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.

 

 

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