Poem of the Week: “Hard Rain,” by Tony Hoagland

Tony HoaglandI heard this poem while listening to the Writer’s Almanac. Tony Hoagland is a poet who is good at pointing out hypocrisy in humorous ways, but there’s still a little bite to it. I normally laugh when I read his poems, but I also nod my head and say, “Dang yo.”

This poem uses that moment we’re all familiar with when we hear a song we love turned into elevator music or a pop hit or a commercial to make a point about how our culture often dulls down the hard messages that are out there, keeping us in this content sort of numbness that just wants to keep everything pleasant.

Since it’s referencing Bob Dylan’s, “Hard Rain,” I’m starting out with those lyrics, which, of course, are pretty poetic themselves. I think it makes Hoagland’s poem more powerful to remind yourself what Dylan was saying in this song that ends up in a department store in the poem. Enjoy them both.

“Hard Rain,” by Bob Dylan

“Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?

And where have you been my darling young one?”

“I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans”

“I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain a-gonna fall”

“Oh, what did you see, my blue eyed son?
And what did you see, my darling young one?”

“I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin'”

“I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain a-gonna fall”

“And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?”

“I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
I heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
I heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin'”

“I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
I heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall”

“Oh, what did you meet my blue-eyed son?
And who did you meet, my darling young one?”

“I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow”

“I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded in hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall”

“And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
And what’ll you do now, my darling young one?”

“I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the deepths of the deepest dark forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters”

“Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number”

“And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it
And I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall”

 

Hard Rain

After I heard It’s a Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
played softly by an accordion quartet
through the ceiling speakers at the Springdale Shopping Mall,
I understood there’s nothing
we can’t pluck the stinger from,

nothing we can’t turn into a soft drink flavor or a t-shirt.
Even serenity can become something horrible
if you make a commercial about it
using smiling, white-haired people

quoting Thoreau to sell retirement homes
in the Everglades, where the swamp has been
drained and bulldozed into a nineteen-hole golf course
with electrified alligator barriers.

You can’t keep beating yourself up, Billy
I heard the therapist say on television
to the teenage murderer,
About all those people you killed—
You just have to be the best person you can be,

one day at a time—

and everybody in the audience claps and weeps a little,
because the level of deep feeling has been touched,
and they want to believe that
the power of Forgiveness is greater
than the power of Consequence, or History.

Dear Abby:
My father is a businessman who travels.
Each time he returns from one of his trips,
his shoes and trousers
                                   are covered with blood-
but he never forgets to bring me a nice present;
Should I say something?
                                                       Signed, America.

I used to think I was not part of this,
that I could mind my own business and get along,

but that was just another song
that had been taught to me since birth—

whose words I was humming under my breath,
as I was walking through the Springdale Mall.

 

“Hard Rain,” appears in Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, published by Graywolf Press, 2010unincorporated-persons-in-late-honda-dynasty

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