Frames (poetry): Tony Hoagland on empathy and alienation in America
In the second installment of our occasional Frames series — which turns to the world of poetry and art to explore the human elements at the heart of change — we feature a poem by Tony Hoagland, one of the most acclaimed contemporary poets, who writes poetry that fuses the confessional with social commentary. Hoagland makes powerful use of the first and second person to create intimate moments in which the reader must empathize with a situation that is unfamiliar.
“America,” (printed here at the Poetry Foundation) from his 2003 collection, What Narcissism Means to Me, offers a scene between teacher and student in which each party, over-stimulated by modern life, expresses a deep sense of confusion. Listen for Hoagland’s repetition of “sleeping” — Do we often ignore the suffering around us because we are overwhelmed? Hoagland writes:
“And I look at the student with his acne and cell phone and phony ghetto clothes
And I think, ‘I am asleep in America too,
And I don’t know how to wake myself either,’
And I remember what Marx said near the end of his life:
‘I was listening to the cries of the past,
When I should have been listening to the cries of the future.’
But how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable
Or what kind of nightmare it might be
When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you
And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river
Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters
And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher?”
Is the empathy revealed by the teacher for his student — the force that awakens us — and calls us to action? And as Hoagland suggests, do we all add to this enveloping noise?
Do we do so at this very moment — with the blog post you are reading?