two more cents on The Change
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 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,
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,
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)
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...