The Promise of American Poetry

Poetry now is more reflective of the makeup, tensions, desires, and needs of a broader swath of Americans than ever before.

| Summer 2019

Photo by Adobe Stock/okalinichenko.

The future pulls us forward. Crawling becomes walking, becomes riding a bike, becomes flying to Paris, if you’re lucky. The desire for love, if you’re even luckier, becomes love. Broken hearted musings in a notebook can turn into a career in poetry, thank god. It’s snowing right now, which has me throwing my thoughts ahead to spring.

But we’re also buried alive with little losses along the way. The slowed step that becomes the bad hip and no more running. The word I can’t retrieve that turns into the sentence that refuses to form. Maybe the worst part of death is that I see it coming. To stay truly alive the whole time I’m alive gets harder as I go.

I write this because I’m dying as a poet. My books don’t sell as well or get reviewed as much as they used to. A lot of this drop-off likely has to do with age, as the fate of the majority of gray hairs, in whatever field, is to witness our obsolescence. Not always, of course, but older poets (and artists generally) tend to be washed away by aesthetic and thematic waves coming up behind us, changes we’re often unaware of or uninterested in, having moved on from that exciting but demanding phase when we eagerly cultivate a sense of the zeitgeist. Even if a poet’s work hasn’t settled into a rut, the present belongs far more to the young, who tend to see and push against their predecessors’ tendencies, their failures and tics, and actively pursue new styles, different content. The common progression for poets as we age—and this is for the very very lucky—is foreground, background, in the ground.

The good news for me is I’ve done well. I’ll forever count myself among the lucky dogs that anyone has ever wanted to read my poems, let alone to the degree they have. I see some other successful poets going through the same thing and hope they feel as grateful as I do for the ride they’ve had, a ride that’s not over, just evolving in ways it should have long ago.

Which is to say I’m a straight white guy and the face of poetry is finally changing. The hottest book of the past few years is by a black woman. The hottest book of the past year is by a black man, followed closely by a book of poems by a Latina. The hottest book of the moment is by a gay man born in Vietnam. From winners of major literary prizes in recent years to Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought” section, the books that come up least often are by straight white men of any age. The faces of poetry have changed.

8/11/2019 10:31:30 AM

Oh my. I'm guessing this writer would subscribe to the nostrum that he "opposes discrimination in all its forms," and yet didn't bat any eye when Attorney General Eric Holder championed state governments that checked the skin color of their citizens, and if that skin color was black, held those black-skinned citizens to a different standard, a lower standard, in state contracting, state hiring and state university admissions. That really is the most vile racism of our time. Sadly, he has a confused understanding of "equality." Equality in our nation refers to equal natural rights of life, liberty and property as included in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Interestingly, he refers to the Iliad in the heart of his essay. While I certainly detect what appears to be "self awareness" of the wider world on the part of this writer, I dare say that if he really gave a damn about his profession, he would have turned his considerable talents (and maybe he has in another essay) to our hideous Schools of Teacher Education, which are relentlessly focused on "process" rather than "knowledge content," including that of the great works of Homer. (See E. D. Hirsch Jr.'s book "The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them.") Namely, if we had Schools of Teacher Education that equipped teachers to focus on actual literacy, I dare say the appreciation of poetry would go up amongst the general public, not down. Instead, the writer, succumbing to the "tyranny of the moment," has engaged in mental self-flagellation exposing once again the insidious ignorance, racism and sexism of the progressive chattering class.

8/10/2019 5:57:12 PM

I, too, as a 'straight white guy,' have been coming to grips with the case Bob Hicok makes so well. In preparation for the Melville Bi-Centennial I've just been reading an essay on Moby Dick by D.H. Lawrence. Melville wrote his masterpiece in the run-up to the Civil War, but life aboard a whaler was another sort of society. The shrewd Mr. Lawrence makes these observations: "This Pequod, ship of the American soul. America! Then such a crew. Renegades, castaways, cannibals: Ishmael, Quakers. America! Three giant harpooners to spear the great white whale. 1. Queequeg, the South Sea Islander, all tattooed, big and powerful. 2. Tashtego, the Red Indian of the sea-coast, where the Indian meets the sea. 3. Daggoo, the huge black negro. There you have them, three savage races, under the American flag, the maniac captain, with their great keen harpoons, ready to spear the white whale. Many races, many peoples, many nations, under the Stars and Stripes. Beaten with many stripes." And, in brief, his conclusion: "Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the dark trees of America. Doom! Of what? We are doomed. And the doom is in America. The doom of our white day." The prescient Melville & Lawrence were ahead of the curve. What we see being played out in the world of poetry we may also see writ large in society as reactionary pushback from the white nationalist and--worse yet--the white supremacist movements, as they struggle to hold on to the mythical past. Now, as refugee migration ratchets up with the results of Climate Crisis, it's only bound to get worse. We'd all better buckle up. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

David Kirby
8/10/2019 10:18:01 AM

Bob Hicok says what I've been thinking for a long time, except he says it better. It's not surprising that a few readers bristle with resentment as they misread him, but, no, he's not lamenting the demotion of poets like himself and me, who's just as straight and white as Hicok and a good deal older. To miss his welcoming tone is to engage in what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls the fallacy of the single story: you read a complex narrative and reduce it to the one thread that supports the view you already have. It's the 200th anniversary of Whitman's birth, and like him and Hicok, I say, come aboard, everybody. There's room for us all.

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