Poetry, and Sports, for White People

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Poetry, and Sports, for White People

When I entered the MFA program in poetry at Georgia College & State University, the poetry faculty took a two-pronged approach to mentoring me and my fellow graduate students: First, we delved deeper into the classics, dissecting and annotating — line by line, word by word, beat by beat — poems by Keats, Hopkins, Berryman, Shakespeare, Dickinson and others. Most of us being in our early 20s, we were fairly keen to get on with the modern stuff; nobody, after all, was going to tackle something in the same stylistic vein as “The Wreck of the Deutschland” (sprung rhythm is hard to execute in an unaffected-seeming manner), and rhyme was all but dead unless it was in some form either slippery or subversive. Think “We Real Cool,” if you believe any of us were capable of handling juvenilia in such a clever way.

Second, we cut our teeth on Tony Hoagland’s “The Change.” It may seem an exaggeration to equate the gravity of a single poem with that of several combined eras of poetic history, but that is a testament to the ruckus the poem caused in our tiny classroom, not to mention, as we would later realize, the whole of the poetry world. See, for poets and readers of poetry, Tony Hoagland is something like Bill O’Reilly, Kanye West and Bronson Pinchot’s yuppie villain in the abortion-like TV adaptation of “The Langoliers.” He’s less a poet than he is a talking head with an innate sense of meter and penchant for socio-political button-pushing, but that doesn’t make his work any less effective, moving or legitimate.

Speaking of which, he’s got cred for decades: his first two books won the University of Wisconsin’s Brittingham Prize for Poetry and the James Laughlin Award, respectively. His third book was a runner-up for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and he’s the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, plus a Guggenheim Award. So yeah, he is, as my sister would say, legit.

“The Change” is his most famous poem, and marked something of a switch for Hoagland from Frank O’Hara-esque confessionalism to the wit-laced social commentary for which he’s now mainly known. The poem sees the speaker and a friend watching a women’s tennis match on TV and, well, see for yourself:
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 —

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. (Hoagland 9-33)

As one critic astutely put it, “Wowza.” You can see how this one might have moved the needle a bit. Hoagland didn’t help matters — or maybe he did, if we’re talking about the longevity of the poem’s impact — when, after being approached by his colleague and fellow kickass poet Claudia Rankine, he said to her, “This poem is for white people.”

Huh.

The poem, really, is not just about latent adherence to racial loyalties, though it wields that conceit well to state a larger truth: that the world has evolved without, in some ways, our even being aware of it:

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. (54-58)

I haven’t thought about this poem in a long time because, even though its repercussions rippled out far enough to the AWP Conference in 2010 (the poem was published almost 10 years before). But as I watch this year’s World Cup matches, I’m noticing a trend in myself that troubles me slightly, and intrigues me a little more: Team USA aside, I don’t really have any dogs in this fight, but I always tend to side, in my own mind, with the team that, to be blunt, looks more like me: England over Italy, for example, Croatia over Brazil, or the Netherlands over Spain.

I tell myself that, as my picks line up with who generally tends to be the underdog, that’s really where my allegiances lie. That, I think, is too convenient an answer, though I’m not convinced I have the wherewithal to parse out a more complicated, truer one. Maybe this is where Hoagland’s poem is most incisive: this tendency to side with “who I look like” is born out of some combination of learned and genealogical traits that, by their very pervasiveness, have been rendered almost invisible.

And it’s why I choose to back off. It’s why I choose, whether for better or for worse, to tuck it away. It’s why I choose to hope that, even as I’m cheering, to question why I cheer is enough.

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