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Poetry Friday: Into the Mystic, A Tribute To Poet Tony Hoagland

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Academy of American Poets
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The first Poetry Friday of the New Year comes from Ann Cummins, a creative writing professor at Northern Arizona University. It’s a poetic essay, of sorts, a tribute to her good friend, the late poet Tony Hoagland. He died just a few months ago at the age of 64. Today, Ann reads his poetry and remembers their friendship.

In October of 2018, Arizona writers lost one of our own; the poet Tony Hoagland. We grew up together, those of us living in Tucson and attending the University of Arizona writing program. This was back in the 80’s. We took our holiday meals together. We read each other’s bad first drafts. For Tony, it was the beginning of a life devoted to poetry. Here’s a poem from that long ago in Tony’s first collection, Sweet Ruin, published in ’92.

The Word

Down near the bottom

of the crossed-out list

of things you have to do today,

between “green thread”

and “broccoli” you find

that you have penciled “sunlight.”

Resting on the page, the word

is beautiful, it touches you

as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present

he had sent you from some place distant

as this morning—to cheer you up,

and to remind you that,

among your duties, pleasure

is a thing

that also needs accomplishing.

Do you remember?

that time and light are kinds

of love, and love

is no less practical

than a coffee grinder

or a safe spare tire?

Tomorrow you may be utterly

without a clue

but today you get a telegram,

from the heart in exile

proclaiming that the kingdom

still exists,

the king and queen alive,

still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them

who can find the time,

to sit out in the sun and listen.

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Credit Ann Cummins
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NAU creative writing professor, Ann Cummins

Tony once told me that early on, a teacher discouraged him. Said he didn’t have what it took to write poems over the long haul. Tony’s long haul turned out to be 40 years of pure devotion to his art. He published 7 books before he died far too young at the age of 64. He published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic. According to the half-page obit in The New York Times, Tony was proudest to be called “a funny poet”. And he was funny, but so much more.

I can’t really pin him down on a literary map. One time, we decided to go to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. I was in my car following Tony in his. He was all over the road, and that’s how I think of him; as a guy who wouldn’t stay between the lines. His poems followed crooked trails, sometimes stirring up trouble, often landing at the center of the reader’s heart.

Here’s an excerpt from a poem in his last collection, Walking the Property Line:

The moon shines down from the black November sky.

The tide rolls in 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 towards 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 love of other people,

who, in a sense, already live there, in my heart,

and keep it turning.

Poetry Friday is produced by KNAU's Gillian Ferris. If you have an idea for a segment, drop her an email at gillian.ferris@nau.edu. 

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