“What I thought was an end
turned out to be a middle.
What I thought was a brick wall
turned out to be a tunnel.
What I thought was an injustice
turned out to be a color of the sky.”
― Tony Hoagland
Maybe this is Tony Hoagland’s middle.
Hoagland died on October 23, 2018, succumbing to pancreatic cancer. Since then, I’ve been trying to write about it.
Hoagland is one of my favorite poets. When I learned he’d died, I cried — despite being on antidepressants (which suck the empathy right out of you). His work echoed my own brain, my own experiences and, like any writer admiring their hero, made me want to write that well.
So I sat down to write this post a week ago.
Then I learned Mary Oliver had died on January 17, 2019 of lymphoma.
Oliver was my mentor. Oh, she didn’t know it, but through her book, The Poetry Handbook, she taught me more about my own writing than I would ever have learned on my own or with any other instructor. Oliver’s talent was in how she took small details and wove them into stunningly beautiful imagery. And she spoke to you, her reader.
In an interview with Krista Tippett on the On Being podcast, Oliver described it this way: “I wanted the ‘I’ to be about the possible reader rather than about myself.”
What I love about both Mary Oliver and Tony Hoagland is how they wrote about seasons. Hoagland used the seasons as a backdrop to some of his more exquisite poems, such as in Reasons to Survive November from his collection, What Narcissism Means to Me, which starts:
November like a train wreck—
as if a locomotive made of cold
had hurtled out of Canada
and crashed into a million trees,
flaming the leaves, setting the woods on fire.
Then there’s Oliver, whose habit of writing while walking each morning with her notebook in hand led to a view of nature and seasons that are more inclusive of her surroundings, such as the poem Blossom, which starts:
the ponds open
like black blossoms,
swims in every one;
everywhere: frogs shouting
I couldn’t write about Hoagland without writing about Oliver. They both influenced what I do tremendously and in completely different ways. Hoagland taught me to rip open the memories and force them onto the page. Oliver taught me to say it all with purpose and exquisite detail.
In each, we are better poets — and better people — for their having written.