Tony Hoagland on revision


I’m always deeply concerned with clarity, smoothness, and full range of sensibility and style—a full manifestation of voice. I place a high value on continuity, the way the poem flows. Even when the poetic voice is mercurial, I want the tone changes of a poem, as well as the plot, to provide a good ride for the reader. The magic of a good poem is that rollercoaster effect. This is why it’s valuable to make good, athletic sentences. In poetry, they function as manifestations of the fluency of human consciousness.


When you’ve thought through an issue one hundred times, you know that terrain pretty well, perhaps too well. I used to say that wisdom poetry was bullshit, but at the same time we all believe that poetry is capable of showcasing wisdom. Stanley Kunitz writes, “I have made a tribe of my affections, and my tribe is scattered.” That’s a pretty memorable formulation of human experience. I also think all “wise” poems should have a small disclaimer inside them, a footnote that in essence states, “And by the way, I’m a fool.”


I’m trying to write things that are ambitious in how much experience they can gather into them while still feeling like they offer cohesiveness. At the same time, I’m trying to look at the poem as a quadratic equation, so that it has room to breathe and work while still maintaining simplicity. Poetry has a freshness and spirituality that can never be counterfeit or tarnished, and in working on these poems I’m trying to remind myself of that.


Personally, I feel in no danger of overconfidence or smugness. Experience can be counted on to administer regular doses of deflation and humility. Nobody knows what a poem is, anyway, and therefore the challenge of writing one is always difficult—impossible—enough to remind you what a hacker you are. It’s true, some poets achieve a kind of technical “competence” which allows them to fire off poem after poem, but the best poets are disconsolate, searching, and restless. The human predicament—to be splintered off from creation—is insistently demanding new kinds of effort and inquiry.