Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
Research Assistance: Rebecca Gambale, Festival Assistant
There’s a superstition in some cultures that if you praise anyone or anything too much, proclaim your love or express your happiness too much, they will be snatched away. What at first appears as cynicism in some of Bob Hicok’s poems might be remnants of a similar wariness. Examined more closely, even a poem with as brutally funny a title as “Hope is a thing with feathers that smacks into a window” threatens to break out into a hymn of praise. But the impulse is checked, as if some learned reluctance held the speaker back from being too much of an ecstatic.
Yet, in poem after poem, Hicok turns an almost devotional attention to the things of this world. No image or detail is too small or strange to escape his eye and imagination. His poems teem with images that lead us, on the momentum of his own curious mind, from observation to idea to emotion to (sometimes) revelation. The tension in his verbal music is sustained by his constant questioning of those very same observations, ideas, emotions and revelations. His is a restless intelligence, uncomfortable with platitudes or facile resolutions. He roots out sentimentality not because he is against emotion, but because he is propelled forward by a deeper desire to connect, to understand, to feel and perhaps, as he writes in one poem, find “one last chance/to adore beyond reason.”
Hicok’s poems can be very funny, but even at their most ironic they do not provide distance from their subjects. His is not a humor of escapism, but of acceptance. It is a humor found more often in factory lunchrooms than university faculty meetings. No wonder. Hicok’s path to his current position as a professor at Virginia Tech. was unorthodox. He worked as a waiter, dishwasher and factory worker and held a variety of other jobs before founding and running his own auto die design shop for twenty years. He forged his own style by writing steadily while completely isolated from MFA programs, and reading voraciously wherever his interests led him, influenced by novelists as much as by any poet.
The result is an unmistakable voice, one tempered by personal experience of the struggles of our working poor, the innate optimism of the self-made man, and the perseverance of an artist who found his own path despite the considerable odds against him.
“Hope is a thing with feathers that smacks into a window” appears in Bob Hicok’s newest collection, Words for Empty and Words for Full. Visit the Poetry Foundation’s Bob Hicok page for a generous sampling of his work.
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