Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Irreverently Unromantic: A Rhetorical Path to Sophistic Poetics in the Poetry of Bob Hicok

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Irreverently Unromantic: A Rhetorical Path to Sophistic Poetics in the Poetry of Bob Hicok

Article excerpt

Rhetorical analysis of Bob Hicok's earliest and most recent poems reveals how the poet modifies the terms of the central problem in contemporary poetry--Romantic irony--by employing an irreverent poetics I describe as sophistic to highlight its rhetorical tendencies while differentiating it from the inverted Platonism of Romantic irony.

Since the publication of his first chapbook in 1991, Bob Hicok's poetry has grown all the more sophisticatedly irreverent. That tendency toward irreverence might be why Hicok's work has yet to garner the serious critical attention it deserves (although Hicok has received some very serious attention viz a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Poetry Prize from the Library of Congress, the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry, the Jerome J. Shestack Prize, and four Pushcart Prizes--and he was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), but irreverence might just be what the situation of contemporary American poetry demands.

The value of Hicok's poetry depends on the degree to which its irreverence adequately engages the problems that define the discourse of a poetic tradition. As Robert Pinsky notes in 1976's The Situation of Poetry, one problem in particular "has formed modernist rhetoric so completely" that "a hallmark of the worst writing is to underestimate the problem, or to deny it" (62). For Pinsky the problem lies in our ironic attempts at representation, in the poet's case through the abstract medium of language (56-57). Poetry's persistent obsession with this particular irony "suggest[s] a continuity between contemporary and modernist poetry--and, beyond that, a continuity with the Romantic poetry of the nineteenth century" (47). Claire Colebrook cites an even earlier continuity with the German Romantics, who proclaimed a self-conscious recognition of this irony as poetry's defining characteristic (48-50). Extending the scope of this irony into the realm of metaphysics, the German Romantics recognized "both irony and poetry to include all life and perception. [...] Life would be poetic, a process of becoming and creation, and the only speech adequate to life would be ironic" (51-52, emph. Colebrook's). Thirty years after Pinsky's The Situation of Poetry, Romantic irony's continuing influence on poetic convention is evident in Poetry Foundation President John Barr's declaration: "For all its schools and experiments, contemporary poetry is still written in the rain shadow thrown by Modernism. It is the engine that drives what is written today. And it is a tired engine" (433). If Pinsky is right, contemporary poetry's driving engine is still Romantic irony. Hicok's poetry is therefore of value in that it modifies what Barr might describe as the tired engine of Romantic irony without underestimating or denying what Pinsky identifies as its central problem.

The terms problem and engine are particularly striking, as both connote what Lloyd F. Bitzer describes as an exigence, or "an imperfection marked by urgency... . An exigence is rhetorical when it is capable of positive modification and when positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted through discourse" (6-7). A rhetorical exigence operates as a kind of engine or problem generating opportunities for discursive experimentation and inviting the audience to actively engage in its modification. In contrast, an a-rhetorical exigence functions much like a tired engine. It is a problem no longer generative of such opportunities. It presupposes or ignores solutions, resists modification, and denies--or pretends to deny--its audience. To analyze how a poem modifies a problem or engine like Romantic irony in order to generate new opportunities for discursive experimentation is therefore to analyze it rhetorically. A close analysis of Bob Hicok's poetic development tells the story of one poet's encounter with the rhetorical terms of Romantic irony, which he ultimately modifies by employing a sufficiently irreverent poetics I describe as sophistic in order to differentiate it from the inverted Platonism of Romantic irony. …

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