Claudia Rankine and autobiography

Hello poets and readers,

In this exploration of poetic process, I’ve been gathering what can be gleaned from existing interviews when the subject of process bubbles up. Jamaican-born US poet Claudia Rankine responds to a question from interviewer Katy Lederer about the differences between her first two collections Nothing in Nature is Private and The End of the Alphabet by saying that, from her point of view, part of the problem with her first book was that, “the subject did not determine the form” (in Henry & Zawacki 2005, 147). This, she says, led to a situation where the point of view of the book started to “typecast itself” into a pre-conceived portrait of blackness and immigration which meant that her own consciousness seemed to become lost (147).

This is an extremely candid reflection on the poet’s own process and its relation to form. It recalls Charles Olson’s famous dictum that form is never more than an extension of content. In my own writing, I have recently made many experiments with form, but have sometimes discovered that too great an emphasis on experimentation in this area can have a negative impact on content. But should that dissuade us from experimenting?

I came across a comment recently by Canadian poet Christian Bök to the effect that experiment should be valued, that it doesn’t have to be successful every time to be of service to the poet. Can we make discoveries about our writing without such ventures? Would Rankine have been able to compose exceptional works like her more recent Citizen: An American Lyric, which won numerous awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and the Forward Prize in the UK, without having gone through the process of composing that first collection?

Lederer goes on to talk about a review of Rankine’s second collection The End of the Alphabet which discusses the way it eludes factual information but still manages to be an autobiographical work of distinctive self-scrutiny. Rankine comments on this shift in her writing as coming from a desire to revise what ‘confessional’ or autobiographical writing meant. “It seemed to me one could access emotional content without its narrative frame,” she says, wishing to push that direction as far as she could, and in doing so access the emotional subjectivity of the narrative voice so that the text became the experience of her humanity. She explains, “the experience of feeling can be more authentic than the activity of living” (148), feeling could be more real than what is apparently so; it is individual experience that makes us human, and allowing ourselves to feel freely can make the details of life more precious.

It’s appealing to speculate where Rankine has taken some of these ideas a few years later in a work like Citizen, where experience again is highlighted, and at the same time generalised in a unique way by the use of the second person ‘you’ in the work, which encourages the reader to share the experiences described, in a way that is especially necessary for our ability to empathise and understand the effects of racism on individual consciousness. In many ways, we are the same, Rankine says in the interview, and the stories created by emotion and thought (with either an absent, altered or transposed narrative frame) helps us, “when we are allowed into the process,” into another’s consciousness (150). As well as being a reflection on a writing strategy, these comments also form a strong statement about process in general: emphasis on process invites shared understanding.

Reference

‘Claudia Rankine’, in Brian Henry & Andrew Zawacki (eds), The Verse of Book of Interviews, Amherst, MA: Verse Press, 2005, 147-151. First published in Verse 18:2/3; conducted in 1999.

Note

I’ve written elsewhere about Claudia Rankine’s poetry in the book chapter ‘The Successful Prose Poem Leaves Behind its Name’, in Jane Monson (ed) British Prose Poetry: The Poems Without Lines, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018, 227-246.

  3 comments for “Claudia Rankine and autobiography

  1. April 25, 2019 at 9:31 am

    I do like where it says:
    “. . . Charles Olson’s famous dictum that form is never more than an extension of content.”

    Form isn’t always what a poem should look like after all, otherwise we’d never hear the frog enter the pond.

    Like

    • April 25, 2019 at 9:54 am

      Yes, a vehicle only, yet such an important machine to tune and maintain/redevelop.

      Liked by 1 person

      • April 25, 2019 at 10:10 am

        And remembering when a vehicle is petrol/gas driven, unleaded or leaded, or diesel, or purely electric. Know the vehicle and not to be fooled by past appearances.

        Alan

        Like

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