The Zero-Sum Game That Isn’t

A strange and sad essay was published in the American online journal Utne Reader this summer by the poet Bob Hicock (The Promise of American Poetry). Strange, sad and actually quite annoying.
In the essay, Hicock, a successful white male poet with nine collections behind him, waxes mournful at the apparent tailing-off of his career in recent years (a phenomenon he aligns with the growing number of non-white-male poets getting published and scooping up awards) while at the same time cogitating on the necessity of old white guys like him being sacrificed at the altar of multiculturalism. It’s a thoughtful essay, don’t get me wrong, and genuinely felt; but there is rather too much of the Noble Captain Oates about it. A sense of the “It is a far, far better thing I do”…
The poet has already taken something of a roasting on Twitter, and Timothy Yu has responded comprehensively in The New Republic (The Case of the “Disappearing” Poet) so I don’t want to blog about the essay just to pile in, but Hicock’s response to a perceived taking-over of a cultural space that he has become used to occupying by some ‘other’ group is worth pausing over; especially as the issues relate equally to the UK poetry scene.
The problem, if it is a problem, is not that more people of colour are writing poetry but that more people in general are writing poetry, it’s a more popular genre than ever before. But as Yu points out, the audience for poetry is growing too and this is borne out in poetry book sales, competitions, festivals etc. There is evidence that this growing world of poetry is more diverse than many older poets are used to, but the world is more diverse than they are used to so why would poetry not reflect this? To an extent one can understand the reactionary right-wing pushing back against this change in demographics (they would not be right-wing reactionaries if they did not react this way), but heartfelt expressions of personal loss from the liberal, progressive side are almost more difficult to stomach.
The best metaphor I can think of is of a spoilt child who has been told he has to share his toy. 
It brings to mind the recent complaint from a male British writer about a poem by Kim Moore, which I blogged about here. He complained that her ‘objectification’ of men represented a school of thought which ultimately wanted to eradicate men from existence entirely. This is the child’ s tantrum. Hicock’s reaction, the plea for understanding of what is framed as a quite reasonable sadness, equates to the child’s glum sulk, or perhaps their quivering-lipped acquiescence.
These are men who are culturally privileged – and have been for their whole lives – and they see that privilege being taken from them. The reader would be forgiven for feeling that a more dignified response would be simple silence. But let’s face it, in the literary world we all want to say something because if we’re not saying anything, we’re nothing – literally.
Part of this might be that every poet secretly thinks and hopes they will be the one to be remembered by generations to come, theirs is the poetry that will last forever and enter the Canon (whatever that is). To this extent, poetry is (to contradict a phrase I keep reading) a Zero-Sum game. Only a tiny fraction of all the poetry published in the last fifty years will remain in print and on undergraduate reading lists in another fifty. Even most Poet Laureate work is likely to be forgotten other than by a tiny number of academics (who reads Alfred Austin or Robert Bridges these days?) especially as it is no longer a life position. So the more poets there are out there, the lower the chance that any one will be one of those few who stay in print. And as other younger poets become popular and the realisation sets in that ‘actually perhaps I was just another poet’ there is bound to be some sense of loss.
The question is whether Hicock would have felt the same intensity of loss if the younger poets he saw coming through and displacing him were white. Possibly he would; but what is interesting is that he links his perceived loss of status not with younger poets per se but specifically with those poets of colour who are among the new generation. This is where a residual racism lurks, behind the conscious mind, a place where progressives are as defenseless as reactionaries until they notice and self-correct.
But, in my view, the culprit here is not only the racisms hidden in patriarchy, it is also an increase in poetry being thought of as a form of entertainment, the success of which is measured in book sales, festival invitations, public readings, competition wins etc. (intelligent, consciousness-altering entertainment maybe, but entertainment nonetheless) This is a winner-loser mentality which, again, is a Zero-Sum game. If you win, I don’t. If publisher X publishes 25 poetry books each year, then the other 500 poets who have submitted collections lose out. 
But these are not the only criteria for successful poetry, or even the best. What about that one poem which said exactly what you wanted it to say, even if no one else ever read it? What about the poem on your website about which a single person wrote to you and said ‘thank you, that helped me out at a difficult time’? What about that one piece of positive feedback from a person whose poetry opinion means more to you than anyone else’s? What about the poem you wrote or read which changed the way you look at the world or helped you understand another perspective on an issue? These amateur, small scale measures of success will never hit The Bookseller’s statistics but they are surely the most meaningful measures in this shared cultural space we call Poetry?
Amateur painters the world over don’t expect to see their work hanging in national galleries so why should every poet expect to be published or to win a competition? Beyond the warm glow of validation, what does that kind of success mean? Of course it sometimes means money to those who need it, but poetry is not yet the go-to genre for those who prioritise wealth over art…poetry and careerism is perhaps best left for another blog.
As an unpublished poet, I will not take this point further or I’ll end up sounding bitter (of course I’m still sending poems and manuscripts off to publishers! I crave validation as much as the next person).
But here’s a thought to take away: Poetry is not a Zero-Sum game, but the Poetry Industry is. Perhaps if poets like Bob Hicock thought more about the former and less about the latter, they would not feel so upset, and be less likely unwittingly to reveal those hidden racisms which would be better off analysed in their poetry than blindly bumped into in a public essay.

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