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This item is taken from PN Review 229, Volume 42 Number 5, May - June 2016.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: an American Lyric was awarded the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. It had also been shortlisted in the ‘criticism’ category. Booksellers and librarians were puzzled: where to display and shelve such a generically anomalous title? The poetry committee triumphed: Once Citizen was pronounced a poem, other awarding panels could follow: it received the PEN Centre USA poetry award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry, and the NAACP Image Award for poetry. And in 2015 in Britain it received the Forward Prize for ‘Best Collection’.

The word ‘collection’ underlines a bias in the Forward Prize’s rubrics. The T. S. Eliot Prize, too, specifies ‘the best collection of new verse in English’. The formulation is peculiarly English, rooted in the settled anti-Modernism that marks the editorial policies of the major established London publishers, including the one that T. S. Eliot helped to shape, promoting such works as Pound’s Cantos, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood and David Jones’s The Anathemata and famously saying, ‘With most categories of books you are aiming to make as much money as possible, with poetry you are aiming to lose as little as possible.’

Citizen, partly in prose and script form, with graphic and photographic images, arranged in seven chapters, is neither a ‘collection’ nor ‘verse’. To subtitle it a lyric is as provocative and, in a sense, as political as Wordsworth and Coleridge calling their 1798 collaboration Lyrical Ballads, which sounded like an oxymoron to contemporary readers with a settled sense of genres: the purity of the lyric was affronted to keep company with the vulgar ballad.

Rankine is by turns documentary, archival, personal, drawing in to Citizen the racisms she, friends and public figures have experienced, aspects of a post-colonial continuum with the experience of Black people in earlier centuries. Her use of ‘lyric’ relates her work to the ‘lyric essay’, another suggestive contradiction in terms that combines essay, memoir, verse and research, a form associated especially with women writers, and with Rankine herself, creating ‘a space apart’.

One writer Rankine acknowledges as a foremother is Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), a woman closer in time and biography to the experience of enforced displacement, disempowerment and repression that slavery, followed by segregation, produced. ‘Roll your eyes in ecstasy and ape his every move, but until we have placed something upon his street that is our own, we are right back where we were when they filed our iron collar off.’ Hurston uses a popular idiom, elevating it to the ‘literary zone’ to express something larger than the individual imagination: ‘Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.’ Her language tends towards aphorism, common saws made uncommon in new contexts. ‘If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk.’ ‘Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.’ ‘She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief.’ Hurston heard the different speech of Georgia, Alabama, New Orleans. She entrusted her fiction to those voices, not only their testimony but their accents.

The second of Hurston’s four novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), was written in under two months, while the author – a trained anthropologist – was in Haiti doing field work. Missing home, she conjured its voices. The book is woven of varieties of speech, the language close to the uttering body of each speaker. Harold Bloom, including Their Eyes in ‘The Western Canon’, noticed how its mimetic language belonged with the reinventions of Modernism. Hurston resisted the pressure of Black critics to be radical in prescribed ways, to contribute to ‘motive fiction and social document fiction’. The inhabitants on their verandas start to talk. ‘They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.’

In Hurston’s work Alice Walker (who found and approximately marked Hurston’s grave, and in 1979 edited a Hurston Reader) and Toni Morrison are foreshadowed. Something starts with Hurston, a women brave and resisting in the fast-flowing currents of a given literature and politics.

Of all her books, Their Eyes has become canonical. Clearly conceived, it touches more points in a living culture than her other work. She was, in Jean Toomer’s memorial phrase, ‘a genius of the South’, not only an iconic figure but a considerable writer. Her book concludes with the protagonist reconciled in the most unusual and epiphanic terms: ‘Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.’ The book is lyrical, it is poetic. To call it a novel is to sell it short. To call it a poem would be to sell it short, too.

‘Claudia Rankine continues the way that has been opened,’ Vahni Capildeo wrote in PNR 228. But Citizen is conceived and written in a different spirit from Their Eyes. Citizen needed to be generically fixed for reasons of marketing: genre as a selling tool rather than a literary identifier… Indeed the conflict surrounding the genre itself provided a marketing opportunity.

Is it time the award rules were re-drawn to protect the remnants of generic classification, tattered and frayed in the past by modernism, today by marketing? Is it time that more appropriate awards were devised for innovative work that is deliberately careless of genres? Citizen, described by Capildeo as ‘the crystalline aggregation of “microaggressions”’, is out of the ordinary and deserves to be recognised for what it is. But it is not a collection of poems. It is not a book of verse. 

This item is taken from PN Review 229, Volume 42 Number 5, May - June 2016.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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