"we have to get better at what the poets are doing"
August 14, 2019 10:20 AM   Subscribe

Bob Hicok, a straight, white male "establishment" poet, comes to peace with and wistfully celebrates the end of his straight, white male privilege. In the world of American poetry, at least.

"And unlike any other group I can think of, poets have turned a corner in approaching a more egalitarian way of being, and are successfully pushing at the structural barriers and traditions of bias that have limited success in our little world mostly to people who look like me. In that sense, I wish all Americans were poets."
posted by cross_impact (13 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I thought of posting about this! It was received with, shall we say, a certain coolness. ("Hicok’s main thesis—that white male poets have been eclipsed by women and poets of color on the literary scene—is simply false ... Even Hicok’s claim that among “winners of major literary prizes … the books that come up least often are by straight white men” doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Of the 13 Pulitzer Prizes in poetry awarded since 2008, nine went to white writers, six of whom were men.")

Another problem is that success in poetry, or publishing in general, does not equal anything like success in the world at large. In America, extraordinary and celebrated poets may be struggling to avoid homelessness. And poetry certainly does not protect you from structural racism. Claudia Rankine, in Citizen, wrote heartbreakingly about how her identity did not protect her from the sudden attack of a woman who was supposed to be her trauma therapist.

As a writer who now sees that her voice is overrepresented and needs to take its place in the progressive stack, I see another mistake of his: making his emotions other people's problems, specifically the problems of POC writers. My job is not to weep like I'm being devoured by the Swamps of Sadness. It's just to shove over and make room. Sometimes we have feelings that do not need to be shared with the entire world. I know that's hard to process for a poet. I am one.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:41 AM on August 14, 2019 [11 favorites]

(I feel like I ought to point out that Bob Hicok is not a bad poet. He's done some good pieces. What he could have not done is this.)
posted by Countess Elena at 10:46 AM on August 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is a heartfelt, illuminating essay.
posted by PhineasGage at 10:48 AM on August 14, 2019

I see another mistake of his: making his emotions other people's problems

There are several points in the essay where he says exactly the opposite. In fact there is a whole paragraph where he talks about his discomfort as the justified price of progress and a small price at that.
posted by cross_impact at 11:11 AM on August 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

I mean, I like that he's self-aware to any degree.

but also as a poet, I want to say:

dear bob hicok

i have drunk
the tears
that were in
that essay

which you were
probably thinking
would make me
feel sorry

for you. I
don't. they were
delicious. so
salty. still warm.
posted by what does it eat, light? at 11:26 AM on August 14, 2019 [8 favorites]

I mean, the commentary here and elsewhere proves his point, so I think the essay was pretty spot-on in terms of where society is trending, at least in progressive and artsy circles, regardless of Amazon sales data.
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:32 AM on August 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

For some reason this reminds me of the study where they discovered men thought women were in the majority whenever they comprised more than 20%* of the crowd

*Or thereabouts - too lazy to Google the real number
posted by captain afab at 12:30 PM on August 14, 2019 [20 favorites]

A student told me that a colleague of mine told him he'd never get an internship in physics because he's a white male. My response was, "Dude, white males are still vastly overrepresented at all levels of physics."

I suspect they're doing just fine in poetry, too.
posted by BrashTech at 1:46 PM on August 14, 2019 [9 favorites]

From the essay, (maybe deeper in than most readers have had time to read?):

"I’m not asking you to shed a tear on our behalf. If the price people like me pay for generations of power is awkwardness in talking about that fact, it’s not much of a price. Besides, there’s social benefit to having spaces in which straight white men have no choice but to listen. There’s value, too, in whites, in particular straight white guys, being, in effect, pilloried, if only by the embarrassment that arises when we talk about things we don’t really understand. Whatever I want human nature to be, the truth is we expect expiation when a harm has been done, and some kind of expiation is appropriate, given the historical and structural nature of racism and sexism."

So scoff, sneer, deride, roll your eyes, whatever. I think Hicok expects that reaction and thinks it appropriate at this point.
posted by cross_impact at 1:52 PM on August 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thank you for the link to that response, Countess Elena. I'm frustrated by Hicok's attempts to claim a marginalized status - sometimes by implication but sometimes more directly, e.g.: “American poetry is undergoing an inversion of the hierarchy that has dominated it all along.”

I mean, just no. Marginalized voices becoming less marginalized isn't an inversion of the hierarchy; it's abolishing the hierarchy. Equality is not oppression, though he seems to be experiencing it this way. He says he's crushed that he's "disappearing as a poet" and attributes this to straight white men being "the least important cultural voices," but if he's not marginalized - and he's not - you realize he is mourning being in ... the same position as poets who aren't straight white men? Maybe even still slightly better off?

What separates Hicok from your average asshole is that he is nobly willing to make this sacrifice. And sure, I believe that he truly welcomes these changes and that this essay was genuinely heartfelt. But still, positioning equality as marginalization and being equal as a sacrifice you are willing to make is a self-serving narrative.

It's no wonder that this was poorly received by many. If you think that poor reception proves his point you've mistaken a reaction to his perspective with a reaction to his identity.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:56 PM on August 14, 2019 [18 favorites]

It's funny when poets think of themselves as avant-garde. Experimental trends in poetry (conceptual poetry, found poetry, ecopoetics, etc.) are mostly echoes of visual art movements from 50-60 years before. Even so, anything straying too far from the lyrical is often considered anathema by the establishment. Poetry is a conservative culture that likes to think of itself as enlightened, and this kind of self-congratulatory sorry-not-sorry stuff written by older white writers comes across as hopelessly myopic. Hicok writes about "the direction poetry is taking" as if poetry is leading the way, when anyone outside his bubble can see that it's being dragged kicking and screaming.

John Barr's American Poetry in the New Century. although written in 2006, is a pretty astute assessment of the rut poetry has been stuck in for generations.

This reminds me of the excellent responses to the "Where is our Bob Dylan?" AskMe post from a few days ago. One of the top answers: "Look for the least powerful people traditionally, and seek out their music and art." The anger and energy that propels change in 2019 is not coming from people who look or work in the tradition of Bob Dylan or Bob Hicok. This doesn't mean that poetry or folk music are dying! But just because a medium or movement was progressive 50 or 60 years ago, does not mean that it is progressive today.
posted by oulipian at 2:05 PM on August 14, 2019 [8 favorites]

I have had multiple conversations like this with well meaning white men, who I’m sure really feel like an endangered species, and are quite uncomfortable with #metoo, and have a lot of other feelings. In the meantime, I continue to see white men dominating every single position of power in my industry, against all odds and efforts by everyone else. In other words, captain abfab has the most apt comment.
posted by rainydayfilms at 4:04 PM on August 14, 2019 [9 favorites]

People have pointed out that Hicok explicitely tells us not cry for him in his essay, but that kinda raises the question, how does he want me to react? Give him a cookie for his self-awareness?

Of course there's a potentially useful version of this essay not adressed to me at all, but to his fellow white male poets, "Look guys, I get why you're feeling persecuted, I feel so too, but we'll have to get over it" but I can't help thinking it would have been infinitely more useful if it included bits like "because frankly, we're being a bit paranoid, and things aren't quite as dire as they seem; in fact we still actually have a leg up, because so many people still think all these other voices now suddenly getting their spot in the lamplight are pushed for the sake of fashion/politics, while our fame will always be attributed to our timeless quality and universal appeal".
posted by sohalt at 5:50 AM on August 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

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