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Analysis of Poem 'Grammar' by Tony Hoagland

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

'Maxine, back from a weekend...' poem summary and analysis

'Maxine, back from a weekend...' poem summary and analysis

'Grammar' Tony Hoagland Analysis

'Grammar' is a playful poem on the surface, conversational in style and matter-of-fact in tone, yet carries with it imagery and metaphor that add spice and intrigue to what is a short, reactive scene highlighting beauty and the sexual act.

Tony Hoagland is a popular American poet whose poetry is deemed accessible to most readers. His mostly uncomplicated forms and relaxed delivery on subjects such as societal issues, sex, adolescence, culture and beauty, mean that there is a minimum of ambiguity - the message, if there is one, is usually obvious enough.

That's not to say he's easygoing in his treatment of the subject; he's anything but. Tony Hoagland can touch social nerve ends from time to time and has even been accused of dubious approaches to race and gender. He is controversial, often wanting to clear the air in his poems, or create an argument, sometimes to the detriment of the poem itself.

Along the poetic journey, he has changed style in some of his work, from sticking to a single narrator to using several voices. He explains in an interview on Miriam's Well:

'Having multiple speakers in a poem makes the poems less dominated by a single voice, and that felt like a relief to me. It meant that one person didn’t have to ‘solve’ the issues presented by the poem, and maybe that nobody has to solve anything– that the poem could become more of an exploration than an experience of crisis and resolution.'

'Grammar', from the poet's 2005 book, What Narcissism Means To Me, offers the reader perspective on sexual attraction. In typical Hoagland style, it opens casually enough but then digs deeper with simile and metaphor, taking the reader into the protagonist's persona: one Maxine, a female who attracts a lot of attention. Hence the emphasis on 'we', presumably a bunch of males who are tuning in to her situation.

  • The references to grammar - conjugated verb, personal pronoun, direct object - are metaphorically representing physical action, the sex act. If grammar is a set of rules enabling proper composition of words, clauses, sentences and so on, then this poem reflects the natural rules involved in the reaction of the male to the beauty of the female.
  • These devices help distance the speaker from the girl and the sexuality she so obviously exudes.
  • The speaker is also able to disconnect personally by introducing the group, the collective 'we', which might be the males in a schoolroom just prior to the lesson starting, or the male contingent in an office.

This poem doesn't offer much lyricism or musicality, it reflects the ordinary conversational style but adds metaphor and imagistic twists and it is these that save the poem from sinking in its own shallowness.


Maxine, back from a weekend with her boyfriend,

smiles like a big cat and says

that she's a conjugated verb.

She's been doing the direct object

with a second person pronoun named Phil,

and when she walks into the room,

everybody turns:

some kind of light is coming from her head.

Even the geraniums look curious,

and the bees, if they were here, would buzz

suspiciously around her hair, looking

for the door in her corona.

We're all attracted to the perfume

of fermenting joy,

we've all tried to start a fire,

and one day maybe it will blaze up on its own.

In the meantime, she is the one today among us

most able to bear the idea of her own beauty,

and when we see it, what we do is natural:

we take our burned hands

out of our pockets,

and clap.

Literary Devices Used

'Grammar' is a three-stanza, free verse poem. There is no set rhyme scheme and the meter (metre in UK) is mixed.

  • The three stanzas constitute a snapshot, a brief scenario set perhaps in an office or schoolroom.
  • The first-person speaker is speaking for a collective - we. This signifies a confident inner certainty, someone with knowledge, intuition even. How else would the reader know that Maxine is returning, having been with her boyfriend all weekend?
  • Grammar moves from the inner thoughts and imaginative musings of the speaker to the outside world, the atmosphere of the room.
  • Metaphor - conjugating a verb, a bee around a flower, building a fire - all metaphors for sexual action. Conjugate means coming together, combining with another affecting change
  • Simile - smiles like a big cat. Yes, it could be said that big cats are capable of a smile, so-called, which would imply quiet satisfaction. But don't forget that the smile on a big cat can be deceptive. Big cats can be ferocious.
  • Lineation, how the lines appear on the page, varies from a long 14-syllable line (most able to bear the idea of her own beauty) to 2 syllables (and clap).
  • Alliteration - these are the examples: weekend with, doing the direct, person pronoun, when she walks. This helps to connect lines and brings interest to the sound.
  • door in her corona - a blinding circle of light surrounds Maxine but there is a way in, an opportunity to feed from the sweet luminous energy.
  • fermenting joy - Maxine is giving off the scent of happiness, a chemical reaction is in progress with delicious, intoxicating results.
  • Fire and burning - this element is strongly associated with passion and danger. In this context, it undoubtedly points to physical intimacy, the sexual spark that flames and flares up. The line opening the third stanza 'we've all tried to start a fire' suggests that the males in this room have one by one tried to hit it off with Maxine but failed OR it could be simply saying that, generally in their lives, they have attempted to initiate something physical and that, one day, by sheer chance or through fate, the result could be real fire, capable of burning.
  • beauty - The last stanza implies that only Maxine today is capable of carrying her beauty, in her mind as well as physically. The others, the males? well, they're struggling. But deep inside they do acknowledge the way Maxine and natural beauty go together.
  • But if you get too close to the fire, not yet ready to taste its warmth, you're going to get burnt.


Tony Hoagland Interview | Miriam's Well: Poetry, Land Art, and Beyond ( 2010.