Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Change by Tony Hoagland

The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.

Sometimes I think that nothing really changes -

The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
and the new president proves that he's a dummy.

but remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes

some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite -

We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,

putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,

and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
and I,
I couldn't help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,
because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips

and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
so unintimidated,

hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln's throat,
like she wasn't asking anyone's permission.

There are moments when history
passes you so close
you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
and touch it on its flank,

and I don't watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,
but I could feel the end of an era there

in front of those bleachers full of people
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes

as that black girl wore down her opponent
then kicked her ass good
then thumped her once more for good measure

and stood up on the red clay court
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.

And the little pink judge
had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,
still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing

and in fact, everything had already changed -

Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,

and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.

from What Narcissism Means to Me © Graywolf Press.


Anonymous said...

This is the most offensive poem I have ever read. With respect, TS Eliot's anti-semitism has nothing on the bigotry expressed in this poem.

Unknown said...

It seems to me that readers ought to consider:

1. the poem is from a collection called WHAT NARCISSICISM MEANS TO ME, and

2. the speaker in the poem is not necessarily the poet. (A speaker is a "created/imagined" entity.)

Anne Caston

Maria van Beuren said...

Yes, Anne Caston, I agree with you. I would also add that I think this is a marvelously anti-racist poem.

ER said...

And how is something
"the most offensive"
yet respected?
and how convenient
to be anonymous.
and how long
have poets been
the ones to say what
many were too scared
to say? and tony,
no offense,
but this is lovely.

ER said...

"too scared?"
"too confused?"
"too honest?"
"too wrong?"
"too regretful?"

how troubling, to not
have an answer.
pin it down!
"too late."

no said...

I certainly find this poem to be seemingly racist and offensive on the surface, but the depth of it is speaking from an absolutely anti-racist place. We must, as poets, read into the poem and go to it's hidden corners. It is too obviously racist to be racist. it is much more caring than that. Tony says, "Sometimes I think that nothing really changes...but remember the tennis match we watched last year?" Right away he is indicating that change does happen. He stereotypes white people too, saying "some tough little European blonde." Please, notice the use of "some." He does not care anymore for the white player than the black player. Hoagland does not glorify either tennis player. He, in my opinion compliments the black player by saying she has "complicated hair" and a "to-hell-with-everybody stare." She is the most engaged in the sport, I think, from what he gives us. The speaker of the poem says "I couldn't help wanting the white girl to come out on top, because she was one of my kind, my tribe, with her pale eyes and thin lips." Now, can you honestly read that as serious? My kind, my tribe!!! That can't be serious, c'mon. It's way too superficial. He is using the most blatant language to exude racism, but the language he uses in fact undermines the potency of the racist message. This is satire--exaggeration to demonstrate that the depth of this poem is showing the changes that have occurred and are occurring. The only place I sense a hint of racism is when the judge manages to smile at the black players triumph. Meaning, I think, that the judge was a bit uncomfortable. But the smile happened! I truly read that as a sign of change. This poem is fine. This poem is fine. This poem is fine. Hoagland employs poetry and has created a discussion, gained attention, gotten us to think about the issues of binaries. His speaker occupies a fictional role, I contend.

Anonymous said...

I can't tell whether the bias expressed in this piece is self-aware. There seems to be nowhere in the poem that Hoagland suggests we should be feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps this arrogant self-assurance is a lesson in the nature of racism? Racism doesn't ask questions of itself. Should a poem about it ask those questions? Or may we assume that Hoagland assumed that we would ask the right questions without his babying? Regardless of intentions, this poem troubles me, because I am white and I always feel closer to Maria Sharapova than Serena Williams when I watch them play (not least because MS is habitually gracious, while SW is often a terrible sport). I wonder if this poem would have a comparatively racist vibe if it were a black poet writing about his preference for Ms. Williams...

Is racial preference even escapable at all in our language?

Unknown said...

Dear Anonymous: I don't see any signs that the "bias expressed in this piece is self-aware." Quite the opposite, I suspect. If this speaker was self-aware in his bias, he/she would undoubtedly try to cover it up, not manifest it. (That is Hoagland's genius.) The poet launches his speaker out into the world and then leaves it be for the reader to feel aghast - or whatever the reader feels.

Also, if there are lessons in the poem, they are covert, not overt. If one wants lessons, perhaps the sermon would be a more likely venue.

Matt Walker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Missy's Got Fighting Blood said...

I don't know what to say about this. There are some moments I like, like the part about Abe Lincoln and all that, but I don't know I just get the sense like the narrator, I don't know... how can I say it, this poem makes me feel as though Blacks can't win (figuratively and literally). People complain that blacks are lazy and rob and steal, yet they hate to seem them achieve. So it's like a catch-22. Like they'd rather blacks be the stereotype.

Missy's Got Fighting Blood said...

But I don't see this as a outright racist poem. It's more like a, not even envy, but admiring some aspect in this person that's another race. Admiring but at the same time being a "hater".

My father (I am black) does it all the time -- root for Venus or Serena because they are black, but he doesn't knock the opponent or call her thin-lipped and scrawny.

Oh and I like the "to-hell-with-everybody stare"

Unknown said...

Matt, I'm of what people call "mixed heritage:" Caucasian (and some of them were slave-holders) as well as French "high yellows" who were brought over by their Caucasian "men" to settle the Louisiana Territory.

Does a responder's lineage really matter so much? Does it embue me - or anyone else - with authority in this matter?

J. Burnquist said...

To Anonymous who writes, "With respect, TS Eliot's anti-semitism has nothing on the bigotry expressed in this poem."

No respect can be found in a message that seeks to compare one form of bigotry to another. How does one measure or effectively compare hurt?

I applaud Ms. Rankin for publicly reacting to a difficult subject matter and for starting a necessary conversation.

Who better to have such discourse than poets?

J. Burnquist said...


Anonymous said...

J. Burnquist sd, "I applaud Ms. Rankin for publicly reacting to a difficult subject matter and for starting a necessary conversation.

Who better to have such discourse than poets?"

Wait a minute, you're not poets?!
(*looks around, understands, and backs slowly out of the saloon*)

Roberto said...

Well, thanks for proving it Tony. For many minorities there is a conspiracy theory that feelings like the one expressed in this poem is how white people really feel. A poem like this does nothing to change that perception or affect in a constructive way. I don't wonder if there's any real value to this poem besides pointing out that there are still racist people or worse people in denial about their racism. And with that jab at the president in the beginning it also solidifies the perception that white people are afraid because a black president is in the "white" house. I still can't believe we call the center of America's leadership the "white" house with all the race problems we've had in OUR country.

Robin Clarke said...

Here is my reading to add to the others: the problem in the poem comes from the slippage between a speaker and the maker of a metaphor. For, a metaphor is a poets' act. And self-conscious metaphors like these are supremely poets' acts. SO, the maker of the metaphor, while obviously a performance, a persona, is also implicated with a poet, and the nearest poet to this poem is the writer. So, for instance, in the moment that bothers me the most, the simile of the Emancipation Proclamation, we have a sensibility at work that is more like how we might imagine the obviously liberal poet: drawing on metaphors of freeing slaves to account for the black tennis player's entire existence . WE are no longer in "Im a foolish white person" metaphor land anymore: we are in "I am an anti-racis person" metaphor land. BUt the anti-racist metaphor is racist. Or, more properly, it is raciological: it enacts race thinking, whereby skin color obtains some ontological value (which is the basis of racism). Whether it be in the service of liberalism or the Klan, raciology is the root cause of our country's pathological obsession with race, and i see it BOTH ridiculed and re-enacted in this poem.

JoAnn Anglin said...

To even 'defend' Tony Hoagland is to fear being thought a racist. That is how loaded this discussion is. But, anyway ...
To me this poem is about triumph over racism. It is about growth. It is acknowledgment of how we, no matter how hard we try, have those corms of racism inside us, and how we can be shocked when they pierce our surfaces. Linking ourselves to a 'tribe' or to someone who looks like a sister or cousin.
But how hard we try is part of the message: we do keep trying. Working against the fear of change does not go away.
I love the part where she is ramming the Emancipation Proclamation - this is not anti-Lincoln, but is this triumphal 'girl' saying, I'll emancipate my own damn self. Those of us past a certain age will always consider someone our daughters' age or younger as 'girls,' especially if they are athletes. Even if we are feminists.
It is risky, if not dangerous, for TH to confess to this unwanted and painful struggle, to force other white people [like me] to face the existence of struggle, to not want to go back to saying 'I don't see race.' And I imagine that, for the black reader, it cuts into that fear that lurks just below the surface. For the white reader, to that residue of shame.
To recognize that change has occurred, whether or not it is as we wanted it to be, in quality or quantity, is important. As is the poem by TH and the reaction by CR, and discussion by the rest of us.

Heidi said...


This book was published in 2003, long before we had a black president.

Anonymous said...

The poem clearly celebrates the fact that racism is going down, that neither the white tennis player, nor the fool who instinctively roots for her as a member of his tribe, are going to be given a pass any longer.

Yes, there are things that white people don't understand about racism, but there are also things that black people don't know--like the way racists talk when their guard is down and they think they are among "their own."

Hoagland betrays the racist's trust here, and in so doing, he stomps on his tribal membership with obvious glee, with more honesty than our country is obviously ready for, and with courage.

sjineug said...

Hoagland has a unique command of truth (as he sees it) and the vocabulary, if he was a racist he would have no problem making that crystal clear. That's the way he rolls.

sonya said...

The issue with this poem is that while it acknowledges change is coming, it does so from a lens that dehumanizes and exoticizes this Black player(Black people)thus negating any real change. The dehumanization of people of color is the foundational reality that ensures the enshrining of racism and ultimately systemic and structural oppressions. All of the characters in this poem who begrudged this enormous, aggressive, brash, obnoxious Black woman her title, all ultimately play a role in her experience and trauma moving through the world. The question for me as a Black woman reader is, what am I to do in this world where the majority of people, see me as the speaker sees this tennis player (a caricature). Whether I want to be Vondella Aphrodite or not, I am. Not just to the speaker in the poem but unfortunately to the eyes of readers who knowingly or unknowingly relate to the poem. A willingness to acknowledge that one is a bigot is not enough. I would hope the poet would own a sense of responsibility in dismantling that within himself and within his readers through his work. If that is not an intention, I am not sure how anything more than thin, superfluous "Change" will ever be achieved.

Peter Harter said...

The most offensive thing in poetry is dishonesty. When Hoagland admits that he is rooting for the pale tennis player because she is of his tribe--basically verifying that he experiences a racist impulse--that seems extraordinarily honest to me. I don't see how that in itself can be offensive.

However, he uses insensitive terms to describe the girl from Alabama. If something in a poem is aesthetically offensive to its audience, then the audience is right and the poem is wrong. Finally, the audience chooses the poems that it likes. If a poet refuses to conform to his audience then he looses the audience.

Also, I found nothing particularly hateful in the poem. Readers are so sensitized to any racial language that it is easy to interpret an offense where none is intended.

Unknown said...

Hi All, Interesting discussion! As a sportswriter specializing in gender issues, I find this poem fascinating -- and ironic. More here: http://beyondworkouts.wordpress.com/

Hank Single said...

To the contingent giving Hoagland all the credit in the world for injecting such a subtle and balanced nuance into this poem - I do not agree. It is inelegant.

When this many people find the core concept and message of the poem unclear - and I refer to the posters here and also the long discussion that sent me looking - that means it was unsuccessful. I think it was unsuccessful on a number of fronts - the intent of the writer, the intent of the speaker, the value of either and, you know, it's not a very well written poem.

If there is a message about the ugliness of being racist, here it more likely resides in the reader - hilariously, many posters seem intent on defending this poem as though they were defending themselves; this is not the author's doing, rather, that's what happens when we try to talk about race.

What is curious is the question of which is more important - that it isn't well done, or that we question the motives of the author? - which of these things contributes more to the failure of the piece?

Pamela Pletz said...

This is BRILLIANT. One of the best anti-racism poems. Anyone who is offended has totally *missed the point*.

blaze said...

Great Poem.

Mr. Hoagland writes the difference between two perspectives but focuses on the person with a trembling dread of the coming change….. the change that was happening on that tennis court… the change that is here now.

The poem is also a beautiful, gritty evocation of the Vondella Aphrodite in all of us.

Serena just won another U.S. Open with undeniable determination.

StevenT said...

I'm an African-American male. I don't think it's racist or offensive at all. He didn't say anything derogatory about the girl. The tennis match is just a metaphor. I believe it's an honest expression of the anxiety that white people feel as they watch society change.

Anonymous said...

A lovely poem about a lovely girl, and how she made history on one sunny afternoon.

Has anyone watched either or both of the Williams sisters lately? So beautiful, so gifted. Fun girls, fun women. Forever making history and helping themselves, and helping all humanity.


Unknown said...

We hope this afternoon of 9/2/15 to see history played out again by one of Richard Williams' now big girls. Serena's seizure of the calendar gold slam establishing her, if not already, as the premier athlete of her generation. Perhaps always. You go girl!!!!

Anonymous said...

Oh, may I add for posterity this is just the second round for all the scorners. We tennis fans will just go ahead claiming it. This is Serena's year and a repeat of her 20th century domination of a sport formerly closed and, now truly, and finally open. Justice and merit being a guide rather than outward appearances.

Unknown said...

We hope this afternoon of 9/2/15 to see history played out again by one of Richard Williams' now big girls. Serena's seizure of the calendar gold slam establishing her, if not already, as the premier athlete of her generation. Perhaps always. You go girl!!!!

Unknown said...

I love the discussion and dialogue Tony Hoagland's poem generated. It makes us think about what is blatant and what is subtle and what is subtly blantant.. This masked persona poem is complicated, ironic, exaggerated, funny, and racially outrageous. But then again, I'm a Black Russian, and have had a drink named after me. This poem is not about race as much as it is about Change is a comin', Folks. no matter the side you are on.Have I used a racist term? Oh, the beauty of diction."Advantage" Game!

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