National News

Tony Hoagland, Poet With a Wry Outlook, Is Dead at 64

Tony Hoagland, a widely admired poet who could be both humorous and heartfelt, often in the same poem, died on Tuesday at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 64.

Posted Updated

Neil Genzlinger
, New York Times

Tony Hoagland, a widely admired poet who could be both humorous and heartfelt, often in the same poem, died on Tuesday at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 64.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his wife, writer Kathleen Lee.

In seven poetry collections, the most recent, “Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God,” published this year, Hoagland found insights and imagery in the everyday: a pool in an Austin, Texas, park; a spaghetti strap on a woman’s dress that won’t stay put; an old man dying awash in paranoia from too much Fox News.

He liked jarring juxtapositions, and he wasn’t afraid to throw pop-culture references into his poems or go for a laugh-out-loud response. One poem he read often — including on the “PBS NewsHour” in 2012 for Valentine’s Day — was “Romantic Moment” (2007), about a couple who has just watched a nature documentary:

It is just our second date, and we sit down on a rock,
holding hands, not looking at each other,
and if I were a bull penguin right now I would lean over
and vomit softly into the mouth of my beloved
and if I were a peacock I’d flex my gluteal muscles to
erect and spread the quills of my cinemax tail.

“I’m proud to be a funny poet,” Hoagland, who taught at the University of Houston, told The Houston Chronicle in 2008. “Humor in poetry is even better than beauty. If you could have it all, you would, but humor is better than beauty because it doesn’t put people to sleep. It wakes them up and relaxes them at the same time.”

But others of his poems were indeed quite beautiful, and even the funny ones were hardly inconsequential.

“He never excludes the reader,” writer Antonya Nelson, a longtime acquaintance, once said. “He’s interested in making the poem accessible and inclusive. He wants to entertain you, but none of that means his poetry is frivolous.”

Rich Levy, a poet and director of Inprint, an organization that promotes writing through workshops and readings, cited one of Hoagland’s books of essays about poetry to convey his belief that poetry should be for everybody.

“You could see this anti-elitism in his publications — witness ‘Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft,’ which by its title says, ‘Come on in, we promise not to take ourselves too seriously,'” Levy said by email. “Even though Tony loved poetry so deeply, he didn’t want his passion for it to exclude anyone who was open and ready to read and think.” Hoagland’s poems could find the pain in a broken relationship, the wonder in a blooming dogwood, or — as in these lines from “Summer in a Small Town” (2009) — the bittersweet quality in a familiar scene:

All August the Ferris wheel will turn
in the little amusement park,
and screaming teenage girls will jump into the river
with their clothes on,
right next to the No Swimming sign.
Trying to cool the heat inside the small towns
of their bodies,

for which they have no words;

obedient to the voice inside which tells them,

“Now. Steal Pleasure.”

Anthony Dey Hoagland was born on Nov. 19, 1953, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His father, Peter, was an Army surgeon who later had a private practice in Louisiana; his mother, Patricia (McMoil) Hoagland, was a homemaker. He was an Army brat, he would say, whose family moved quite a bit during his childhood. He spent time in Hawaii, Texas, Alabama, Louisiana and Ethiopia.

“You grow up expecting your circumstances to change,” he told The Chronicle in 2010. “You’re very amphibious.”

It was an upbringing, he said, that left a certain emptiness.

“My parents were disconnected from their parents,” he said in a 2006 interview with “We were middle class. There was no religion in my family. So there was an absence of ceremonial knowledge, there was an absence of inherited knowledge, there was an absence of family stories, and there was an absence of instruction.”

Poetry became something of an anchor for him.

“I got deeper and deeper into the world of poetry,” he said, “simply because it was the only thing that stayed constant in my life continuously, year after year, and then decade after decade.”

He attended Williams College in Massachusetts for a time but ultimately earned his undergraduate degree in general studies at the University of Iowa in the mid-1970s. Levy knew him back then.

“We were together as undergraduates at Iowa, in our first poetry writing class together, led by Chase Twichell,” he recalled. “And then writing workshops, with Louise Gluck and Sandra McPherson — Tony with his Peruvian shoulder bag and blond braid seemed on his way down the road toward the Beats, leaving the rest of us behind in our flannel shirts and jeans.”

In the early 1980s Hoagland received a master of fine arts degree at the University of Arizona.

His first poetry collection, “Sweet Ruin,” was published in 1992. His 2003 collection, “What Narcissism Means to Me,” was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry.

Later collections included “Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty.” Reviewing it in 2010 in The New York Times, Dwight Garner wrote of Hoagland, “His erudite comic poems are backloaded with heartache and longing, and they function, emotionally, like improvised explosive devices: The pain comes at you from the cruelest angles, on the sunniest of days.”

In addition to “Real Sofistikashun” in 2006, Hoagland published another collection on poetry and poetry writing, “Twenty Poems That Could Save America and Other Essays,” in 2014.

Those books made him something of a champion of poetry, one happy to rebut those who would say that it has lost relevance in the modern age.

“I really like the idea of being the frontman for American poetry, its glories and possibilities,” he told The Portland Press Herald in 2015. “Contemporary American poetry deserves a lot more readers.”

He thought poetry was at its best when read aloud, and he often read at poetry festivals and other events.

“A poem in the air is different than a poem on the page,” he told The Times in 2012. “A poem when you read it is getting the best attention it will have. You experience it in real time.”

In addition to Lee, Hoagland is survived by a brother, Christopher. His most recent collection includes a poem called “A Walk Around the Property.” It ends with these lines:

The moon shines down from the black November sky.
The tide rises like a sweeping, white-ruffed arm,
erasing all the pages that have come before.
The evidence accumulates that nobody is watching over us,
and gradually, as the streets and houses drift toward night,
all the words inside them close their eyes;
the sentences coil up like snakes and sleep.
It’s just me now and my famous aching heart
under the stars — my heart that keeps moving like a searchlight
in its longing for the hearts of other people,
who in a sense, already live there, in my heart,
and keep it turning.

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.