Tony Hoagland’s poem, The Change, (pasted at the end of this post), seems designed to shock, and while it does that, it doesn’t do much more than that. It has successfully ruffled the feathers of the contemporary poetry world and has resulted in much passionate discussion and many blog posts. Unfortunately, the discussion has been less about race and poetry, and more about the author himself. Tony Hoagland has written poems that are worth discussing in detail and thinking about, but this one ultimately is not one of them, as the language, tone, and imagery is just not up to the task of the subject matter.

Hoagland has a persona that fellow blogger, Daisy Fried, describes well in her recent post, that allows him to explore a wide range of subject matter in his work, often aiming a satirical lens at a character, (sometimes himself), and ripping in with wit. That persona has served him well, but I am not sure that his persona has the depth of feeling or introspection to pull off this poem on race. One of the main problems here is tone. I love poems that swerve between humor and seriousness, such as John Berryman’s Dream Songs, and I admire some of Hoagland’s other poems that do this, but there’s always a risk of going too far into a certain brand of humor. The “tummies” and “dummy” rhyme for me blocks the path to any meaningful social commentary.

In the ninth line, when the subject swerves, the speaker claims to be rooting for “his tribe”, but is that reflected in the language? The white tennis player gets four measly adjectives: “tough, little, pale, thin”. And then look at the language to mock the black tennis player—it’s so much more descriptive; the speaker seems to revel in it. This disparity of descriptive language reminds me of how Whitman writes about the male physique with much more detail and imagination than he does about the female physique.

Later in the poem, the metaphor about history passing “so close you can smell its breath” is potent, wonderful, disturbing, alive, appealing to the reader’s senses as well as the reader’s brain. If this metaphor was explored to a greater extent, there might be more depth and discovery.

The Change

The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.

In the park the daffodils came up

and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.


Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—


The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,

and the new president proves that he’s a dummy.


But remember the tennis match we watched that year?

Right before our eyes


some tough little European blonde

pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,

cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,

outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—


We were just walking past the lounge

and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,

and pretty soon

we started to care about who won,


putting ourselves into each whacked return

as the volleys went back and forth and back

like some contest between

the old world and the new,


and you loved her complicated hair

and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,

and I,

I couldn’t help wanting

the white girl to come out on top,

because she was one of my kind, my tribe,

with her pale eyes and thin lips


and because the black girl was so big

and so black,

so unintimidated,


hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation

down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,

like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.


There are moments when history

passes you so close

you can smell its breath,

you can reach your hand out

and touch it on its flank,


and I don’t watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,

but I could feel the end of an era there


in front of those bleachers full of people

in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes


as that black girl wore down her opponent

then kicked her ass good

then thumped her once more for good measure


and stood up on the red clay court

holding her racket over her head like a guitar.


And the little pink judge

had to climb up on a box

to put the ribbon on her neck,

still managing to smile into the camera flash,

even though everything was changing


and in fact, everything had already changed—

Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,

we were there, and when we went to put it back where it belonged,

it was past us

and we were changed.


(note: seven lines that should be indented are not due to formatting issues)


Originally Published: May 1st, 2011

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...