 met someone, apres-ski, who,
 using nothing but his nose
 could identify the vintage of a Cabernet.

 Sometimes we are asked
 to get good at something we have
 no talent for,
 or we excel at something we will never
 have the opportunity to prove.

 Often we ask ourselves
 to make absolute sense
 out of what just happens,
 and in this way, what we are practicing

 is suffering,
 which everybody practices,
 but strangely few of us
 grow graceful in.

 The climaxes of suffering are complex,
 costly, beautiful, but secret.
 Bruce never played the light switch again.

 So the avenues we walk down,
 full of bodies wearing faces,
 are full of hidden talent:
 enough to make pianos moan,
 sidewalks split,
 streetlights deliriously flicker.
-- Tony Hoagland
This poem is from a book of poems I was reading two nights ago, called
Donkey Gospel. And I was rolling in the aisles and speaking in tongues
when I was done as it was just a magnificient take on living (perhaps
living in America), full of humor and irony.

And Self Improvement speaks volumes of a lot of things: relationships
atleast the pathetic aspect of them, the whole self improvement creed,
hidden talents and the need for zany poetry to illumine all of these.

Run this!


Other Details:

TONY HOAGLAND's first book, Sweet Ruin, won the Brittingham Prize in
Poetry and the Zacharis Award from Ploughshares at Emerson College. Donkey
Gospel was the recipient of the 1997 James Laughlin Award of The Academy
of American Poets. Hoagland currently teaches at the University of

for a few more poems from the same book:

46 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Bhandari Vidur said...

Amusing. But hardly a poem - more like prose with a generous sprinkling of

Beth Gourley said...

This works as a poem for me--stong imagery is there, nice examples of
Thanks for the graywolfpress site--some other good excerpts from
Graywolf publications can be found there.

Alan Kornheiser said...

Such a great poem. Immediately followed the link and read the other poems.
Immediately followed THAT link and bought the book. (Actually, tried to buy
the publisher was closed on Saturday.) Went to
Amazon and bought the book. Wanted free shipping so also bought new
micro-choir version of Bach's St Matthew's Passion which was out of stock in
record store. Will probably now go to read Bach biography from large pile of
unread books. Will probably get distracted before then.

Is this a great list or what? Thanx for introducing me to Hoagland.


matt chanoff said...

Reminds me of one of the great JV Cunningham's epigrams:

Lip was a man who used his head.
He used it when he went to bed.
With his friend's wife or with his friend.
With either sex, at either end.

JV Cunningham

dmpalond said...

The poem was sent along to me as a gesture of understanding and compassion.
Through its humor another of life's paradoxes, absurdities if you will, becomes
more tolerable.

Mendacio said...

One of the finest contemporary poems I have read in years. Audacious,
lovely, memorable, startling images ("a giant firefly was pulsing its electric
abdomen in apartment 13B" "rowing with his tongue's exhausted oar") drawn from
modern urban life. Witty AND moving.

The final image: the sense of unexpressed, uncommunicated, pain and
possibility and talent and wonder in the strangers that we pass in the street, and
of that same bottled up potential in ourselves, is heartbreaking.

The poem is immediately accessible yet has depths that reward rereading.
Rich, entertaining, sly, memorable, complex.

And to the earlier critic who says this is prose, not a poem: I absolutely
disagree. Look and listen again.

Inversiones en oro said...

The poem is immediately accessible yet has depths that reward rereading.
Rich, entertaining, sly, memorable, complex.

Invertir en oro said...

good job and good poem.

Anonymous said...

This was recorded on a disc called "Poetic License; 100 Performers, 100 Poems". A 3 disc set. *Really* wonderful. Check it out.

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