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Reading a Tony Hoagland Poem: Inattention and Power

Posted By Joe Weil On June 27, 2012 @ 5:30 am In Poetry and Poetics | 1 Comment

We often talk of attention in terms of power, but perhaps inattention is more suitable to a consumer/service culture. Certain catch phrases such as “don’t sweat the small stuff” or “stick to the point” or “just the facts” hint that we are a busy, practical, and rather diseased race of grade C newspaper reporters. We don’t like verbal noise, but we can get arrogant in our “simplicity” and opt for the simplistic, especially when it suits our self-interest or plays into our prejudice as to who and what should not be listened to.

I will map out 12 kinds of inattention that I have perceived working in aesthetic, political, social, and sexual realms, many of which involve a sort of metonymy dynamic of omission (things we leave out thinking it stands for the whole, in order to exclude, in order to prioritize, in order to act, in order to flee/fight/freeze, in order to imply superiority, in order to imply inferiority, etc, etc).

1. Privileged and Entitled Inattention:
a. Overt displays of Boredom and haughtiness.
b. Cutting off someone in the middle of their speech or conversation while paying the one who was speaking no mind and usurping the attention of his or her audience (a verbal equivalent to cutting in on a dance floor)
c. Tapping the pencil, or one’s fingers, doodling, texting, yawning
d. Misdirected attention to a detail that has nothing to do with the purpose of the other, and by this misdirected attention, implying that either what he or she is saying is not worth listening to, or is being challenged by some incongruity of dress, mannerisms, or situational digression (the bee in the room)

2. Edenic of Pre-formative Inattention: Based on an Ur construct of what should be said, how it should be said, and why it should be said that way which does not coincide with the what, how, and why of the speaker (or author). Any preconceived rubric of attention that is not being met either through aesthetic or informative appeal and thereby triggers a sense of imperfection, judgment of imperfection, or rejection of the significance of either the speaker or what the speaker is saying. We shut down because they are not living up to our preconceived notions of utterance. Happens most often when someone speaks in a register we find uneducated, inauthentic, or inappropriate to the occasion. Often, a scientist who attempts to write for a lay audience will be accused by his purist fellow scientists (and also jealous fellow scientists) of being too broad, or unscientific. They have an Ur construct of science, and although they will all insist they want science to be accessible to the public (and to givers of grants) they feel rather whored- out when something is too removed from their own rhetoric and methodology. At any lecture I ever attended by a scientist speaking to the lay people, some mildly pedantic to absolutely furious scientist in the crowd would try to expose him as simplistic or false.

3. Hierarchical Inattention: Situation in which one’s rank or purpose dictates that the other be ignored or passed by without remark. The scorn is made conspicuous by being passive.

4. Communal Inattention: Such as when a group, a clique, a couple only have “eyes” or ears for each other.

5. Aggressive Inattention: By ignoring or failing to acknowledge, one clearly means to devalue or exclude. Snubbing. Often not a person we might think inferior so much as dislike.

6. Seductive Inattention: When one withholds attention either to draw attention, or revive interest or to appear worthy of a more abject performance. Making the other “work” for our attention.

7. Cognitive Inattention: When the listener (or non-listener) has neither the frame of reference, nor the knowledge of not understanding, and, for all intents and purposes, the thing being said cannot be acknowledged or approached because, in terms of the non-listeners particular reality, it does not exist. They just don’t hear it.

8. Categorical Inattention: when one is waiting for pertinent points, selecting what seems pertinent and ignoring what seems subsidiary or unimportant. Very close to Edenic inattention. We have a sense of what’s important before the person even starts to speak. Very common when a certain procedure in a certain field is par for the course and the speaker is not following it.

9. Antipathic Inattention: When one’s hatred or scorn turns everything another says either into a stupidity, a challenge, or a worthless utterance. This form of inattention is like aggressive/hierarchical inattention except ratcheted up to the point of being violent.

10. Catastrophic Inattention: When antipathic inattention has reached such a phase of demonization that words are put in the mouth of the speaker, distorted, demonized, or simply contrived so as no real listening or attention is possible. Trauma can cause such catastrophic inattention so that the hated or feared, or despised one is triggered by the flimsiest of semiotic indicators. A woman violently raped may not be able to listen to anything any man has to say without feeling anger and shutting down. She may not hear his words. She may only hear: Man.

11. Stylistic Inattention: When one’s style dictates what one does not include, or excludes from ones attention, interests, and response. Not the same as Edenic inattention in so far as it has a performative aspects: one shows who one is by what one does not say or pay attention to.

12. Covert Inattention: One seems to be all ears, can even repeat verbatim what has just been said, but is really not hearing it all as a responsive agent, but more in the way a parrot might, through a force of automatic rehash. This all too often is the result of education. A few minutes later, and one cannot remember even the gist of what was said.

We can apply all these forms of inattention to the critical understanding of any act of language, including a poem. We can know a poem very often in greater depth by realizing what it does not include, what it is not paying attention to at any given moment. I am opening my book American Poets at random and I come upon a free verse poem by the poet, Tony Hoagland. It is called “One Season” Let’s see if we can apply some of our forms of inattention .

One Season

That was the summer my best friend
called me a faggot on the telephone,
hung up, and vanished from the earth,

Hoagland is not paying attention in this beginning three line structure to what his friend looked like, or the reasons why his best friend said what he said, or even as to why his best friend was his best friend. In point of fact, for the whole of the poem we never know why this boy was his best friend. No character trait or actual moment of intimacy is ever developed or described. We can assume this is stylistic inattention–that he has chosen to leave this info out to concentrate on some other theme–in the case of this poem, his own suffering, but not right now. In terms of categorical inattention, he does not consider his friends appearance or his friend’s motives for saying what he said to be important–at this moment in the poem.

This structure he shapes the poem into called a stanza in three line units of measure, known as a tercet. This means Hoagland is ignoring the possibility of utterance being shaped by couplets, or in a stichic (no stanza breaks) structure, or as quatrains and even of the line as an end stopped (fully independent) entity. We do not know why he chooses tercets. Hoagland does not pay attention to the closed off structure of tercets and ends the third line with a comma, bleeding the overall sentence of his utterance into the next tercet (stanzaic enjambment), and not concluding his first sentence until the first half of the first line of the third tercet. Tercet, line and sentence integrity all function independently as if they were not paying attention to each other. Each has a different agenda. The tercet provides a consistent shaping mechanism. The line breaks the sentence into independent and dependent clauses, but they are, in a sense, ignoring each other. A line says it’s a poem. A tercet says it’s a poem of a certain order. A sentence is the main verbal propulsion. Beyond being boxed into tercets, the lines are neither closed, nor uniform, and they vary in length.

There is a lot of contradiction here, or merely three forces that do not fully acknowledge each other (cognitive inattention). The poet is paying attention then to linear and stanzaic enjambment, but not to linear or stanzaic integrity. We could conclude that he is loose in some way, almost sloppy and casual, but not without attention to the pretense of a structure. So we can say that this three line structure, its independence from line or sentence and what his best friend did in terms of narrative order are of paramount importance in the first stanza, and everything else is subsidiary. He is paying very little attention to description, or to line or stanzaic integrity except in so far as he has decided that the poem should be broken into tercets (an arbitrary decision?). We can say that this first stanza is a procedural/narrative of what his “best friend” did shaped into a structure that is open ended. It is a stanza called a tercet, but we don’t know why Hoagland has decided to structure the poem in this manner (it remains in tercets through out except for the last stanza). He does not pay attention to line length. We can say that Hoagland does not pay attention to lines as lines per se, or to tercets as closed structures, but shape is something he pays attention to. This could be a form of covert inattention. He seems to care about a structure, but he may be simply using it to give the poem a semblance of symmetry. He seems to be listening to some dictate toward structure or shaping, but his lines are irregular, and his sentences are independent of those lines. He is paying lip service to a form, but he is also imposing that form on a somewhat arbitrary line and sentence structure.

And so we can assume that Hoagland is not so much interested in organic form as in pre-ordained or arbitrarily imposed form as a shaping device. In effect, he is ignoring or not paying attention to the shape in relation to the flow of his utterance either in terms of line or sentence. The full meaning of a line can belong to several lines, and the full sentence to several stanzas. Line and sentence are not paying attention in a sense to this “box” called a tercet. They spill out of the box, even to the point where we could say that what is being said is ignoring how the poem is being shaped. The tercet is ignoring the flow of line and sentence, and line and sentence are ignoring the structural integrity of the tercet. They function independently of each other. Either that, or their inattention to each other is meant to create a dynamic, a tension between them. We shall see.

Hoagland is not rhyming. There is little or no alliteration. In this first tercet, no metaphor or analogy show up, and the phrase “vanished from the earth” is somewhat overly familiar. He is not end stopping. He is not stopping the thought even at the end of the stanza. He is not being formal, or, rather he is being formal only by one arbitrary device: the tercet. He is also formal so far in terms of noun verb agreement, and the main subject (my best friend) has three modifiers–called, hung up, vanished. Of these three verbs, called, and hung up seem without any attitude or motive except to accurately describe the actions of the best friend. Hoagland is not paying attention then to a formality natural to tercets, but rather to some pre-utteral value of shape in relation to the tercets. As far as his sentences and lines go, they ignore the tercet and pay attention to what the best friend did. This is called narrative. Hogland is telling, but in a very concrete way, yet without any detail that would mar or interrupt his narrative. We can say then that Hoagland’s is ignoring description, appearance, and the relationship of form to utterance, and there is an implicit Edenic inattention here: he ignores his own looseness of utterance because he has a sense that putting that utterance into tercets and lines shows or makes it a poem, or, at least fulfills some rule of spacial structuring, of regularity against the irregularity of sentence, line, and line length which a reader may not recognize as a poem. We shall see.

He has ignored the logical priority of line and sentence for the appearance of a set structure (hierarchical inattention). If the tercets are not closed, then what is the purpose of the structure? Is it arbitrarily imposed upon the poem to create symmetry? Is it a way of ignoring the looseness of a casual utterance in order to give the poem a structural value? So far, we know that Hoagland pays little or no attention to description, rhyme, alliterative devices, or even the form he has imposed. He does pay attention to what the best friend did, and his last verb, “vanished” seems categorically different than his previous two. To “vanish from the earth” is dramatic, even traumatic. It implies ceasing to exist. In a sense Hoagland is the one who ceases to exist to his friend as a friend, but that is deflected onto the friend who “vanished.” Hoagland chooses to ignore “And I ceased to exist” (which is still hyperbolic, but seemingly more to the point of the emotion) and see his friend as vanishing from the earth. Hoagland has not paid any attention to his emotion here, or rather he has left that up to the reader’s imagination (seductive inattention). The verb “vanished” implies a hyperbolic action. OK–so we can assume from what Hoagland leaves out that he is being:

1. Narrative
2. Emotionally closed
3. Loose and causal.
4. Structural in terms of consistent three line stanzas.

We could see all this opening as seductive inattention. Hoagland is withholding certain information, or refusing to let the poem listen to its own structures, or implications, at least for now. If this is all we had to go on, then We could say by his word choice that he avoids formality (“faggot”) and overtly poetic language (though not dyslogistic and hyperbolic registers of speech) and that he is of a narrative bent. We could say he does not pay attention to being overtly poetic though he does pay covert attention to form in regard to keeping the poem structured in tercets.

We could learn much about Hoagland by seeing what he does not include, and what he does not pay attention to. We could see that he, at least, at this point, is a narrative poet with a story to relate, who is trying hard to deflect his worst fear (that he was erased) by projecting it onto the friend who “vanished.” We could conjecture that he is a poet who hedges his emotional bets, and practices a sort of inattention to direct displays of emotion, at least in terms of the narrative. We can even make a prediction that if the friend has vanished from the face of the earth, and this is deflection and projection, then at some point in the poem, the poet will own the erasure himself. In a sense, he has written a closed narrative in so far as his best friend has already called him a faggot, hung up the phone and vanished from the earth. If narrative is his main agenda, how will it be continued? We can conjecture that the rest of the poem, bereft of the friends further actions, will use the narrative of the speaker’s reaction. It may go to a narrative before the vanishing (flash back) or race forward towards the results. We don’t know yet. And what word in the first tercet draws are attention? The most dyslogistic word: faggot. Is the speaker a faggot? Has he done something to make the friend feel ill at ease, sexually speaking?

We read on: Let’s see what happens in the next tercet:

a normal occurrence in this country
where we change our lives
with the swiftness and hysterical finality…

Ah, he is no longer paying attention to his friend or to narrative, but to some general principle within his friend’s action that he considers normal in this country. He has ceased to pay attention to the narrative (at least for now) and is concentrating on its larger, more general relation to what he perceives to be a normal way of acting in this country. All the qualifiers here deal with: change that is “swift” and “hysterical.” He chooses to normalize these under a national identity, and to ignore his friend’s isolated act of individual dismissal and see it as symptomatic of a larger tendency. By doing so, he detaches from the full agony of individual experience, and enters communal Inattention: It is not his friend who dismisses, but “we” (including himself) who dismiss. He can share in the crime of his friend vicariously. He is paying attention now to philosophizing the friend’s action into a larger schema of actions that he attributes to America itself. He is not paying attention to his pain, not allowing it to be an isolated particular. No, it must be ignored as a personal experience (catastrophic inattention as well as a few others) and raised to the power of national catastrophe. He is stepping back from all the actual actions to confer an “ontology” upon them. We can now assume that he is a poet who reserves the right to go in and out of his narratives. What he has not gone in and out of is the arbitrary structure of tercets, and his sentence and line structures are even more inattentive to the tercet than before.

We wonder: is he anxious, because of his narrative tendency, to make sure no one thinks he is not a poet? For all his informal language (he uses verbs like “dump,” and downright vulgarities like “fuck anyone”) he may suffer an anxiety common to narrative poets: a fear that the loss of the usual devices of rhetorical lyrical writing will disqualify the poem from being thought a poem: hence, the use of strict stanza structure, and what else? It seems here, he does poetic figures such as “hysterical finality” and, at the beginning of the next tercet, he completes the thought (and the first sentence of the poem) with:

with …the hysterical finality

of dividing cells.

He is using a species of analogy and metaphor, which does not appear in his narrative schema. He is not paying attention to narrative here, but digressing into its larger implications, and we can say that, at such moments of inattention to narrative, he is most likely to stop paying attention to idiomatic phrases, too, such as “vanished from the earth”, and enter what are more properly called lyrical or philosophical digressions and conjectures(common to narrative poetry since Homer). We can now see that Hoagland obeys the integrity of a full sentence, but not the integrity of line and stanza. We can see that his narratives and appeals to casual speech are ignored at times when he wishes to step out of them and be “lyrical” or poetic. He employs a bit of hyperbole in his first, largely narrative sequence, and so we may think that this is another device–to use a little, but not too much of literary devices in the narrative sections, and to be full throttle rhetorical and metaphorical (and poetic) only in those sections that are not paying attention to narrative. Let’s see what he does in the rest of this third tercet:

… that month
the rain refused to fall,
and fire engines streaked back and forth crosstown.

He’s back to narrative, and paying no attention to the larger ontology. His new narrative is the larger events surrounding his abandonment. In a sense this is metaphor made conspicuous by its absence. These dramatic events also fill in for the absence of overt emotional reaction to being abandoned. Note how the rain is personified as “refusing” to fall. The whole town is a metaphor for his despair, rejection, and confusion. Rain refusing to fall is the arbitrary power of rejection and dismissal of expected actions, and fire engines racing are the concrete manifestation of the “hysterical finality.”

He goes on:

towards smoke -filled residential zones
where people stood around outside, drank beer,
and watched the neighbors houses burn.

Ah…the first full end stopped stanza! And note that he is revisiting a narrative procedural he used in the first tercet: the three verb narrative: they stood, they drank, they watched. His friend: called, hung up, and vanished. Same basic rhythm, and the intent seems to be to link the heartlessness of his friend, and the senselessness of it to the crowd’s indifference even as they watch. I do not know if this is conscious on Hoagland’s part, and I might not be able to discern it, had I not decided on this method of entering the poem through both what it does and what it does not do (I may have suffered from cognitive inattention), but this three verb action implies a larger sense of indifference to pain, or to the poet’s suffering. People do not care, though they may be causally attentive. They drink beer while everything in someone’s life is burning. This is covert inattention. The poet never says woe is me. He is never emotionally direct (this may be a form of seductive inattention)The poet is pretending not to be aware (or is cognitively inattentive) to the link between his feelings of being a victim of arbitrary rejection, and the larger sense of no one really caring when shit just happens.

We will lay down the rest of the poem, now that you can see the usefulness of entering a poem both through what it pays attention to at any given moment and what it chooses to ignore:

It was a bad time to be affected
by nearly anything,
especially anything as dangerous

as loving a man, if you happened to be
a man yourself, ashamed and unable to explain
how your feelings could be torn apart

by something ritual and understated
as friendship between males.
Probably I talked too loud that year

and thought an extra minute
before I crossed my legs; probably
I chose a girl I didn’t care about

and took her everywhere,
knowing I would dump her in the fall
as part of evening the score,

part of practicing the scorn
it was clear I was going to need
to get across this planet

of violent emotional addition
and subtraction. Looking back, I can see
that I came through

in the spastic, fugitive half-alive manner
of accident survivors. Fuck anyone
who says I could have done it

differently. Though now I find myself
returning to the scene
as if the pain I fled

were the only place that I had left to go;
as if my love, whatever kind it was, or is
were still trapped beneath the wreckage

of that year,
and I was one of those angry firemen
having to go back into the burning house,
climbing the ladder

through the heavy soke and acrid smell
of my own feelings
as if they were the only
goddamn thing worth living for.

Note how the covert linking of his experience with the fire becomes overt as the poem moves towards its payoff. Note how he never says whether he had homoerotic feelings for his best friend, but leaves it as a possibility. Note how he gets even more careless about the tercets as they go along, and eventually, at the end, abandons this structure for two quatrains (much as a sonnet abandons its prevailing structure for the final couplet). He is no longer paying attention to his major shaping device, and perhaps he does this to imply that the poem is now entering its most sincere heartfelt climax in which being attentive to the consistent tercet structure would be a wrong move.

His forms of attention and inattention are based on what might be seen as narrative rather than poetic form, and, in truth, the interaction of narrative and larger ontology peculiar to the personal essay or creative non-fiction piece seems applicable here. In moments of anxiety over simply relating events he resorts to analogy, extended metaphor, and the overall distancing agent of philosophy. He ties it all together by linking the disparate narratives of his friend’s rejection of him with the scene of a great accident, and he then makes the rhetorical gambit that he shares, at least vicariously, in the trauma of a survivor of such an accident. From a standpoint of organic form, what is organic to this poem is momentary digression and inattention to strict narrative, introduction of a secondary narrative, and then a bringing together of the two narratives under the larger ontology of catastrophic experience. His hedging is structural as well as emotional. He tells rather than shows his emotions. He does not pay attention to his actual personal emotions except under the guise of this larger disaster. He beats around the bush. Here, we may see aspects of traumatic inattention.

Thus, we can enter any poem using this tool of inattention, and find it useful. It is also useful to understanding group dynamics, especially where the different forms of inattention come into conflict. For example, the inattention of a class to a teacher when a bee enters the room positioned against the inattention of two people in the class who are inattentive to anyone except each other (including the bee) while the friend of the girl, who is secretly in love with her and resents her exclusion (a cock block), might ignore her friends attention for two (communal inattention) and cut them off in mid-flirt to announce the bee, at which point they might freeze her out by giving her a brief look of boredom and disdain. A whole short story could be written about this:

1. Teacher: forty, a little odd and always humorless who demands attention be paid and takes offence at the slightest lack of it.
2. A couple, or future couple falling in love.
3. The best friend of the girl in this situation who is in love with her friend, won’t admit it, not even to herself, but is royally pissed that her friend only pays attention to this boy she has begun to hate.

We could do the story from multiple perspectives, or partial omniscience (in the mind or from the view point of one character). It could be in first or third person. We could play it out like this:

The teacher, Mr. Rimsley is trying to explain the importance of Ancient Rome’s system of roads to the empire. He could have a bad comb over, and, if we were in the head of one of the characters, the character might notice the comb over, and the terrible choice of shirt rather than what Mr. Rimsley is saying. Kids could be yawning, texting. The couple who are falling in love could be bonding, paying attention to no one else, including the poor “best friend” Rhonda(we might tell the story through her point of few). Rhonda decides to send a text message to her friend right there in class to the effect of: “Why don’t you just get a room, for God sake, and stop pretending you’re my friend.” Mr. Rimsley notices her texting, and makes her stand up. He has had enough. He is going to humiliate her by having her read what she just texted. At that moment, a bee flies into the room. The kids do what kids do when bees fly in: use it as an excuse to get out of their seats, disrupt class, etc. Mr. Rimsley says: “Who opened the window?” He is furious. The girl feels saved by the bee, except for one thing: her friend sees she has a text, reads it and, horrors, shows it to her soon to be boyfriend. They quickly glance at Rhonda, a sort of look of benign contempt, and the girl shuts off her cell phone, and puts it away, continuing to talk to the boy, hardly cognizant of the bee. Mr. Rimsley might be expected to get the bee to fly out the window. Instead, he traps it in his hands, not caring if it stings him, crushes it, throw it to the floor, and grinds it under his shoe. If done skillfully, this bee might be the sacrificial substitute for crushing all those disrespectful bastards who make his life a living hell. We can weave all sorts of inattention and implication through this story.

Here are a few ways to explore these ideas more:
1. Write this story out in your own way, using description, setting the scene, etc. Try to get concrete examples of the types of inattention into the story.
2. Write about an experience in your own life in which one of these types of inattention took place.
3. Re-write Hoagland’s poem, or re-line it. Take out parts you don’t think are necessary, or write it from his friend’s point of view.
4. Find a poem you can look at through these kinds of inattention. Use my close reading as a model.


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