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Friday, March 11, 2011

Number 91: Tony Hoagland "Memory As a Hearing Aid"

Memory As a Hearing Aid

Somewhere, someone is asking a question,
and I stand squinting at the classroom
with one hand cupped behind my ear,
trying to figure out where that voice is coming from.

I might be already an old man,
attempting to recall the night
his hearing got misplaced,
front-row-center at a battle of the bands,

where a lot of leather-clad, second-rate musicians,
amped up to dinosaur proportions,
test drove their equipment through our ears.
Each time the drummer threw a tantrum,

the guitarist whirled and sprayed us with machine-gun riffs,
as if they wished that they could knock us
quite literally dead.
We called that fun in 1970,

when we weren’t sure our lives were worth surviving.
I’m here to tell you that they were,
and many of us did, despite ourselves,
though the road from there to here

is paved with dead brain cells,
parents shocked to silence,
and squad cars painting the whole neighborhood
the quaking tint and texture of red jelly.

Friends, we should have postmarks on our foreheads
to show where we have been;
we should have pointed ears, or polka-dotted skin
to show what we were thinking

when we hot-rodded over God’s front lawn,
and Death kept blinking.
But here I stand, an average-looking man
staring at a room

where someone blond in braids
with a beautiful belief in answers
is still asking questions.

Through the silence in my dead ear,
I can almost hear the future whisper
to the past: it says that this is not a test
and everybody passes.

--Tony Hoagland

Hap Notes: I love Tony Hoagland's poetry but I really posted this for my jury duty friends to show them the power of poetry with everyday speech. This is not to say Hoagland's word pictures are not well wrought, thoughtful and original. I'm just saying that folks can read Hoagland without making a great deal of preparations in order to be "inspired" by poetry.

Some poetry is worded in ways that seem obscure or complex and sometimes there is a very good reason for that. The poet often wants to slow the reader and himself down for deeper concentration. Of course, sometimes the poet is just a blowhard performing verbal gymnastics which often appeal to people who think poetry has to be hard. To change a phrase used by one of my favorite pitchers of all time, Ferguson Jenkins (born 1942- first Cubs pitcher to win a Cy Young Award): "Poetry is easy. Life is hard."

Poetry should have a flow and Hoagland has a natural cadence that is deceptively easy to read. He plants his images with depths you may gloss over or explore at your leisure but you are sure to get something from his poem after an initial reading. This is huge. He communicates with the poem and then leaves you with food for thought. You can dig deeper into the poem if you like, but he certainly allows you to leave with a well worded thoughtful surface message.

In the poem, a moment of reflecting on a certain amount of hearing loss as he teaches a class brings the poet around to his younger days ( when his age was similar to the student asking the question) and he thinks a bit on the cycle of life. What do you think the last stanza means? What does it mean to your life?

We do things in our youth that flirt with death and bring us (those of us who are still alive and reading) to where we are now. Life isn't a test, it's a cycle in which everyone has a place in youth and age. And don't forget to think on the title of the poem.

Here's where we talked about Hoagland before if you want a refresher- also a great poem:

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