Forbes and Fifth

Catechism for Junior Year; To Whom It May Concern; Social Life

Cathecism for Junior Year

after Tony Hoagland

At the pond one evening, you said,
     “Dreaming is easier than living,”
and when we walked home, you thought,
     “If you were a character in one of my books,
you would know how to love me.”

Remember when we found that fortune on the ground?
     It read, “Everyone has the right to choose one’s own lifestyle.”
Remember when you told Allison to
     “stop crying because everyone dies eventually?”

On Wednesday you said, “I never do what I want,”
and on Thursday you said, “I’m going to Target tomorrow.”

And you went out in the storm,
and screamed, “This is what I want to do!”

But when the lady with the overstuffed grocery bags
decided that everyone needed to see what she’d bought,
you missed your bus to pick up a rolling can of soup.

This is how it happens: 2 + 2 = 5
     one minute you decide this is how it is
     and this how it will always be
           until one of us changes

But once you swore, “I know what I want, and it isn’t you.”
Once you wrote in your journal,
     “The leaves are changing colors, again.”

To Whom It May Concern 

            Recently, I have been falling
asleep on the bus.
            Okay, that’s a lie; it’s more
like I’ve been pretending
to die.

            I press my knees against my chest
and wonder what to do with my head.
Cut it

off and on needs reappear.
            My mind fell down
an elevator shaft, one leg
left at work, a palm
lost in my room,
an ear in Cathy, and half
of my heart at the bus

Social Life

"Tony Hoagland is a pompous ass. His purpose in writing What Narcissism Means to Me was to have fun offending people, then to fool his readers into believing that his writing actually has a message.” When I first heard this opinion from one of my classmates and saw the agreeing nods following this statement, I didn’t understand.

Why were so many people put off by Tony Hoagland’s poems? Sure, he conveys the desire to turn made-to-be-flawless people into a shooting gallery, expresses the white man’s fear of black people, and constantly blows the bullshit whistle on people’s behavior, but I was never offended. To be honest, I often found myself laughing at his most obnoxious lines, approving his criticism. Why? How could I be so cruel?

Partly, because I did not feel that his criticism was directed towards me, an African American woman. In the first section of What Narcissism Means to Me, “America,” Hoagland’s poems are witty, clever, cynical, and sarcastic, but I did not feel directly spoken to by the speaker until “Social Life,” the poem that begins (and names) the second of the book’s four sections. 

In “America,” Hoagland establishes a distinct speaker. He is portrayed as white, average, and very judgmental. The mediocrity of the narrator is established in the first poem, “Commercial for a Summer Night,” as Hoagland describes a pretty normal scene of people watching TV: “We were drinking beer with the sound off / watching the figures on the screen” (5). In “The Change,” a poem where a white man speaks about a black woman, the negative characteristics of the speaker are unavoidable. The speaker and his girlfriend walk by a television set when they see a black American tennis player playing against a white European. They are soon personally invested in the competition:

     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 (12)

I know some people who read this poem would assume that, as an African American, I would be offended by Hoagland’s words, especially at the speaker’s earlier explicit contempt for the African American woman: 

     some tough little European blonde
     pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
     cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
     some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—

But it didn’t bother me. Not only was I proud that the white speaker found my race intimidating, but his obnoxious behavior reflected poorly on his own identity, not mine. I believe Hoagland was commenting on this behavior. I have also been raised to believe that white people talk about black people and vice versa, so the words didn’t sting, especially since Hoagland had already built up a character that was equally, if not more, critical of white people.

Throughout the book, the character’s voice is consistent. His dry humor in “America” is entertaining and perceptive, but it is hard for me to get defensive when I do not feel targeted. However, with the entrance of “Social Life” came a personal connection. No matter the culture, there is always social life, a way to interact with the people around you, and there is always someone on the outskirts, wanting to be somewhere else, judging the people around them. Hoagland starts his depiction of social life with a party scene: 

     After the first party peters out,
     like the gradual showdown of a merry-go-round
                 another party begins
and the survivors of the first party
climb onto the second one
                 and start it up again.

Behind me now my friend Richard
Is getting a fresh drink; Ann, in her black dress,
is fanning her breasts; Cynthia is prancing
from group to group,
                             making kissy-face— (25)

There is very little emotion or feeling tied to his words. There is a simple description of the scene and a lack of imagery. However, when Hoagland decides to use imagery to describe the party, he uses juvenile concepts like “kissy-face” and a comparison to a merry-go-round. The last lines of the two stanzas including the merry-go-round simile also rhyme, giving these stanzas a nursery rhyme feel (another party begins/...and start up again). What does his word choice tell us about the speaker’s perception of humans, and what does it say about his relationship to others? 

The relationship between the speaker and the rest of his kind is given a clearer shape in the following stanzas:

     It is not given to me to understand
     the social pleasures of my species, but I think
     what they get from these affairs
     is what bees get from flowers—a nudging of the stamen,

     whereas I prefer the feeling of going away, going away,
     stretching out my distance from the voices and the lights
     until the tether breaks and I

     am in the wild sweet dark
     where the sea breeze sizzles in the hedgetop, (25) 

The speaker indicates that he is a part of the human race with the words “my species,” but he also expresses that he does not receive pleasure in the same way as those around him. He differentiates himself from other humans referring to his species as “they” later on. The speaker even compares the partiers to bees pollenating, as if to imply that he can only understand people if they are put into the terms of nature. What does this person think he is? A willow tree, perhaps. The speaker’s arrogance is clear; however, does he hate people, or is his disdain only aimed towards their social activities, his preference being an escape to nature?

The lines that follow “where the sea breeze sizzles in the hedgetop” (25) may provide us with clues as to what species the speaker really identifies with:

     and the big weed heads, whose names I never learned,
     lift and nod upon their stalks.

     What I like about the trees is how
     they do not talk about the failure of their parents
     and what I like about the grasses is that
     they are not grasses in recovery 

     and what I like about the flowers is
     that they are not flowers in need of
     empowerment or validation. They sway
     upon their thorny stems
     as if whatever was about to happen next tonight
     was sure to be completely interesting—

     the moon rising like an ivory tusk,
     a few sextillion molecules of skunk
     strolling through the air
     to mingle with the aura of a honeysuckle bush,

     and when they bump together in my nose,
     I want to raise my head and sing,
     I’m a child in paradise again
     When you touch me like that, baby,

The first thing that the reader notices about the section discussing the speaker’s interaction with nature is that it is almost two times longer than his mentions of humans. The next thing the reader is sure to notice is that the speaker’s voice has become more passionate, adding more imagery in his language. In the early section describing the party, Hoagland merely lists people and actions at the party: “Richard / is getting a fresh drink” and “Cynthia is prancing / from group to group” (25). He also discards the party as “voices” and “lights” as he drifts farther away from the party scene. Contrastingly, Hoagland describes a very intimate outlook on nature. Comparing the moon to an “ivory tusk,” a luxurious and coveted resource, shows that the speaker places great value in the moon (26). He is even attracted to the smell of the skunk, describing it, unobtrusively, as “strolling through the air” (26). He details his complex understanding of nature not just by bringing the sense of smell into the poem but also by allowing the audience to visualize the “sextillion molecules” of the scent (26). He also seems to envy the simple attributes of nature, personifying its characteristics: “they do not talk about the failure of their parents /and what I like about the grasses is that they are not grasses in recovery” (26). We see how much the narrator appreciates nature, but do we believe that he is able to have an authentic relationship with it?

I don’t, and I don’t think the speaker does either. He exaggerates his experiences much like the narrator of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”:

     Then took the other, as just as fair,
     And having perhaps the better claim,
     Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
     Though as for that the passing there
     Had worn them really about the same, (Frost 6-10)

The roads are not unevenly taken, though the speaker claims he “took the one less traveled by” (24), and the narrator of “Social Life” does not have a complete relationship with nature. This information is given to us in two parts of the poem. The first hint is given in the first line of the eighth stanza: “and the big weed heads, whose names I never learned” (Hoagland 25). If thou art in an intimate relationship with me, I would hope that thou would at least care to learn my name! The next clue is even more suspicious—the odd, imaginary dialogue between nature and the speaker:

     and when they bump together in my nose,
     I want to raise my head and sing,
     I’m a child in paradise again
     When you touch me like that, baby
, (26)

He wants to raise his head and sing, but he doesn’t. What stops him? Also, the nature’s scents “bump” in his nose. Why does Hoagland choose such an aggressive word over a more soothing term, like “mingle”? Even if the speaker were to start a conversation with nature, he would approach it in such a strange way. Is the speaker “a child in paradise” or nature’s lover? It seems that the speaker does not know the way in which he would like to experience nature most. Clearly, a relationship is not already developed. It seems as if our narrator has welcomed himself to a party he was not invited to, and yet our speaker admits that he does not leave: 

     but instead, I stand still and listen
     to the breeze streaming through the upper story of a tree
     and the hum of insects in the field,
     letting everything else have a word,

     and then another word—
     because silence is always good manners
     and often a clever thing to say
     when you are at a party (26)

Like most of Hoagland’s poems, the last stanzas of this poem affirm an extra layer of complexity that has been incorporated throughout. At the beginning of this excerpt, the speaker is still in communion with nature. However, as we read on to the last stanza we find ourselves back at a party. There are a few ways to look at this.

Perhaps the speaker was referring to his interaction with nature as a party. If nature is what gives the speaker pleasure, could he be equating this time to the parties that his friends attend? It is quite possible. Or is it possible that the last line of the poem refers to the party at the beginning of the poem, and Hoagland is using the line to make a comment on the speaker’s relationship with humans and/or his thoughts on their social life? Maybe the speaker’s silence at a party allows him to conjure up the beauty of nature, at the same time, allowing him to look down upon the trivial activities of partiers? Whether the reader believes that the last stanza refers to a human party or a party with nature, one thing is clear the speaker is out of place at both and is unable to do anything except “stand still and listen” (26).

This social disconnect is more relevant to me than the other issues initially seen in “America”. I don’t have to be White to imagine myself uninterested at a party; it happens, parties can be quite uninteresting. If “Social Life” wasn’t included, this would just be a book about what white Americans do. Therefore, I believe the addition of “Social Life” allows more people to identify with the speaker of the book and allows Hoagland to criticize a larger group of people. However, does Hoagland care about the amount of people that are able to connect to his book or the amount of people he offends?

What was Hoagland’s purpose behind What Narcissism Means to Me? The answer is in the title. Obviously, the book is about the author, but it’s also directed towards the reader. (Why else would one publish a book?) The question is rather, why do so many of Hoagland’s readers get offended? A large portion of reactions from the audience can be attributed to difficulty separating the writer from the speaker. In works of poetry, assuming that the writer and the speaker are the same is easy to do, but in projects like What Narcissism Means to Me, readers need to be prepared to look at the choices the writer makes regarding the speaker’s voice, and how these choices affect the overall project.


Frost, Robert. "The Road Not Taken." The Norton Anthony of Modern Poetry. Eds. Richard Ellman and Robert O'Clair. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988. 247.

Hoagland, Tony. What Narcissism Means to Me. Saint Paul, Minn.: Graywolf, 2003. Print.

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Editor's Edition, 2014