At a recent reception following a poetry reading by elder, experimental poets, an academic critic â€“ of decidedly avant-garde tastes â€“ overheard that I had been teaching Claudia Rankineâ€™s Citizen for the last four semesters. I knew, in fact, that this scholarâ€™s lifeâ€™s work centered around championing unsung postwar US poets such as Clark Coolidge and Susan Howe, who were difficult, acquired tastes (that I shared). Howe, for example, is known to publish textual sculptures often quite literally illegible. Who better, I thought, to appreciate my teaching of a complex poem like Citizen than this brainy, patient scholar. Yet quickly he fired off: â€œThatâ€™s not poetry; itâ€™s sociology!â€ My spirits sank.
The shortlisting of the Jamaican-born, California-based poet this week for the TS Eliot prize â€“ in addition to her Forward prize win last month â€“ brings these questions into sharper focus. Granted, much of Citizenâ€™s content foregrounds various â€œmicro-aggressions,â€ retelling mundane scenes (some experienced by the author; the rest from friends that she informally interviewed) of mostly middle-class life, where the intrusion of racism is felt in the exchange of the wrong words, uncontrollable glances and stuttering pauses. Yet the bookâ€™s flat tone and protean forms are hardly that of an academic textbook or clinical research.
Made up of mostly short prose, photographs and reproduced artworks as well as a chapter-long essay on Serena Williams â€“ Citizen is separated by numbered sections without titles that persistently defy genre. Admittedly, she isnâ€™t the first of contemporary poets to radically combine texts with images, to blur the borders between prose and lyric. One thinks of other cult-favorite 21st-century works such as Anne Carsonâ€™s Nox or Maggie Nelsonâ€™s Bluets. Yet unlike those, Rankineâ€™s new book rarely sounds â€œlyricalâ€. Its sentences are plain, its syntax normative, its vocabulary mostly workday, vernacular English.
When described in this way, itâ€™s fair to question whether or not Citizen is, at its essence, a book-length poem. Maybe itâ€™s better labeled as a graphic novel like Art Spiegelmanâ€™s Maus or Marjane Satrapiâ€™s Persepolis, or creative nonfiction closer to the feel and flow of a David Foster Wallace essay? Two weeks ago at a poetry reading I attended, Rankine was even asked on stage to explain whether or not her book was poetry or â€œsomething elseâ€ by an enthusiastic student. She responded that Citizen was undoubtedly a hybrid work, but that she also had wanted to provoke those very questions. Dozens of reviews, many quite perceptive, have greeted this work over the last year. Yet few have lingered over the fact that the bookâ€™s subtitle is â€œAn American Lyricâ€ (a subtitle also used for her previous multimedia work, Donâ€™t Let Me Be Lonely), that it was published as a book of poetry.
Even so, for me Citizen is a poem precisely because modernism happened and continues. First and foremost that means the TS Eliot of The Waste Land. And like many seminal, iconoclastic works since (Ginsbergâ€™s Howl, Ashberyâ€™s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror) â€“ the very first readers and critics judged what Eliot produced not to be poetry, exactly, but rather â€œa puzzleâ€, a â€œdocumentaryâ€, â€œas near to poetry as our generation is at present capable of reachingâ€. Yet given our history, isnâ€™t coming up with things that donâ€™t much look or sound like poetry still Americaâ€™s most compelling contribution to world literature? After all, in his rather prosaic Song of Myself, Whitman tuned his ear to the jaunty street vernacular he found in â€œthe blab of the pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of the promenadersâ€.
So what does Citizen sound like? By identifying structural, unconscious racism in its ubiquitous occurrence, it traffics in the same ambiguous tonalities of everyday speech that Whitmanâ€™s own poetry did. Interrogating the merest phrase, Rankine is able to make her anonymous vignettes vibrate. Take for example one common expression she repeats midway through, again and again: â€œHey you â€¦â€ If you pause long enough, the entire context of her book insinuates itself into the silence and polyvalence of those words.
Itâ€™s a level of extraordinary attention that only poetry, I believe, can pay and reward. Are these words the address of a lover, friend, stranger or barking police officer? In Citizen, Rankine shows how ready our imaginations are to recognize the afflictions of anti-black discrimination because our daily language, like our present-day society, is inescapably bound to a history of slavery, violence and white supremacy. That is, a living history. To be able to plumb such innocent, overused words and make her readers find, inside their gaps and crevices, a whole world of familiar yet traumatic meanings, thatâ€™s the poetry that Claudia Rankine, in the American grain, is after. And Citizen, like the polymorphous, patch-quilt The Waste Land, achieves it.
- Adam Fitzgerald is the author of The Late Parade (W.W. Norton / Liveright) and contributing editor for Literary Hub. He lives in New York City.