The Growing Pains of Building a Better Poetry Canon

by Colin Pope

In case you missed it, the most recent poetry kerfuffle centered on an essay by Bob Hicok originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review in 2018 and reprinted by the UTNE Reader this summer. Hicok, a lauded and highly accomplished poet, acknowledges and laments the changing face of American poetry. The essay—grandiloquently titled “The Promise of American Poetry”—contains such statements as, “Under-represented poets are creating a large and dynamic public space,” while also admitting, “In American poetry right now, straight white guys are the least important cultural voices.” His readership is shrinking, and he feels this may be due, in part, to his straight-white-maleness (and how his poetry often revolves around concerns pertinent to that demographic). The essay posits that, as poetry grows more diverse, so does its readership, which presents a concern not in ideology—Hicok clearly endorses the diversification of poetry—but in import, prestige, and sales for individual straight w.m. poets. Overall, the essay reads, to me, like a mixed message written from a privileged place; he wishes he maintained a loftier position in the public sphere, but he knows his loss of reputation means the poetic canon is actively moving toward a more informed consciousness that will better the canon for future generations.

While there is a progressive message in this essay, Hicok’s contextualizing this message around his shrinking readership and reputation justifiably irritated critics. Notably, Timothy Yu, in The New Republic, posits that Hicok’s piece is “wrong not in its emotions, but in its analysis.” Yu then goes on to provide examples of how Hicok is incorrect, citing VIDA statistics, majority-white winners of recent Pulitzer Prizes, and specific books by poets from historically marginalized backgrounds. At the end of the essay, Yu notes, “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.” I wouldn’t say anything in Hicok’s essay portrays him as “afraid that writers of color are bent on his destruction,” but Yu’s response is representative of an important part of this discussion.

One of the issues with this conversation, as a whole, is that it’s so new we don’t exactly know how to approach it. I myself am conflicted about the need for such a conversation, even while listening for its implications about the cultural moment we live in. I’ve been interested in demographic representation in the canon for a while now—and published a study in The Millions on The Norton Anthology of American Literature earlier this year. Like Hicok and Yu, I acknowledge that the poetic canon is moving in a positive direction. And, like both, I recognize that there are certain growing pains that will involve confronting my own and other people’s limited perception of poetry.

The path toward “correcting” the overwhelmingly white and male poetic canon will feel like overcorrection to some poets, and Yu is correct to point this out to Hicok and the rest of us. Poetry publishers are aggressively pursuing a more diverse array of new books, and prize committees have noted the need to support young and upcoming poets from marginalized backgrounds. Indeed, this is a recent phenomenon, and building a better canon often begins at the level of emerging poets. To support new, diverse poets is to support a trend toward the longevity of such a poetry. A quick inspection of the winners over the last three years of three major American poetry first-book prizes—the Walt Whitman Award, the APR/Honickman First Book Prize, and the Yale Series of Younger Poets—reveals a list of excellent poets, none of whom are straight white males. Similarly, the lists of winners of the most prestigious fellowship for emerging American poets, the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, contains a set of fifteen diverse winners over the last three years (no straight white males, also).

It can be easy to see why a straight white male poet would read such statistics and despair. But rather than feeling displaced or disheartened, I’d encourage these poets to recognize that the conversations they will be able to enter as a result of this expanding and diverse poetry will be exciting and important and, moreover, that the need to support loudly and publicly such poets outweighs any immediate concerns about prestige or readership. Poetry exists for readers who need it, now and in the future, and the overarching problem with the canon we currently have is that it doesn’t seem to exist for all potential readers.

What hasn’t been discussed or studied yet is how readers have historically reacted to marginalized poetry, and this is what, I think, Hicok and Yu’s concerns point toward. There’s a need to promote more diverse poets partly because readers can be tribalists, gravitating toward books by people who are most like themselves. And, since straight w.m. poets have historically been the dominant force in poetry, the inequality is unidirectional; while marginalized readers have likely studied a snootful of s.w.m. poems in their primary and further educations, s.w.m. readers may not have read much from marginalized voices. But the readership is shifting toward a desire for more diverse poets. This is more than good: it’s American, and it’s necessary. And the growing pains of making a better canon will appear in conversations like this one, which, though perhaps well-intentioned, seems to neglect the trajectory of poetry into the future.

Colin Pope is a Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University. His poems, essays, and criticism have appeared in or are forthcoming from such journals as Slate, Rattle, West Branch, The Millions, Best New Poets, and others. His debut poetry collection, Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral, was a finalist for the Press 53 Award and was released in 2019 from Tolsun Books.

 

 

Review: Barbara Rockman’s to cleave

by Britton Gildersleeve

It’s difficult to write a poem that observes clearly. Not as simple as detailed description: there must not be too many metaphors and similes, only enough that the image offered is pregnant with meaning beneath the surface words. We must be enticed to care about both what the poet is seeing and what they are offering us a view of. Images must reveal and conceal. In her book to cleave, poet Barbara Rockman manages to make this juggling act look effortless.

Just two poems into the book, “Three Peaches on a White Plate,” the peaches “swell . . . in ripening devotion.” The next poem, “At Rest in Rain,” hints at the observer’s mission, in tune with the Rilke epigraph (My looking deepens things and they come toward me to meet and be met.). In other poems, sharp attention to details illuminates a still life, a vignette, a description: a “brackish roadside canal” with a “grass-matted lip”; “the iced deck,/the white-capped night,/gleam that rimmed each porthole”; “clouds like bloated fish.” The landscapes within and without serve as a kind of emotional stereopticon, with the end result a multi-dimensional sense of uneasy beauty. Such specificity creates a window into exterior landscape, as well as a lens through which to view it.

Rockman suggests a dynamic duality, beginning with the opposing climates and terrains of “Flying Home from the Pacific Coast Rim, I Consider the Rio Grande Rift”: “I/press one knee into damp pine duff/one into cold pressed beach . . . what opposition might teach/it is eternal   it is brief. . . .” This sense of conflict, of an overwhelming stasis in the face of a quandary, moves into the next poem as well: “There are two mornings on the menu.” Rockman weighs the choices—“choose from/Morning A  Morning B/ . . . Thorn-studded  Smooth-stalked . . .”

Such juxtapositions share the poet’s confusions, the ways in which she holds opposing images, choices, moments in uneasy balance. She contrasts a turkey vulture—“arthritic . . . moth-eaten”—with an egret “bird more air than night” (lovely!), ultimately reconciling the two to show how “grace lit a path from grief.” “Of the Coal Blue Field,” which begins with the poet and her four-year-old daughter sharing a private vocabulary segues into a stunning commentary on the nature of the poet: “seeing is his subject/and rendition his obsession.”  Certainly that seems true of Rockman’s work.

What enthralls me most, however, is completely subjective: Rockman’s several poems that examine love and marriage, particularly long-term versions of both. In to cleave, she manages to catch both the fleeting moments of everyday married life (“My Husband Comes Home from Work”) and those rare instants of transcendence (“After Birding at Cochiti Lake”). She moves from a catalog of the objective in “Home from Work”—“. . . he straightens, lifts his eyes/”—to the complicating subjective metaphor: “. . . eyes/their concrete bottom and the dead/leaves trapped there.” In “After Birding” the vocabulary of marriage becomes avian, and the images following “when we roll close at night, I hear wings” build to a climax (“Across my back, a blue heron steps./Tips of feathers brush thigh/and neck . . .”), holding the heron, bluebirds, a bald eagle, and rising geese in equal sensual weight. It’s possibly my favorite poem in the book.

Throughout the collection, a recurring dance of hands—the “flushed palms” of tulips, “my grandfather of the lovely hands,” “my hands/are scythes sweeping hay,” an entire poem on hands (“Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz . . .”)—forms a chain, where the hands are beads and the words links in a chain of pages that reach out to gather us in.

In Rockman’s book there is natural observation, there is motherhood; there’s trauma, marriage, family, and a deep love of words. She is a varied writer, moving easily among forms, subjects, voices. Each voice, be it that of a gull, a stone, a child, a daughter-in-law, has something necessary to tell us. I can’t imagine any reader coming away empty-handed. This is a book worth multiple readings.

Barbara Rockman’s earlier book, Sting and Nest, was the winner of the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award and the National Federation of Press Women Book Prize. Her work has been featured in Southern Humanities Review, Nimrod, Bellingham Review, and Taos Journal of Art and Literature, among other national journals.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in NimrodSpoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.