Tony Hoagland, a poet who writes well about sex, jazz, and modern materialism, among other social and cultural topics, created what passed as a stir in the wide world of poetry in April 2013 with his Harper’s magazine piece “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America: Imagining a Renewed Role for Poetry in the National Discourse — and a New Canon.” In it, he argues that contemporary poetry, the poetry of our lifetimes, is the poetry we should be reading and teaching. The 20 poems he cites support his arguments for the psycho-social benefits America could get from a true love of poetry. Each of Hoagland’s subtitles — “Poetry Teaches the Ethical Nature of Choice,” “Poetry Stimulates Daring,” and “Poems Defuse Sexual Anxiety and Acknowledge the Naturalness of Curiosity” — is accompanied by his meditation on a single poem. In the “sexual anxiety” section, it’s Sharon Olds’ beautifully frank “Topography.” Hoagland recalls how one-time U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky suggested that “American poetry would be a warmer, more inviting place if it included more sex, humor, and violence.” Hoagland is tut-tutted in the comments section for tossing aside the classics — which he doesn’t — but is mostly congratulated for wanting to make poetry more central to education and more relevant to the American public.
“I’m a believer in the integration of poetry and American culture,” Hoagland said to Pasatiempo. “I would really like to try to do what I can to reestablish its vitality in relationship to the culture in general, popular culture, continuing culture.” The poems he integrates into his manifesto come from William Stafford, Linda Gregg, Louis Simpson, Mary Oliver, and a Native American poet who goes by the name Speaks-Fluently. There’s also one from Walt Whitman. “It’s an accident of history that poetry fell out as a popular art form,” Hoagland said. “American poetry is an incredible fiesta of daring and visibility and laughs. There’s a reason everybody should know a lot of poems and not be intimidated by them. I feel that the humanism, the permission to be yourself, the kinds of combinations of self-knowledge, and the practice of introspection poetry contains — all these things integrate directly with the culture. Poetry has the medicine for the appalling degradation in American culture and the soul sickness it creates.”
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