Letter to a Young (White, Male) Poet

A portrait of the artist as a perversion of Privilege Theory

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

The literary journal Electric Literature published an advice column this week counseling an anonymous correspondent on what might be termed an identity crisis. “I am a white, male poet—a white, male poet who is aware of his privilege and sensitive to inequalities facing women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals,” the advice-seeker began, “but despite this awareness and sensitivity, I am still white and still male. Sometimes I feel like the time to write from my experience has passed, that the need for poems from a white, male perspective just isn’t there anymore...”

Positing that the time has come for poems from communities “whose voices have too long been silenced or suppressed,” he added, “I feel terrible about feeling terrible about this, since I also know that for so long, white men made other people feel terrible about who they were.” He struggles with how to proceed in his chosen vocation. “Sometimes I write from other perspectives via persona poems in order to understand and empathize with the so-called ‘other’; but I fear that this could be construed as yet another example of my privilege—that I am appropriating another person’s experience,” he explained. “Write what you know and risk denying voices whose stories are more urgent; write to learn what you don’t know and risk colonizing someone else’s story. I genuinely am troubled by this.”

He feels paralyzed. “I want to listen but I also want to write—yet at times these impulses feel at odds with one another,” he declared. “How can I reconcile the two?”

The anonymous poet is not alone.

The self-flagellating white person is increasingly seen on college campuses and social media: a perversion of Privilege Theory causes these young, educated progressives believe that conspicuous introspection and self-sacrifice are optimal catalysts for an equitable society. At best, these scrupulous people eventually find their way to actually helping others.

At worst, they remain mired in useless self-abnegation.

So I’d like to answer the poet’s letter (which Elisa Gabbert, Electric Literature’s advice-columnist, answered already*), in the hope that it will help him, people like him, and the people he wants to help. At the very least, I hope that my advice prompts a debate that fleshes out the contested thinking embraced by some adherents of privilege theory, clarifies the unstated assumptions that they are making, and either changes their perspectives or mine.  

* * *

Dear Anonymous,

You’re right to lament the generations in which minority groups and women were denied equal opportunities to publish poetry in the long history of the Anglosphere. It is dismaying to ponder how many undiscovered talents we’ll never read. I agree that listening to the perspectives of others is imperative, especially for artists. And I share your desire to bring an end to racial and gender inequities that persist today. In fact, I think that all individuals should participate in that project, and that lack of diversity in a field often hints at fixable failures by its members.

But I wonder at some assumptions that you seem to make; I question the degree to which you elevate your race and gender as if they are the most salient features of your artistic identity; and I do not see any reason to think that your poems will cause anyone to pay less attention to verse written by poets with different racial or gender identities.

If you’re a terrible poet, Anonymous, then by all means stop writing for publication. But if you have any talent with language, then your poems are almost certainly not so like poems by those who share your race and gender as to be of negative value. It is irrational to reduce a person’s actual or perceived worldview to their sex, gender, or skin color. I suspect you’d never do that to another individual.

Don’t do it to yourself.

Every human has a unique perspective. There are some areas where perspective and race or gender identity are inextricably bound.

But even on topics related to “identity,” a white male might offer any number of perspectives unique to him, and will certainly use unique language to convey his perspective. And his thoughts and language will vary from the perspectives of white men in bygone eras, who varied among themselves as dramatically as, say, Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain. Is it really your belief that the white men of bygone generations exhausted themes like fatherhood for all time, or that no white male writing on fatherhood today has any verse in him that an Asian man or woman might value?

Anonymous, if a white male poet like you crafts a turn of phrase that helps anyone else experience aesthetic joy, or better grasp a truth about the world, or glean insight into a perspective that is not their own but puts them in closer communion with other humans, doesn’t that verse have value separable from the author’s identity? One needn’t deny the value of diversity among poets to think so. The project of inclusion should not threaten white men. It does not require their self-immolation.

And many subjects are separable from both race and gender. A given poem by a black woman about the power of nature or the death of a loved one might resonate most powerfully with a white male living in a different country. In a high school class that reads a Shakespearean sonnet, a black woman might find that the author’s perspective resonates most powerfully with her (let no one tell her that she has any less claim on Shakespeare than anyone else); and if you, Anonymous poet, write a poem conveying your perspective on some matter large or small, perhaps a university student in Pakistan will find herself moved to tears or inspired. Perhaps she, in turn, will write a poem that would never have come into existence or been as good but for the fact of whatever it is that she learned from you.

Had David Foster Wallace decided against writing on the theory that the world had enough white male authors, those he touched most deeply, individuals of every race, ethnicity, and gender, would’ve suffered mightily from a wrongheaded premise. Is it not prejudicial and condescending to presume that, say, a Latino person will derive less value than a white person from words written by a white man?

In the realm of written poetry by living authors, a form read by a vanishingly small subset of Americans, there is little danger that a white, male poet who writes what he knows will “deny voices whose stories are more urgent.” Poets are not losing readers to other poets; they’re losing them to Netflix and J.K. Rowling books and gaming and television and literary magazines turning toward nonfiction. Any poet who breaks through the noise, regardless of race or gender, is more likely to whet the appetites of their audience for more poets than to exhaust a fixed demand. So write well, Anonymous. And if you’re ever lucky enough to gain a large audience, or even a small one, use the purchase you’ve gained on their attention and their trust in your taste to direct them to other poets who deserve more readers.

Consider, as well, that while your poetry is highly unlikely to stymie another poet, many people have hugely constrained opportunities to pursue the vocation. This could be because their parents didn’t read to them, or their schools are subpar, or their neighborhood is violent, or the minimum-wage job at which they must work two shifts to get by gives them less time and mental space to write, or because they’ve faced discrimination due to their gender or race. Members of every racial group face resource constraints, and some groups are indeed disadvantaged disproportionately.

How best to remedy such ills is a contested question. But I’d argue that there is a civic obligation to study the matter and to contribute to improvement in the way you think best. Whether that means participation in politics or volunteerism or charitable giving or some other approach, you’d be hard-pressed to do something more useless than obsessing over white guilt or satiating it by not writing any new poems. If you have arrived at the conclusion that the best path to a more equitable world for other races and genders is to sacrifice your vocation, then surely you have begun from faulty premises.

Then there are the people who are writing poetry, but whose social circles don’t include anyone who can steer them to a place to publish it. If you’re a regular contributor to a literary journal, go to an open mic event in your city and help them with the time-consuming task of finding undiscovered talent. If you’re ever on staff at such a publication, make sure to seek out great work from contributors who didn’t grow up among the elite. People unfairly excluded from the field of poetry benefit more from poets who take concrete steps to remedy institutional shortcomings than poets who focus on their own guilt and leave the field to those who care little about its inequities.

And that brings me to something that bears mentioning before I close. It has surely occurred to many readers already. While white people undeniably dominate The Norton Anthology of Poetry, and may, for all I know, displace some higher-quality poets in the college poetry classes that I have never taken, they’re quite obviously not the most consumed, celebrated, or influential poets of our era. As Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter noted in an essay at The Daily Beast:

To utterly naïve anthropologists sent to document the ways of Americans in 2014, one of the first things that would strike them is that this country is quite poetry mad. No, they would not find well-thumbed volumes of Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, and Billy Collins... However, they could not help but notice that a great many people under about 50 regularly go around listening to and yes, reciting poetry—rap, that is.

Rap is indeed “real” poetry. It rhymes, often even internally. Its authors work hard on the lyrics. The subject matter is certainly artistically heightened, occasioning long-standing debates over whether the depictions of violence and misogyny in some of it are sincere. And then, that “gangsta” style is just one, and less dominant than it once was. Rap, considered as a literature rather than its top-selling hits, addresses a wide-range of topics, even including science fiction. Rap is now decades old, having evolved over time and being increasingly curated by experts. In what sense is this not a “real” anything?

As that excerpt hints, there are those who would deny that rap is “real poetry,” and there are those—Jay-Z among them—who argue that it doesn’t get the prestige it is due. If there is a sense in which this is true, there are also a dozen metrics by which rap is easily the most prestigious form of poetry among living poets. Though a voracious reader, the only traditional poem by a white author that I can name is “Axe Handles” by Gary Snyder, who is 85. I have no clue, Anonymous, about the perspective of even a single non-rapping white male poet in my generation. This is true of most people I know. Many of them are professional writers! But I could talk your ear off about differences in the perspective toward women that Jay-Z and Kanye West articulate on songs where they’re trading verses.

I owe more to Talib Kweli than Tennyson and can call Mos Def to mind as easily as Matthew Arnold. Rap is a kind of poetry that has done more than any other in our time to convey the perspective of the poet to audiences with different identities. Dozens of lesser known, avant garde rappers are, despite their relative obscurity, likely to have audiences that are orders of magnitude bigger than any poem you ever publish and much likelier to have their words passed down through generations.

For those reasons and others, Anonymous, write as best you can with a conscience totally unburdened from guilt. All of us have a responsibility to improve the world and to remedy injustices in our time, but you are not responsible for the status or behavior of dead people who shared your skin color or chromosomal makeup. Stop obsessing over your race and gender, be as good as you can to other humans, and if you believe verse has any value beyond employing poets, create the best poetry you can for as many people of every race and gender as want to read it.

Correspondence on this post is encouraged. Email Conor@theatlantic.com with thoughts from any perspective.

*This line was added in an update after several readers erroneously assumed that my article was implicitly expressing disagreement with the original answer. In fact, I found it thoughtful, agreed with parts, disagreed with others, and judged engaging with it outside the scope of what I wanted to tell the advice-seeker.