The End of Progress — in Poetry as in Life

A couple of years ago the poet Tony Hoagland published (here) an essay about the allusive nature of most modern American poetry, in which narrative — storytelling — had fallen by the wayside. Hoagland wasn’t happy about that, but he understood why it had happened. He quoted the great Carolyn Forche:

Our age lacks the structure of a story. Or perhaps it would be closer
to say that narrative implies progress and completion. The history of
our time does not allow for any of the bromides of progress, nor for
the promise of successful closure
.

The connection to climate change is inescapable. Our development as a society appears to be leading to our downfall; worse, we seem to want to take the entire planet with us when we go. As cynics often say, as a species we seem to be no smarter than yeast bacteria, which in a closed system inevitably end up consuming all the sugars in a solution, heading for self-annihilation.

It’s a great essay, and kept me on the look-out for Hoagland’s poetry. Here, courtesy of Slate, is a wonderful example of his recent work, which braids strands from different stories together, creating a rich but contradictory whole, and showing that storytelling can in fact still be part of the art. I won’t quote the whole poem, which is called Containment, but just an aside, a few lines which tell a little story that is touching and complete in itself. Or so it seems: a minute later, we wonder…

Later, at the reception, I saw my beautiful ex-wife,
wearing a simple black dress
that showed off her beautiful neck

standing next to a guy I would like to call
her future second ex-husband.
A long time since she and I had been extinct,

but still I found inside myself an urge
to go over and tell her one more time
it wasn’t my fault—

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