Writers are like beloved restaurants in another town: Even if you haven’t been able to visit in a while, you selfishly expect them to keep chugging, all because you might stop in one day, expecting to find things exactly as they were. I’m awaiting a daughter, my first child, in December. I’ve been writing letters to her, probably as a way of cheating myself into some sanity about what’s happening in this country, though I console myself by pretending there’s valuable advice in there. In a recent letter, I wanted to tell her about what poems can do, for I think they can sometimes do more than even the long-form writing I practice, a knife stroke where I have to content myself with a chisel.
I wrote her about Sharon Olds’ “Feared Drowned,” which is about the way tragedy, even when dodged, changes us until we’ve managed to forget its possibility again. (“Once you lose someone it is never exactly/the same person who comes back.”) I wrote her about Gary Soto’s “Oranges,” which is about first love. I was about to finish by writing her about Tony Hoagland’s “Lucky.” I pulled it up on poets.org. I had opened that page so many times that I remembered the font, and the byline under the title: “Tony Hoagland, 1953.” Except that now, it said: “1953-2018.” Tony Hoagland died of pancreatic cancer on October 24.
“Lucky” is about what we might feel if we were honest about what we really think of family — if we were ready to go past duty, and platitude, until we’ve gone so far we’re ready for duty once again: “If you are lucky in this life,/you will get to help your enemy/the way I got to help my mother/when she was weakened past the point of saying no.” I encountered the poem as a younger man trying to reconcile the debt of duty I was expected to discharge toward my elder — by my culture, and by those elders — with the fact that my feelings were a bit more complicated than that, though, best I could tally it, I loved them dearly all the same. The first person who understood what I was feeling was a person who never heard me say a word about it. Tony Hoagland published the poem in 1998, right around the time I was starting to try to figure this out. It was as if the poem had been written for me. Its recognition and insight were so generous — it had so much to give — that I imagined it could sustain even the selfishness of me imagining it existed for me alone in the world. Certainly, it made me feel less alone in that world, a special paradox. Across 20 years, I re-read and listened to it a hundred times, and pressed it on dozens of people.
The poet and novelist Brad Leithauser once wrote about “the book of your life,” which “inspires so close a kinship that questions of evaluation become a niggling irrelevance… Greater novels were to be found… but what does greatness signify once you have met the book that was made for you?” “Lucky” was among the poems of my life. There were better, perhaps, but not for me. And what made the better ones better, anyway? I remember mentioning my adoration of “Lucky” to a poet in an august setting, a writers’ residency or a university writing department, and this person saying, “Oh, sure,” as if I’d told her I liked puppies on my greeting cards. The reason, best I could tell, was because, in Tony Hoagland’s poems, you could understand what the man was saying. (Jim Harrison, another poet of my life, had some choice lines about this in “Poetry Now,” one of the last poems he wrote before he died in 2016.)
News of a poet’s death may have passed quietly even without the apoplectic blare of our present politics. Writing isn’t what it used to be to people. Who knows what it means to a affect a culture, let alone change it, anymore. Donald Trump has done both, but nothing I’d ever be proud to tell my daughter about. Though I learned of it by accident, Tony Hoagland’s death is passing loudly for me. Shortly before he died, he published an essay in a magazine called the Sun, “The Cure For Racism Is Cancer.” It was characteristic in its wry eloquence, its use of the quotidian to speak to the great, its talk across registers: “America, that old problem of yours? Racism? I have a cure for it: Get cancer… You must lie on the gurney and be wheeled down miles of corridor under a sheet, staring up at the perforated-tile ceiling and the fluorescent lights, not knowing quite where you are… This strange country of cancer, it turns out, is the true democracy.”
Did someone sit for Tony Hoagland as the narrator of “Lucky” sat for his mother? I’m certain. Did she write a poem about it? I really hope she did.