- Tony Hoagland’s poem “Why I Like the Hospital” is a satirical take on the present-day societal norms.
- The poet-speaker says that he likes the hospital because it is the only place where people are supposed to express their inner feelings without shame.
- The poet criticises how people show care-free attitude towards the hospitalised patients and how they are left alone by their families.
Why I Like the Hospital – Explanation
Lines 1 – 4
Because it is all right to be in a bad mood there,
slouching along through the underground garage,
riding wordlessly on the elevator with the other customers,
staring at the closed beige doors like a prison wall.
So, the poet-speaker here begins straight with his explanation as to why he likes the hospital. It is because it’s alright to display one’s bad mood or to express one’s pain in a hospital (and nowhere else).
Actually, in the modern-day society, we hardly have scope to express our real feelings openly, so we always try to wear a smile in the public even if we are not feeling good from the inside. Thus, the opening line of the poem is Hoagland’s humorous but critical jibe at the contemporary life.
In the next three lines, the poet describes the experience of navigating through the hospital, slouching along in the underground garage and riding the elevator in silence. The patients stare at the closed beige-coloured doors (of the lift) which become symbolic of confinement and restriction. Here also, the poet criticizes the business-mindedness of the hospitals for treating the patients as ‘customers’.
Lines 5 – 9
I like the hospital for the way it grants permission for pathos
—the mother with cancer deciding how to tell her kids,
the bald girl gazing downward at the shunt
installed above her missing breast,
the crone in her pajamas, walking with an IV pole.
In the second stanza, the speaker reiterates that he likes the hospital because it is the only place where you have permission for pathos, or intense emotions. He observes various individuals in distressing situations – a mother with cancer contemplating how to share the news with her children, a bald girl looking down at the shunt (a small tube carrying blood) above her missing breast, and an elderly woman (crone) wearing pyjamas walking with an intravenous pole (a pole for hanging bags of liquid medications). These touching scenes evoke a sense of empathy in the readers.
Lines 10 – 17
I don’t like the smell of antiseptic,
or the air-conditioning set on high all night,
or the fresh flowers tossed into the wastebasket,
but I like the way some people on their plastic chairs
break out a notebook and invent a complex scoring system
to tally up their days on earth,
the column on the left that says, Times I Acted Like a Fool,
facing the column on the right that says, Times I Acted Like a Saint.
The speaker now states what he doesn’t like about the hospital. These are the smell of antiseptic, the constant air-conditioning running at high-speed making the temperature low and the fresh flowers thrown into the dustbin. The poet finds all these as signs of carelessness and apathy.
But the speaker likes the unique behaviour of some patients in the hospital. These individuals, sitting on plastic chairs, take out notebooks and create intricate scoring systems to account for their days on Earth. The contrasting columns represent their moments of foolishness and acts of virtue, highlighting the complexity of human experiences. These people most probably have terminal diseases and so they are counting their remaining days and also reflecting upon their good and bad actions of past.
Lines 18 – 21
I like the long prairie of the waiting;
the forced intimacy of the self with the self;
each sick person standing in the middle of a field,
like a tree wondering what happened to the forest.
The poet depicts the miseries of the sick people through vivid images. The lonely patients in the hospital are waiting for their near and dear ones to come to meet them. Their wait is long and continuous like the prairies (grasslands). Each sick person is like a tree standing alone in the middle of a vast field, isolated from the forest. They are alienated and ignored by their families.
However, the poet says that he likes how the constant waiting of the patients forces them into self-intimacy: introspection and self-reflection. For instance, he likes how the lonely patients talk with themselves or contemplate on their good and bad actions of the past.
Lines 22 – 29
And once I saw a man in a lime-green dressing gown,
hunched over in a chair; a man who was not
yelling at the doctors, or pretending to be strong,
or making a murmured phone call to his wife,
but one sobbing without shame,
pumping it all out from the bottom of the self,
the overflowing bilge of helplessness and rage,
a man no longer expecting to be saved,
The speaker now recalls a specific encounter with a man wearing a lime-green dressing gown. He was bent down in a chair. Unlike others who may put up a disguise of strength or frustration, this man openly sobs without shame. He releases his helplessness and rage, accepting that he may not be saved any more.
So, understandably, this patient has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and has no hope of recovery. So, he is expressing his innermost feelings without shame, as the hospital is the only place where one can express one’s mind so openly.
Lines 30 – 33
but if you looked, you could see
that he was holding his own hand in sympathy,
listening to every single word,
and he was telling himself everything.
The poet-speaker now addresses the readers directly using the word ‘you’. He draws our attention to the fact that the patient was actually consoling or giving support to himself (holding his own hand in sympathy), as there was no one else to hold his hands and sympathise with him. And the man was talking to himself, listening to every single word he was uttering. There was nobody else to care for him or talk to him.
The poet thus highlights the utter loneliness of the terminal patient who is now left alone. This is the stark reality of the modern-day society that the poet depicts and criticises here.
Why I Like the Hospital – Into Details
Tony Hoagland’s poem “Why I Like the Hospital” was published posthumously (after his death in 2018) in July 2022 by the efforts of his wife Kathleen Lee. It was published by Graywolf Press in the collection “Turn Up the Ocean” which is a collection of some 46 poems and is the final book of poems by the author.
Most of the poems in the collection “Turn Up the Ocean” were written in the shadow of an incurable cancer the poet had been suffering from. The poet was saddened not only by the carelessness shown to the patients in the hospitals but also by the loneliness of those patients ignored by their families. In the present poem, “Why I Like the Hospital”, the poet criticises the modern-day society for such ignorance towards the patients.
Hoagland being an American poet, it can be assumed that the poem “Why I Like the Hospital” is set in the 21st century America, and to be precise, in a hospital in America. The poet shares his first-hand experience regarding the behaviour of various patients and how they are treated with carelessness and forced into loneliness in hospitals in the so-called modern American society.
The title of Tony Hoagland’s poem “Why I Like the Hospital” is quite sarcastic. Hospital is obviously not a likable place in the normal sense, but the poet has been able to arouse the readers’ interest at the very beginning by using such an ingenious title. On reading the title itself, the readers would be curious to know why the poet would like a hospital and whether there is something they are missing.
When the poem begins, we start realizing that the poet is actually ironic with the title. Here he criticises the flashy modern society where people are not supposed to openly express feelings like sadness and agony. And a hospital is the only place which allows you to convey those feelings.
Again, as the poem progresses, we see the speaker criticising the utter callousness shown to the patients and also how they are forced into loneliness there. That makes us ultimately feel that the hospital is not at all a place to be liked and the poet’s use of the title thus seems more ironical.
So, the title of the poem fits well with both the theme and the tone of the poem.
Form & Language
The poem “Why I Like the Hospital” is written in free verse with no particular metrical pattern and no rhyme scheme. However, there are some half rhymes here and there like “shunt” and “breast”, “night” and “wastebasket”.
Some lines are short and some are long, making the poem look like a topsy-turvy verse. Maybe that reflects the condition of the patients in the hospitals and the overall chaotic situation of the society that the poet is unhappy about.
The use of plain and simple language makes the poem easy to grasp. Use of figurative language here and there makes it a treat for the literary nerds. What stands out is the use of enjambment throughout the poem. The sense flows from one line to the next line and even to the next stanzas, effectively making the eight-stanza poem complete in only five full-stops.
[Next part coming…]