From Hollywood movies to children’s books, there has probably never been more discussion of how people of color are represented in American culture than there is right now. Efforts like #OscarsSoWhite or We Need Diverse Books have called attention to the fact that white performers, authors, and characters continue to dominate mainstream movies and books. Recent blockbusters like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, hailed as breakthroughs for African American and Asian American representation, remain more the exception than the rule.
Could we look to poetry, of all places, to lead the way toward more diverse representation? A recent essay by the poet Bob Hicok, “The Promise of American Poetry,”Originally published in the winter 2018 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review, Hicok’s essay caused a stir on social media when republished online by the Utne Reader early this month. Hicok asserts that the “hottest books” of the moment in poetry, “from winners of major literary prizes in recent years to Amazon’s ‘Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought’ section,” are books by women, poets of color, and LGBT poets. As a result, Hicok argues, “Poetry now is more reflective of the makeup, tensions, desires, and needs of a broader swath of Americans than ever before,” a development that he links to the social and political goals of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “The growing voice of the marginalized,” Hicok declares, is “what America should be about.”
But what really got people talking was what Hicok—himself a widely respected poet—had to say about what these changes meant for him, as a self-described straight white male writer:
In American poetry right now, straight white guys are the least important cultural voices…
I’m … 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.
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.
Hicok was promptly roasted on Twitter, with numerous readers pointing out that Hicok’s privilege hardly seems diminished—his tenth collection of poetry is forthcoming from a prestigious publisher. But others praised Hicok’s honesty and self-reflectiveness in confessing his ambivalent feelings.
The irony, of course, is that Hicok’s essay, though it is about the alleged fading of the white male poet’s star in favor of poets of color, succeeds in putting the white male poet, and his feelings, right back at the center of the conversation. But Hicok’s essay is wrong. It’s wrong not in its emotions, but in its analysis. And understanding why it’s wrong takes us—despite Hicok’s best intentions—uncomfortably close to the heart of the language of white grievance that is currently roiling our country.
Let’s start with the obvious. Hicok’s main thesis—that white male poets have been eclipsed by women and poets of color on the literary scene—is simply false. The VIDA Count, which for the past decade has tracked gender disparities in literary journals and reviews, found that in 2017, only two of 15 major literary publications achieved gender parity among their contributors; over 60 percent of contributors to The New Yorker were men, as were over 75 percent of contributors to The New York Review of Books. Although comparable figures for poets of color are not readily available, there is ample data showing that American publishing as a whole remains overwhelmingly white. 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.
So why does Hicok, in the face of the available evidence, believe that white poets are disappearing? Well, Hicok is surely correct that a number of poets of color have made major impacts on the literary scene in the past few years, a development Hicok rightly views as a major advance for American letters. Yet he also sees them as harbingers of a literary world in which writers of color dominate American literature completely—to the exclusion, it would seem, of white writers altogether. This is perhaps most evident in a remarkable choice of words toward the end of the essay, when Hicok declares that “American poetry is undergoing an inversion of the hierarchy that has dominated it all along.” The term “inversion” suggests not a newly level playing field, but a reversed hierarchy in which writers of color now rule and white writers are pushed to the margins. As I’ve already shown, there’s no evidence this is actually happening, but clearly Hicok feels like it is.
A few observers have compared Hicok’s essay to another controversy in poetry from about a decade ago: Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change” and the response to it by Claudia Rankine. The speaker of Hoagland’s poem, watching a tennis match in which a “big black girl from Alabama” with “some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite” crushes a white opponent, finds himself “wanting / the white girl to come out on top, / because she was one of my kind, my tribe,” and ultimately sees the black player’s victory as a sign that “everything was changing / and in fact, everything had already changed— / Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone.” Yet it hardly needs saying that the rise of Venus and Serena Williams has not led to the replacement of most white tennis players with black ones, just as the presidency of Barack Obama did not lead to the election of a majority-black Congress or the end of structural racism. Though Hicok claims to welcome the changes of which Hoagland’s speaker seems wary, both focus their pieces on the “honest” confession of ambivalent feeling by a white man confronted by the public rise of a handful of people of color.
Here’s where things start to get uncomfortable. That the entry of a few people of color into spaces from which they have previously been excluded can lead to fears that people of color are “taking over” is not news. The concepts of “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism” have become widespread. In areas like college admissions or employment, such fears are often linked to a sense of scarcity of resources, in which whites are being “pushed out” of their access to college or jobs by (presumably undeserving) people of color or immigrants. We can glimpse this thinking in Hicok’s conception of poetry as a zero-sum game: If poets of color are getting a little more, that must mean less for white poets like him. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that poets of color might be expanding the audience for poetry or creating new readerships; their gain can only be his loss. For Hicok, the rise of poets of color means his own death. “I’m dying as a poet,” he declares at the outset of the essay—because “the face of poetry is finally changing.”
How great a distance is there between this fear that white poets are being displaced by poets of color and the hideous chant of Charlottesville, “You will not replace us?” Hicok would no doubt be appalled, and likely wounded, by this comparison. But I think it is one we have to make. For Hicok’s essay is, at its core, about the emotions that white men feel as they watch the slow erosion of the structures that once protected their power and privilege, and the outsize (and unwarranted) fear of their own erasure that they experience as a result. Hicok’s experience of this erasure is one of guilt, sadness, and loss, because he knows he should celebrate this changing of the guard. And yet he cannot. Feelings are political too. It is not hard to see how for many white Americans, this fear of erasure can lead to anger and resentment as well—emotions that have proved to be tinder for the racist sparks of the Trump era.
What if white writers like Hicok saw the rise of writers of color not as their own death, but as a new birth for American literature? For all of Hicok’s ostensible celebration of poets of color, he has remarkably little to say about their work itself. Indeed, his account often seems to imply that they have become trendy, and are valuable, only because of their race. “The hottest book of the past few years is by a black woman,” he says, without naming Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. “The hottest book of the moment is by a gay man born in Vietnam,” he writes, without naming Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
How much more valuable would Hicok’s essay have been had he presented his emotional responses—yes, as a straight white man—to Rankine’s lyrical paragraphs on the black body moving through white public spaces, or to Vuong’s exquisite, agonized coming-of-age narration addressed to a mother who will never read it? Because Hicok is so afraid that writers of color are bent on his destruction, he seems not really to have heard them, nor is he able to see them as fellow workers in a widening prospect of American literature.
If Hicok worries that his own work has been rendered obsolete, perhaps he could learn something from younger writers of color who are courageously engaging race and racism in their work. Perhaps in making his own poetry and criticism he could undertake the risk of being not just a passive observer to race relations, but an active participant in anti-racism. Ultimately, I think Bob Hicok is right that poets of color are leading the conversation in American poetry right now. Perhaps he should try to follow them.