Adam Steiner reviews two important collections of poetry that bring into question the value of poetry today.
Claudia Rankine, Citizen – An American Lyric (Greywolf Press, 2014) 160pp
Anne Boyer – Garments Against Women, 2015 (Ashanta Press, 2015) 104pp
One of the laziest arguments levelled against contemporary poetry is that it has ceased to matter. Much of the poetry that is currently being written, performed or published stands accused of a range of victimless crimes such as formlessness, not-rhyming or not being relevant to what’s going on in the real world. It is an imagined schism between a perceived tradition, verging on the parochial; and writers reflecting the changing means, interests and most importantly of all – new ways of saying what hasn’t already been said.
Since the Black Lives Matter campaign appeared and quickly drew mass world attention to its cause (highlighting the shocking number of American black people dying in police custody, through attempted arrests or shooting) “mattering” has arisen as a measure of relevance, or if you prefer, social importance. But like the insidiously nostalgic “Keep Calm and XXXX”, that has crept into every corner of mass-market sloganeering merchandise, what is said to matter is all too often co-opted and reified by other causes, forcing the equation of “XXXX Matters”; suggesting that “XXXX” matters equally as much as “black lives” . It is difficult to apply this quality to art, perhaps even a categorical mistake. Art can generate or move concurrently alongside acts of social value but that’s not what art is for. Above all art should be artistic. As soon as it is overtaken by politics or some other agenda, then it becomes propaganda, and should be labelled as such.
For all the well-meaning, and well-written, poetry that has a political dimension, many of its authors seem to take a similarly detached slant as W. H. Auden. In as much as poetry might ignite the first sparks of a revolution in the head – and there is nothing wrong with that – it doesn’t seem capable of actually making things happen on its own. At best, it re-presents a situation (a state of affairs, if you like) and can re-engage us with what is all too familiar (read: all too human); that might have suffered from media saturation (leading to spectator fatigue) and makes people consider them anew. Poetry skims and reflects the surface of the personal/political life, amongst a great many other things, rarely does it dive any deeper.
So, on the question of relevance as mattering, what can poetry do with/within topical subjects at hand? Black lives, poverty or even poetry itself? Can art be all of these things without lapsing into over-expressing, moralising, self-righteous, self-pitying, safe-space, art-therapy worthiness – which some contemporary poetry (both written and performed) definitely does. When issues bigger than ourselves are dragged back into the microcosm of the self, as the poet ceases to look outwards and reflect or diffract, they become about, and for, the individual –a bleeding heart in search of a cause. Contrariwise, the most aesthetic of movements, extreme modernism and such, can (appear to) suffer the same fate of introversion, but at least they are honest about it.
Two recent books of innovative and challenging poetry have appeared that seem to express issues of social value, as well as warping genre boundaries; they are equally familiar and unfamiliar as poetry. Part of the reason I picked up the books is that I don’t read enough female writers generally; and they remain under-represented in both publishing and the industry of writing, generally. Both writers are from very different backgrounds and angles of attack, but share a common goal of artistic experimentation to pick-apart the place of the individual (perhaps the poet) in society – they are not preaching, simply re-presenting – from the inside, out – and I think this is a territory where poetry is uniquely useful and can genuinely be said to matter.
Citizen is the work of Claudia Rankine, a university professor who teaches English at the University of Southern California, Garments Against Women is by Anne Boyer, a single-mother, cancer survivor and DIY tailor who lives in Kansas (this last part is the only detail in her book’s one-line biography).
Both authors write in with a great tenacity of lived experience, breaking down the day-to-day impact of up-close-and-personal racism (Rankine) and the stranglehold of gender roles and economic struggle – tethered to the weight of expectation (Boyer). Where the two overlap is in reflecting the marginalised difficulties in their society, or being excluded from it; bearing witness to fellow victims of the state, either through the oppression of other others or expressions of governance. They are dense, sometimes exhausting works, but also deeply, philosophically searching about the way we live now.
Both books have been widely-praised as manifold beasts, shapeshifters; blending fact and creation, resisting genre as a mixed-species of prose-poem/memoir/essay/academic treatise, but ultimately, they are both sold and promoted as poetry. They are contemporary, with a small “c”, they are of their time but not tied to it – they are not trying to be cool, hip, ironic or detachedly blasé – much of what they describe is relatable, whether through direct experience or by a close reading of the news. Citizen is almost an act of journalism; it argues its point from a firmly whispered narrative that strings together a series of painful occurrences, hinged between everyday slights and casual acts of racism, uniting them in a case history, like a kerbside view of a crime scene:
“The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her. Neither you nor your friend bothers to ask who is making her feel uncomfortable.”
This long-form, but terse and exacting, style of poetry does a lot with a little, which for many is poetry at its best. Anne Boyer’s tone is almost laconic, at once deeply-connected but also trying to find a comfortable remove from which to write, shared symptoms listed with cool sensitivity, like a patient who recognises their same pain in others with whom they share a condition.
In Citizen, Rankine describes a visit to a new therapist who challenges her on trying to negotiate a way into her house, which is also her office. Rankine is “caught” ringing the doorbell, challenged and told to get away from the house. Only for the therapist to back-track with a series of apologies, both of them retreating like wounded animals.
Throughout both books, the tone can be very down; verging on the slow suffocation of a long depression, you feel both authors dragging the weight of their lives behind them. In Boyer’s reckoning, life is a perpetual struggle of spent juggling multiple jobs, running a house and the desire to make art, let alone the pursuit of shopping and leisure, the little victories and mute hopes are few and far between. Happy moments are often provided by her observations from her precocious and insightful daughter who often asks the right questions at what always seems to be the wrong time, the adults all tied-down to reality. But even then, you feel this undermined future melancholy, Boyer’s fear that her daughter learning to sew for herself will become another cog in a system of labour.
What GAM and Citizen achieve is to re-engage with the idea of poetry with a purpose. They neuter lazy cliché and parasitic interest on appearing to be relevant through latching-on to contemporary issues – they arrive at them as if through objective testimony of the citizen.
This is the same tension that arises between the individual and state, the mutability of the personal/political fulcrum, where our acceptance, tacit or pledged, fixes us into our roles of conformity and expectation. I feel that this is the central issue that Citizen and Garments are grappling with: where free-living individuals, citizens, sociological identifiers struggle to assert their identity, forced by circumstance – but what happens when these original positions are unjust and distorted from the start?
Both books make me think back to George Oppen’s far-reaching Modernist poem, Of Being Numerous, ultra-condensed shards of text that highlight the individual as a cell in the bloodflow at the heart of democracy and thus social change. The style can seem imperious, removed, but for me, George tells the same tale from a more objective standpoint. Even the form of the poem, its dense, minimalist sections, are comparable to a city high-rise that since the book’s publication in (1968) have come to stand as the binary opposites for America’s financial success and its crushing weight of neglected poverty:
There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’.
Occurrence, a part
Of an infinite series
The sad marvels;
Of this was told
A tale of our wickedness.
It is not our wickedness.
We are not coeval
With a locality
But we imagine others are,
We encounter them. Actually
A populace flows
Thru the city.
It is the air of atrocity,
An event as ordinary
As a President.
A plume of smoke, visible at a distance
In which people burn.
The concept to wrestle with here is the “shipwreck of the singular” – an idea developed by George Oppen – that in the context of being engaged with a society, its ills we must live among, learn to ignore or to absorb.
Being noticed, or heard even, is part of the challenge. Citizen Refers to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the sense of being, but not being seen (the perennial question here of existence contingent upon being) In a speech of ideas to BBC Radio 3, Rankine refers to the philosophical notion of Judith Butler, who states that a living, thinking, feeling being cannot help but offer an address, but are all too easily ignored:
“We suffer from the condition of being addressable”
She argues that black people must endure extremes of convenience – where racist language – designed to be hurtful – makes the individual hypervisible – when necessary, and at other times, pushed aside as to ebb transparent, to see a pyramid and wonder at the civilisation it represents, but not to be reminded of the slaves that made it. A case in point is made in the Jean-Michel Basquiat documentary, The Radiant Child, where a cultural historian argues that Basquiat’s ultra rapid (pre-internet) rise to fame in the early 80s made him a stand-in representative for the way white America was able to perceive all black people; a uniform type, to the point of becoming a cliché. This way of thinking raises an interesting question as Rankine refers to a touchstone series of victims of racial violence, police harassment or social abuse, finally listing them at the end of the book; citizens undone by society, I avoid the term “martyrs”, but perhaps listing victims in order to critique the practice of it we have all become so numb and used-to is not the best method. However, as the names are serialised, they fade into a physical blur, ghosted, and are erased by the sheer fatigue of exposure – this thought is crystalised in her comment on the murder of Trayvon Martin (interestingly tied to the hoody image on the book’s cover – created by David Hammons in 1993 – years before the fact):
“And you are not the guy and still fitting the description because there is only one guy who is always fitting the description.”
Anne Boyer makes a similar case to Rankine’s Citizen, but her struggle is fundamentally economic, how we are to live (and work) in spite of capital. She strips the romanticism of working-class lives away from the British (and American) nostalgia of waistcoats and flatcaps, factory communities and organised unions, which it might never be again, as minimum and even living wage lives become subsumed by tertiary and service industries. She exposes the modern underclass, alongside people on degrees of benefits or welfare, living to an almost equitable standard as “working people” who become under-employed, as workers, but more importantly, as disengaged citizens.
Garments… kicks-off with the poem, The Animal Model of Inescapeable Shock:
“…how is capital not an infinite laboratory called ‘Conditions’? And where is the edge of this electrified grid?”
This is the constant flipside of America, where even the greatest liberty in the free world, and the equal opportunities developed nations are perceived to offer to all, fall short for some and not others; in her sense of exclusion and Rankine’s of difference – it is another case for death of the American Dream. Boyer contrasts diamond-eaters with trash-eaters, who share lives of (respective) limitation:
“The classic example of positive contrast is produced by hitting yourself on the head with a hammer. The pain produced is part of the ordered dimension and so the more of it, the more you get adapted to. Thus, when you stop you ‘feel great.’”
Ironically, it is no longer the same sob story of having-not, it is merely about enough, but only ever enough – and no prospect of more; the thinning line between survival and living. Hers is a story about mending, making-do and only flourishing as an afterthought.
Anne recounts a brief recipe for a chocolate cake which is produced on conditions of having enough, meted-out in measurements: “…for when you own only one small round pan” – for me, a line that has both a taut musicality of chain-linked “O”s and a hollow resonance of limited means. This line could be the lasting metaphor for the entire book – doing what you can – in the face of a silent and seemingly absent opposition that evades struggle – neither drowning nor swimming; barely keeping your head above water.
No World But The World opens-up about a brute “like a bear” that casts great shadows, representative of the “survival life”, the expenditure of labour, a medium of exchange for capital. Later on in the book, Boyer crystallises this image as she quotes the idea that a garment “holds within it, hours of the garment worker’s life” women and children put to work in the industrial revolution (and onwards) at sewing machines that increased productivity but, in the main, only seemed to improve the lives of others – technology, the servant of industry, has restructured their labour, but at their own expense. And again, in The Open Book, Anne makes an ironic critique of the assumption that a desire for profit should trickle-down to become shared by all workers, so that eventually, they would all be satisfied at working (and being) in the service of profit.
In a long and in-depth interview with the New Enquiry, Anne argues for the idea that some garments are against women as a metaphor for literature, where women are engaged, employed, accepted, but remain bound within limits, as clothing defines and shapes appearance, behaviours and manage expectation. This is a popular call throughout the publishing world, but I’m not sure this angle is convincingly argued or displayed in the book. On the personal front, Boyer frequently cites discussions with “the man who was then my lover” and the man-splaining that goes on between them, in one-way arguments about kinds of birds and the colour of the sky, that seem to sharpen their differences.
Perhaps the idea is that literature is binding – by genre, writing credits, gate-keepers and connections, and that the industry is perhaps equally condescending, or else-wise; only concessionary in its treatment of women. It’s unclear how often people are actively excluded, pigeonholed or boxed-out (whether in parentheses or through ignorance) and remain unheard. As a white, middle-class uni-educated male, it is hard, almost ridiculous, for me to ask.
However, there has been an inverse, and at times kneejerk, reaction to try and restore balance with women-only magazines, publishers and competitions, as well as projects and “schemes” designed to increase representation of black or minority ethnicity authors (an uncomfortable phrase in itself) in the writing world – I praise the intent but I find these ideas a little condescending – should the judges, arbitrators or administrators of such projects also fit into a specific category? And who wants to be categorized anyway? Are most arts sector employees not reflectively diverse because of some under-lying racism or do excluded people not bother to apply?
I wonder if pushing agendas alongside quality work might go too far, or will these organisations cease to be once a desired or statistical “balance” is achieved, or the publishing world simply feels more representative? Partitions are fine for now – but should ideas and art be sold on the basis of a person’s background – almost as to suggest tokenism? Ideally things would be shaken-up or made new so the publishing world takes on a different form, grass-roots actions, as the term suggests, often spring-up organically, free of trappings or expectation, but, there is at least increased dialogue around the debate, verging on an increased internationalism, writers as citizens of one country.
Thankfully, for a professional academic, Rankine does not talk much about writing in Citizen, she just writes, sharply and succinctly – pure meditative perspective on the page. Boyer has a different struggle, on facing pages, she argues between writing and not writing; “writing steals from my life”.
Freaked-out by the glut of things, possessions and purchases yet to become possessions (bound to desire), where even making, arts and craft, DIY culture can become more about want than necessity. In, A Woman Shopping “a woman is not a woman without a strap on her shoulder or a clutch in her hand” she cleaves apart the notions of self-image and responsibility to the self. Shopping is a role to fulfil, and an image to conform to; the artistic life is, for some, a necessity tarnished as “luxury” or “leisure” when for them, it is clearly a vocation – albeit one that does not necessarily pay. Quite brilliantly she turns the debate onto its commercial head and asks who would buy such a book, about shopping and about not shopping, both for and against literature.
In a way that is the challenge of both books, books that could, should, matter – and in more ways than one – are they ideas to be picked up and put down again – or lines of thought that might encourage us to see the world differently, for all of its ills, and how it might yet be remade.
Adam Steiner‘s poetry and fiction appear in Proletarian Poetry, The Next Review, Fractured Nuance zine, BoscRev: 4 – and other publications. Adam was selected for the 2014 Ó Bhéal Coventry-Cork Twin Cities Poetry Exchange and was part of the Coventry SHOOT Festival. He is former Co-Editor of Here Comes Everyone magazine and his current project iswww.disappear-here.org. His novel about the NHS, Politics of the Asylum, is forthcoming.
Please support the HKRB by following our Facebook page.