Dear Emily Post-Avant,

In your most recent post on the Bob Hicok-Timothy Yu exchange, you write:

Seriously, these two guys are, in fact, peas in a Poetry-Field pod, representatives of competing, but like-spirited camps, whining or snarling it out for position and advantage in the Official Poetry Parliament. And even in their antithetical preening, both display utter obliviousness–naive or intentional–as to their mutually shared and mutually beloved habitus: which is the giant Institutional cage (with ergonomic seating) that the most sophisticated North American poetry (post-mainstream and official-avant alike) finds itself displayed within.

As I’m sure you know, that’s a wildly inaccurate ad hominem. Hicok’s essay is a sometimes thoughtful meditation on the emergence of people of color as some of the leading voices in contemporary American poetry, but (as Yu notes) it descends into fact-free self-pity, bizarrely suggesting that “[i]n 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.” Yu moves from feelings to facts:

only two of 15 major literary publications achieved gender parity among their contributors… 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.

I’m trying (and failing) to imagine how an empirically-based dismantling of someone else’s argument could constitute “preening.” Your larger claim seems to be that both Hicok and Yu are trapped in the “giant Institutional cage” of North American poetry and therefore their positions are completely irrelevant. That’s a peculiar assertion for someone who writes for a journal entitled Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, and it reminds me of the USAmerican voters who assert two major political parties are virtually identical mouthpieces for large corporations and the wealthy, even as one of those parties kidnaps children, promotes white supremacy, and slides deeper into authoritarianism. Ironically, Emily, your position here seems to echo Hicok:

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.

Hicok clearly suggests that the new inclusiveness that marks some sectors of North American poetry is based not on aesthetics but politics. He quotes (unintentionally, perhaps) Sartre and Malcolm X in his reference to “by any means necessary,” includes a throw-away reference to “straight white male hegemony,” and employs the language of the reactionary right in phrases such as “a kind of mob-mentality” and “virtue-signaling.” I find the latter term especially problematic, since it suggests that at least some of us pushing for inclusion are doing so not out of conviction but only to appear “woke” (another term beloved by the reactionary right). Hicok seems unable to understand that people might read and celebrate Claudia Rankine, Morgan Parker, Simone White, or Diana Khoi Nguyen (to name three poets I particularly admire) not because they represent a way to correct the marginalization of poets of color but because they find the work innovative and compelling. To use your words, Emily, Hicok thinks it’s all just “whining or snarling it out for position and advantage in the Official Poetry Parliament.”

What makes Hicok’s claims in that section particularly appalling is that they directly contradict the first paragraph of his essay:

…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.

That’s a nice formulation of a process that anyone familiar with the arts understands, and I’m left wondering why Hicok doesn’t explore the aesthetics of inclusiveness. Official verse culture is now marked not just by a diversity of races, genders, ethnicities, and sexualities, but also by a diversity of poetic styles. Hicok first acknowledges that, then seems to ignore aesthetics completely, claiming to be “marginalized” not because his poetry is beginning to fall out of style but because he’s a straight white guy.

Poetry is always political in some way and the works of many of these writers is often explicitly political, but a decent poem is never merely political. Given that, Hicok’s refusal to examine the aesthetics of the work of Claudia Rankine, Ross Gay, Ada Limón, Ocean Vuong, Layli Long Soldier, Chen Chen, Tyehimba Jess, and Gregory Pardlo – all of whom he mentions in his essay – represents a major gap in his argument. They become not poets but “revolutionaries” who are “breaking straight white male hegemony.” Emily, you seem to present an analogous situation, suggesting that both sides are simply members of a “careerist, petit-bourgeois sub-class.” To make a reference to Monty Python, it’s the People’s Front of Judea fighting the Judean People’s Front.

But what about the poetry, Emily? Does that matter at all?

—William Freind