Involved and Implicated: Narcissism and Poetry

6 Min read

Poetry on a December afternoon

1 Book rec

Word nerd special



If you’re like me, you can use a bit of poetry. I’ve had a few days to consider this collection, its after shocks, surprised at my evolving response.

Tony Hoagland’s 2003 What Narcissicism Means to Me arrived last week and I read it one afternoon.*

The poems made me stop and re-think, calibrate to a new heading, see the glass not as half empty or half full, but see outside the glass and what it is made of, where it is sitting, who filled it and why. Maybe it isn’t even glass.

  • We were drinking beer with the sound off, / watching the figures on the screen— / the bony blondes, the lean-jawed guys / who decorate the perfume and the cars —
  • the pretty ones / the merchandise is wearing this year.
  • Alex said, I wish they made a shooting gallery using pepole like that. / Greg said, That woman has a Ph.D. in Face. [excerpt from Commercial for a Summer Night, p.5]

That’s a fun flip. The pretty people that the merchandise is wearing. Humans as the decor for the products. Reminds me of the dog walking the human, whose schedule revolves around the dog’s bowel movements. When the human, tethered to the animal, follows-up after, picking up excrement with a hand sheathed in the day’s newspaper plastic.

Who’s in charge, really?

How timely is this 20-year-old book on Argentina?

  • And in Argentina, afer the elections, / we hear the old president won’t leave office– / literally, they say –they can’t get him out of the office! / He’s in there with his little private army, eating caviar, / squandering state money on call girls and porno movies– / and if you’ve done any therapy at all, I think you’ll see the analogy. [Argentina. p. 9]]

Can you stand silent and still while hearing the worst of yourself from others? Maybe there is a kernel of truth in what they say, and if you’re being a teeny bit honest, more than a kernel.

  • “Success is the worst possible thing that could happen to a man like you,” she said, / “because the shiny shoes, and flatttery and the self-lubricating slime of affluence would mean you’d never have to face your failure as a human being.”
  • . . . while I smiled and listened to her talk, / thinking it was good to let myselt be stabbed by her little spears, / because I wanted to see what I was made of / besides fear and the desire to be liked / by every person on the goddamn face of the earth —
  • . . . And anyway, she was right about me, / that I am prone to certain misperceptions, / that I should never get so big or fat that I / can’t look down and see my own naked dirty feet, /
  • . . . I knew that if I could succeed at being demolished, / I could succeed at anything. [Patience, p. 32]

I mean, who are you really, when you’re not consumed with the desire to be liked? And, what are your misperceptions, that is if you have any? Can you stand to be demolished by someone close to you, by someone who knows and sees you better than yourself? To let yourself be stabbed by all the little spears?


Ever have it wrong, so god-awful-off-the-mark, that you cringe at your own silliness, at the years of mistaken words, meaning, truth?

In his poem Two Trains, Hoagland writes how he thought the song “Two Trains Running” was about trains. Then someone told him it was about a man and woman under the covers. Then for a long time he thought it was about sex, until Mack said the song was about Jesus, how He is running with you, a kind of gospel song.

Then after Hoagland quit his job in Santa Fe and “Sharon drove her spike heel through my heart” and Dean moved away, he thought it was about good-byes.

The feeling in the song is about grief, what it is “to love some people like your own / blood, and then to see them simply disappear; / to feel time bearing us away / one boxcar at a time.”

Poems are like songs, taking on meanings and feelings based on unique experiences and beliefs. They mean different things to different people. They mean different things to the same people at different times in their lives.


Nouns of abstraction.

Here is a stanza from the book’s third section, Blues.

  • That’s what I like about disappointment: / the way it slows you down, when the querulous insistent chatter of desire goes dead calm.

The poet is on a bridge and looking out at the gray water and the poem opens in first person, I was feeling pretty religious. Then third person, how he didn’t get the job, — or her father died before she told him that one, most important thing– Then it ends with second person, implicating the reader, you and me.

  • You just have to stand there/ looking out on the water / in your trench coat of solitude / with your scarf of resignation / lifting in the wind. [Disappointment pp. 58-59]

I love these nouns of abstraction: the trench coat of solitude and the scarf of resignation. YOU stand there alone, weighing human notions of what it feels to be ‘religious’ and to be ‘disappointed’ because at the poem’s close, the reader–you and I–we’re implicated.


Involved versus implicated

As readers, as humans, should we be implicated? Involved is what we are as careful readers. At the very least, the thoughtful reader assumes the poet’s words for the duration of reading; we put on his coat and scarf. We inhabit his mind and his life. Involved means concerned and caring. Involved is about being present in the moment of reading.

But, implicated means charged, somehow complicit, somehow responsible. Implicated means more; it means we see ourselves as culpable and guilty, an accomplice to such thought or action. We have a level of understanding beyond mere reading of the words. A recognition of others, of ourselves.

Implicated means we are the decor in our fancy new car, that our fast denial and faster rebuttal cover a deep-down resemblance to a rebuke or critique, that we have misconstrued meaning of the message as Hoagland does with the two trains, or that we too have felt the cold and hard loneliness of disappointment.



*A required text of David Foster Wallace’s English 67, Literary Interpretation–or DFW’s E67–arrived this week and I promptly read it in a single sitting. These lines of poetry come from the 2003 collection by Tony Hoagland titled, What Narcissicism Means to Me.

*Hoagland’s book was fun. What was perhaps the most humorous part of this experience was reading DFW’s syllabus in its entirely, which was shared online by one of his students after his death. The 7 page syllabus was so engrossing and entertaining I had to print off a copy for myself. She writes: “I can’t fully articulate the experience of taking a class from him, but it was unparalleled.


*involved. (4) concerned, caring, committed. (Shorter Oxfored English Dictionary, 5th Ed. 2002, Vol 1, p. 1419).

*implicated. (1) intertwined, twisted together, wrapped up with, involved or entangled in. (Ibid., p. 1330).

*Narcissism. [a youth in Greek mythol. who fell in love with his own reflection in water and pined away.] Self-love, extreme vanity; PSYCHOLOGY emotional or erotic gratification gained from contemplation of one’s self or one’s appearance. (Ibid., Vol 2, p. 1885)

Dec 11, 2023


About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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