The Promise of American Poetry

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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.

These changes are profound. Under-represented poets are creating a large and dynamic public space in which they can openly express who they are and be rewarded for doing so. At the same time, the public space for straight white men is growing complicated in unprecedented ways. Straight white male concerns and tropes—which have often been grounded in a context of possession and power—are being supplanted by issues which, though familiar, have never held center stage. Poetry now is more reflective of the makeup, tensions, desires, and needs of a broader swath of Americans than ever before.

This is leading to a healthy and belated expansion of the American mythology. To the stories we’ve long told about democracy and opportunity, we’re beginning to embrace narratives of oppression and exclusion. While these narratives have always been there, they’ve never been mainstream, but as minorities become a collective majority, as women move from the background to the foreground, stories of oppression and exclusion become axiomatic and politically necessary if we’re to have an engaged citizenry. Politics, in this context, is the natural territory of art. To be involved, people need to be seen for who they are, and poets are doing this. They’re telling these stories and it no longer matters if straight white guys are listening. We can choose to listen, but we can no longer dictate the terms of the poetic discussion. We’re part of that discussion, but we don’t control where it will go. In American poetry right now, straight white guys are the least important cultural voices, as was inevitable, given how long we’ve made it difficult for others to have their say.

I offer this view into American poetry because I believe America is at a tipping point. The changes going on in poetry, and more slowly in the country, are irreversible and growing. While one response to this is to dial up the racism and sexism, hatred and vitriol, I prefer to view the growing voice of the marginalized as what America should be about. Born in 1960, I’m an MLK, Bobby Kennedy, Vietnam, CSNY (four dead in O-hi-o) kid. By temperament and teaching, I was drawn to the peace and love side of that era, and moved by “The Dream” speech most of all. My deepest consciousness of America as an idea, my most basic perception of what it means to be a citizen, comes from a black man’s response to white men’s refusal or inability to be decent and fair. His words took root in me before I’d read the U.S. Constitution, before I realized what John Wayne symbolized or had ingested the common spiel about America’s inherent equality. Which means my adult conception of American democracy has, at its base, as its animating spirit, a clear and public statement of individual conscience.

But I’m also torn between my pleasure at seeing part of American culture take significant strides toward equality and my sorrow due to the diminishment of interest in my work. In earlier versions of this essay, I tried to close the distance between those two feelings, to resolve what can’t be resolved, and in doing so, even cut this question—Am I willing to pay a price for the equality I say I believe in?—when I should have considered cutting everything but.

It’s a tough question because I love to write, and a big part of that love is knowing my poems have a chance for a life beyond my desk, that writing, in addition to giving my mind the body of words, allows me to send that body into the world, where it might be seen, touched, and touch back. I don’t want to lose that public space, don’t want anything to whittle it away. I want that part of my life to grow. Of course I do. 

Yet when I focus on my sense of loss, I’m guilty, not just of hypocrisy, but a softer version of what I’ve seen the majority of white politicians do my whole life. It’s a horrible kind of magic trick: with this hand, point at the smaller audience for my poems, while over here, hidden behind my other hand, is the fact that publishing houses remain dominated by people like me. Or talk about the scourge of drugs while saying nothing of the bill you just signed that leaves racial bias in drug-related prison sentences in place. Lament poverty in Middle America but not the apartheid-like conditions that exist in Chicago, Detroit, and the like. Speak of the need to improve safety in health clinics as cover for limiting access to abortion.

Then again, when I ignore my sense of loss, I’m lying.

Though emotionally I’m crushed that I’m disappearing as a poet, ethically I find it necessary and don’t know how to put the two together. It’s weird to stand near what I believe is the end of the kind of control men like me have held, hoping it is the end, trusting there’s nothing about any kind of human that gives them value greater than any other kind. Odd to feel this way while also knowing that, because force has been exerted for centuries against women and minorities, when that branch, so to speak, is let go, it has to snap back hard and far the other way, that for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Contradictory to believe and even enjoy that this kind of accounting has to take place, otherwise human nature isn’t what I think it is, otherwise I’ve been deeply wrong about our moral being, and strange to want this accounting while also wanting my life to continue as it has, for it’s been a very good life and a very good career. And not so weird, really, to not want to die, metaphorically and then actually, and of course forever weird to know that I have to do both, have to be cleared out to make room for the young, and that I and people like me deserve to be cleared out to make room for those unfairly denied. Weird to both love and hate this state of affairs. And maybe not so weird to love this: that American democracy asks to be a force pulling against the tendency to use our differences for advantage, by offering a civic space in which it is assumed we are the same.

In addition to the snow, I’m also watching big swaths of sparrows wheeling this way and that. The moment is beautiful—the falling snow, snow on branches, the birds doing what for them is part of staying alive but for me seems an embodiment of freedom. I am working at something I adore in a house I own with a woman I have lived with for thirty years, and I want everyone to have a shot at this life or their version of it.

I owe most of this to poetry, and as poetry becomes broader and more inclusive, a greater range of poets have similar opportunities. This change is easier within poetry because it’s so tiny: Poetry is a closet in the house of literature, and the house of literature in America is a bungalow, at best. Poets are invisible to most Americans, who remain indifferent and even hostile to what we do. Perhaps you remember this from The Big Short —“Truth is like poetry and most people fucking hate poetry.” Which is helpful in regard to the progressive evolution of poetry: Change in isolation is easier than change within a crowd. Poetry’s relative poverty is also a plus. If more money were involved, it would be much harder to overcome the status quo. While poetry is, I believe, a harbinger of things to come on a larger scale, of the ways demographic and attitudinal forces will reshape the political makeup and approach of this country, it can move at a pace the society as a whole cannot. Which makes poetry socially relevant like never before.

Out of this incubator, this tiny world, hints of the coming America rise. In the past, many of America’s great changes had to do with assimilation, with taking people in and making them American over time. These people also changed America, though less than they were changed. But we can’t “assimilate” sexual orientation or race or gender, can’t wear them down and wash them away until they blend into an existing stream. It gets harder to scapegoat minorities for our troubles, because America is more and more a minority majority country. Harder to restrict women because women are more often in positions of authority. And while LGBT people remain, perhaps, the most vulnerable among us, it’s no longer possible to force them into hiding, not en masse. What we’re experiencing now is not a period of cultural assimilation but cultural expansion, a redefinition of what it means to be American.

But as a group, I don’t think straight white guys can fit into the world taking shape—not easily, based on what we know about that world, and not quietly, based on what we’ve done. Those of you who aren’t straight white guys can see many of us thrashing around, some trying to reinstate the past and some trying to tear off our skin and hide it and many trying not to say anything lest we put our feet in our mouths, which we do often because we don’t know how to be in a world that requires us to think about race and gender. For hundreds of years, we could largely suppress or ignore outside treatment of us as a category, a class, a thing, and existed above such considerations. In historical terms, we’re new to this kind of introspection and the last people anyone else will listen to when it comes to matters of race and gender, even when we speak about ourselves, mostly because we’ve lied too much and too long. Lied and pretended. Lied and dragged our feet.

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.

To put namesto the books I referred to earlier, I give you Claudia Rankine, Ross Gay, Ada Limón, and Ocean Vuong. Layli Long Soldier, Chen Chen, Tyehimba Jess, and Gregory Pardlo, among many others, have recently stepped to the front of the stage and taken a bow. In the time I’ve been working on the several incarnations of this essay, no straight white male poet has caught the eye of readers to anywhere near the same degree. We’re just not there, both young poets and old farts alike. And while I’m sad that certain doors are probably closing for me, I’m thrilled by the real steps we’re taking toward equality.

What’s going on with poets—what’s so rare about this moment—has everything to do with wealth, sharing the wealth. About actual change instead of lip service. I don’t keep coming back to the pain I feel because I need to cry on your shoulder. The strange part of stepping forward as I have in this essay is that I’m kind of a hermit. I don’t really need you to know how I feel about this stuff, and get plenty of chances to speak my mind in my poems, which are still getting out there, in case I’ve mislead you on that score. Just not as much. And that’s the point: Poets have stepped beyond words to actions. Pulitzers, Guggenheims, reviews in The New York Times—the goodies are going to the kinds of people who, for the most part, have had their faces pressed to the glass. Most of my life, I’ve seen people be generous with their ideas and sentiments, not their wallets, their homes, their communities. By almost any economic or sociological measure, the country that honors itself as the fairest is consistently among the most unequal. The lie of equality has been allowed to live and grow. It’s been watered, tended, loved. And America won’t work, can’t work, if we don’t actually share the wealth, if the dreams of equality and upward mobility aren’t manifested in dollars, kudos, and honors.

For this to happen more broadly, as a society we have to get better at what the poets are doing. Better at beingeven badlyin the same room. Living on the same block. In the same city. I think of Glaucus and Diomedes in the Iliad. They’re about to go at it, swords and shields ready, death or maiming awaiting, but somehowI forgetthey start talking. They tell each other their lineages, and in telling, discover a connection, a bond, an overlap, a long-ago touch. And that’s it. They don’t attack each other. Why would they? In attacking each other, they would, on some level, be attacking themselves. They haven’t resolved anything beyond this little circle, but within that circle, recognition and intimacy lead to peace.

Which sounds good, but how is that circle formed?

I don’t know. When I look up now, several days later, there’s no more snow or birds. I miss the activity, the signs of life. Despite their otherness, I see myself in birds, link myself to them through metaphor and the desire to connect that which hides within it. To equate. To bind.

To gather, really. Poets are gatherers. As much as language is about picking one thing out from anothera fence post is not a lug wrenchit’s primary function is embrace. The dividing tendencies of our cultureblack from white, men from women, gay from straight, liberal from conservative—don’t flower so readily in the minds of poets. Which doesn’t answer the question of what to do, of how to form that circle, but invokes synthesis as a counter weight to the idea that life is a competition, a zero-sum game. Nature “red in tooth and claw” and all that. Poets tend to see one thing as another, in another, with another, which makes us lousy bankers and particle physicists but decent examples, in a splintered age, of people who look through and around difference to find kinship and common cause.

The draw of life to life. It’s kind of funny that snow warmed me with its fall. It was the activity, the animate pull. I often wonder if there’s a natural empathy between everything that exists, a connection that resides within the simple fact of being. These ideas extend readily into the Whitmanesque notion of America as the churn of every kind of person and every kind of work coming together to form a nation. I love the mess of this vision, the multiplicity of many kinds and hungers, perspectives and needs, mixing together and knocking about. It’s our strength, at least in theory, that we each have to try to treat as equal people who are vastly different from ourselves, if only because we need them to do the same with us. Make room. Make way. And I love that we’re not summoned by a god to do this but by each other, by an idea kept alive between us, which places the need, the desire for empathy at the core of being American.

This shared space brings me back to King. “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds,” he wrote in “I Have a Dream.” I think he was expressing the hope that the black community would apply sufficient force to carve out a genuine civic space without succumbing to the very evil they were fighting. This admonition to proceed with grace has to be inverted to apply to my life: For straight white men, the issue isn’t how do we carve out a space but do we willingly give space up, not how do we avoid evil but how do we address the evil we have loosed? To have a rightful place among equals, straight white men must admit our wrongful deeds and create an ethical relationship with our past. Freedom for someone like me has everything to do with taking responsibility for a debt. We owe, not guilt, sorrow, handwringing, marches, not the trappings of change but change itself. We owe opportunity, health, wealth, time. We owe life.

At its core, this essay is about the legacy of possession. My sense of loss (of public-poetic space) and the question I asked earlierAm I willing to pay a price for the equality I say I believe in?fit readily within the context of larger issues. What does it mean for straight white men in America to own anything, given our twisted history of ownership? What has come to us fairly and what has not? Do we participate in the dismantling of the traditions and systems of our power, or do we resist it? And if we participate, how do we navigate the uncertainty and mess of the remaking of America, how do we get to the other side when we don’t know where or what that is, and when it is no longer up to us to decide? 

Here again, I look to the poets. Poets have an ability, perhaps a need, to reside within unknowing, to surround ourselves with maybes, sort ofs, and who knows, as a way of circling in on, if not actually touching, the truth. We also tend to have faith that the most important part of writing a poem is jumping in, even whenespecially whenyou don’t know where you’re going. For me, that’s actually the best part, the setting off with no particular shore in mind, and trusting I’ll arrive at a place the poem itself has created, imperfect as art but perfect, to the degree it’s genuine, as a reflection of who I am.

More and more, straight white guys are on the outside of the circle I spoke of because we, more than any other group, hold ourselves apart. This is the worst aspect of material advantage, of hoarding, of allowing possession to become the point of existence: ou end up alone, either with your stuff or your desire for it. And solitude, the idea of the loner, even for a hermit like me, has never been what I love about this country: It’s common cause and feeling and action, in fact and book and film, that get me verklempt. I’m a fan of the “everyone into the pool” mythology of America, I think because nothing but a belief in a shared human nature, a mutual set of needs, desires and opportunities, has mitigated the ultimate sense of loneliness I feel. As an agnostic I can say that democracy is like a religion to me, a religion no one can join if everyone can’t.  

I need to acknowledge, though, that there’s no monolith called “the poets.” We’re a variable and messy lot, perhaps messier than most. I could get two friends on the phone and start an argument between them by taking an extreme position either way—the direction poetry is taking is the best thing/worst thing in the world—since one is convinced that the dominance of political poetry is killing the art and the other that politics is the only valid subject for poetry…and these women are married to each other. My sense is that the majority of poets believe what’s going on in poetry is overdue and revolutionary; many hold a “by any means necessary” view on breaking straight white male hegemony; others are terrified of some of the methods employed by activists, of Twitter-strafing and virtue signaling and a kind of mob-mentality about what can and can’t be said regarding race, gender, and power; and of course there are those who want life to remain as it has been. There are coteries and cliques, groups within groups. Even when trying to speak for my own group, I can quickly overstep a bound: An editor friend (straight white guy) thinks my ideas here are naïve. He’s been attacked for publishing a conservative poet (in a liberal magazine) and sees the leveling qualities of “political correctness” as a greater threat to democracy than inequality.       

I’ve set this complexity aside for a reason, as it tends to obscure what I’ve wanted to celebrate here, both as fact and example: American poetry is undergoing an inversion of the hierarchy that has dominated it all along. Whatever the cost for me, I’m happy that the myths and traditions of gender and racial superiority are being turned on their heads by poets. And that cost, in many ways, is the point: What straight white men have been unwilling to do on our own, no matter how obvious the corruption we have wrought and maintained for centuries, means that progress toward a more equal society requires that we experience, not just read or hear about, at least some of the pain we have caused others. While I’d love to believe that one group could set aside material advantage when the harm that advantage does to the whole becomes apparent, there’s almost no evidence that societies work that way. Certainly not ours. This makes any example of deep change, even if it’s limited to a very small group, important for all of us to consider.

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. 

Bob Hicok is a Guggenheim Fellow and a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Hold, his tenth collection of poetry, was recently published by Copper Canyon Press. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review (Winter 2018), which is a quarterly literary journal published by the University of Michigan.

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