In your face poetry

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Claudia Rankine
The Jamaican-American poet Claudia Rankine.

Joined a poetry discussion group a couple of months ago, led by Linda Leavell, from whom I had taken an OLLI class on the poet Marianne Moore. (Linda has written a fine new biography of Moore, Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore.)

When I joined, we looked at a couple of poets with Arkansas connections: Miller Williams, who died just this year and who taught for many years at the U of A, and a student of his, Jo McDougall, who grew up on a rice farm in the Arkansas delta. Both are more or less traditional poets, intent on form and formal compression — saying a lot in a little space, which they do admirably.

Then we came to Claudia Rankine, a black Jamaican poet, living and teaching in the States, whose two books of poetry have been hailed as “brilliant” by the critics. The second volume, Citizen: An American Lyric, which we read, struck me, however, and others in our group, as fraught with problems and questions:

  • Why the naked aggression of the tone, the confrontational manner?
  • Who is the audience for this “lyric” or mixed-media collage (many passages are prose, or video script, and they’re accompanied by photos and/or photo collages)?
  • Why the abstract academic language and could-be-Marxist jargon?

Linda gently countered our objections, offering other views but not disparaging us.

Walt Whitman, she pointed out, was greeted with cat-calls and confusion when he first published Leaves of Grass. Here was a poetry so new, so revolutionary, it startled, shocked, offended people used to traditional English forms like rhymed iambic pentameter.

Maybe the audience is the people — a inclusive, popular, demotic group? Maybe it’s white bourgeoisie, like us, who read poetry and who need shock and waking up? (Let’s face it, there were ten or eleven white faces, female and male, in the group last night, not one black face, or brown, or yellow. Let’s face it, if Baudelaire and Rimbaud could épater lebourgeois, or shock the middle class, shouldn’t we expect today’s artists to do the same? Sitting on our capital accumulations and hemorrhoids, don’t we need shaking up?)

But what do you do (Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!) when you read a passage like this?

And there is no (Black) who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect, simple, naked, and unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day, to violate, out of motives of the clearest vengeance … to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as the dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled …

Rankine is catching no flies with this vinegar.

Similarly, she defends, as an egregious example of racism, the kind of bad line calls that Serena Williams suffered in major tennis matches, and Williams’ response to one call, telling the referee that “I’ll fucking take this ball and shove it down your fucking throat.” The ghetto of her upbringing reasserts itself in the face of white prejudice, the desire to smash the white face and wipe it out. (And yet Williams glosses this event, and the outrage it produced, this way in a recent interview: “I just think it was weird. I just really thought that was strange. You have people who made a career out of yelling at line judges. And a woman does it, and it’s like a big problem. But you know, hey.”)

Not just a woman. A black woman. A black woman so physically imposing and dominating that she, and her sister Venus, have been called “the Williams brothers” (if mostly by the Russians, who should talk, they with their Olympic doping record).

Each person reading Citizen will have a different reaction. Our group was divided about the work, many praising it, others like myself doubting its worth, all of us prying, under Linda’s instructional nudging, into the whys and wherefores of this odd and perhaps epic new American “lyric.”

5 thoughts on “In your face poetry

  1. Thanks for the kind words, Greg. And thanks for getting us started on a fascinating discussion about the nature not just of Citizen but of art generally.

    1. This discussion will never end, will it, Linda? It would be a fun, if cheeky, exercise, a bit of performance art, could be, to enter people’s homes and videotape the art on the wall, from Velvet Elvises to Van Goghs. You know any videographers that might be up for it?

  2. I read in Buzzfeed that Rankine wants “the book to exist in the space of the white liberal” and “I don’t care if you think I’m making you feel uncomfortable.” In fact, it’s not just “I don’t care,” it’s “I don’t give a shit,” to use Ms. Rankine’s own charming words.

    The world is racist, the white world is racist, and its comfort is not something she cares or gives a shit about. Fair enough.

    And it’s not art’s job to make us feel comfortable, or cozy, or pleased with ourselves. Or to confirm our sense of ourselves as good people. Yet it’s human nature to respond in kind.

    I have my doubts, my grievous doubts, that what she is doing is art. She says, “I don’t care if you think I’m making you feel uncomfortable. I feel better. And that is important to me.”

    Looks and smells like therapy to me.

    She feels better. Isn’t that nice?

    Therapy is not art, though art may include therapy or be motivated by it.

    Rankine, a cause celebre of the moment, is the perfect guilty white liberal’s dream, but she’s not mine. I’m not that liberal, I find, nor that automatically and regretfully guilty.

    If Rankine’s game is to talk trash, and pose that as poetry or art, that’s her game. I don’t care. In fact, I don’t give a shit. I won’t be reading her again any time soon. She’s simply too nasty for my taste, too polarizing, too politicized at the expense of art.

  3. I used to be in her class. Dark white person/light latin american person. The person in her class that wrote the most, averaging around 10 pages a day. Came to class with a 287 page humor book on the first day. She called me ugly because I was a human trafficking survivor and had to overcome crack addiction before coming to college, which I did, but it took a toll on my appearance. She told me the class wasn’t for me; it was for my black female classmates. I bugged her for a recommendation letter for Harvard, because I was able to prove I was very smart and not full of crap on the human trafficking bit, but she never wrote it because the violence in my life rendered me mentally ill, and she didn’t want to be embarrassed by me, with her high position in life. I grew up to be a very nice person; I wouldn’t have been an embarrassment. The only time I embarrassed her was when she made me protest a College Republicans meeting for a grade, when I got drunk and sat in the lap of one of the speakers, and snitched profusely as to why I was there. Other people’s free speech was never important to her.

    1. Seems you were ill treated. What do you think is the relation between Rankine’s artistic work and the way she treated you in class? For example, is she in her poetry, like Citizen, “privileging,” to use the ugly jargon of the day, the hurts she has suffered? Funny bit about Republican meeting. I don’t see how teachers can coerce such protest. Isn’t this taking away the student’s right to figure things out for herself?

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