In literary terminology, lyric poetry voices the feelings of a single individual, generally perceived to be the poet him or herself. Associated with song, lyric in the modern American and British tradition is not expected to comment on matters political, national, or cultural, but to dwell in the realm of the personal. Until very recently, many white American poets, trained in a tradition of writing workshops in the academy, have not so secretly harbored queasiness about sullying the pure expression of personal emotion with what they viewed as crass cultural commentary or current affairs.
Into this milieu have come poets of color with a different American experience and tradition, one largely unfamiliar to the white American reading public and poorly represented in the traditional academic poetry workshop. Poet Claudia Rankine wants to make her book, Citizen: An American Lyric, stand out “against a sharp white background” of that tradition, in the words of Zora Neale Hurston.
The work’s title presents us with a conundrum relating to its genre. The word “citizen” immediately transports us to a realm of public rather than private language, promising to deliver the social commentary that indeed makes up the book’s primary concern. However, the subtitle “An American Lyric” qualifies the works’ status as lyric—not the regular garden variety of personal lyric, but a new particularly (African) American hybrid, offering not only anomalous subject matter, but also “a collage of forms,” as reviewer Alexander Helmintoller puts it, one made up of lyric poetry, quotations, exposition of past events, and visual art.
Why would Rankine want to work such changes on the lyric tradition? In an interview published in The Guardian in Dec. 2015, the poet explains that she “called [the book] Citizen because [she] wanted to ask: who gets to hold that status […]?” Rather than merely articulating as a non-fiction prose writer or essayist might the painful lived experience of racism, Rankine exploits lyric poetry’s strengths to address that question. This is meant to permit white American readers to feel and experience “the anger built up through […] the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color” (24).
At the same time that this is an “American lyric” that speaks of the experience of “erasure” millions of people of color endure, the book also pursues the particular experience of the poet herself, making palpable her struggle to grapple with this larger cultural phenomenon that has marked her life, a trauma ironically enacted even by the white therapist the poet consults to help her cope with the effects of systemic racism.
Undoubtedly, Rankine’s personal trauma is a public one as well, one we constantly see played out on television, on the streets, in books, one we play a part in creating without knowing it. It is familiar to us, the white public, but we do not perceive it as the targets of racism themselves do. As is the case with anyone suffering from trauma, the poet’s response to any one of the many manifestations of racism appear all out of proportion to the white observer, who does not share or understand their context, a racism that dictates that “the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you” (30). This misapprehension proves to be very dangerous, often fatal for the object of racism.
Rankine’s book offers us the context we have lacked, allowing us to feel for ourselves what lies behind the scene of black rage we have so often witnessed. While we may have viewed these incidents as unique, coming out of nowhere, every personal crisis, every police shooting and racist incident has been prefaced by a string of identical others. As Rankine states here, “before it happened, it had happened and happened” (116). The white public may only now be beginning to perceive this endless iteration, the fact that certain evidence of racial progress notwithstanding, in essence, nothing at all has changed, and thus, “the past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow.”
Against the stark white background of the current racist demonstrations in the American streets and the Jim Crow presidency of Donald Trump, the message of this book may at last be reaching us.
Let us hope so, and that it may be in time to save America from itself.