Ethnicity’s Impact on Literary Experimentation

February 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

Literary experimentation has a tendency to alienate writers of color due parameters of experimentation privileging apolitical identities and valuing the inward voice. These avant-garde literary traditions arguably favor the white, male voice and create a hostile environment for minority writers to produce innovative poetry within. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen seeks to break all these supposed rules and circumvent the intrinsically racist institutions of the avant-garde. She does this by repurposing the form of lyric poetry, and centering it in the public sphere of politics and racial identity. Her subversion of experimental literary conceits of voice and language, her use of multi-media, is motivated by a desire to create a space in which the politicized self can exist within the traditions of the avant-garde

Avant-garde poetry has been criticised for failing to provide a space in which minority writers can flourish and experiment. Joshua Lam describes the genre as existing in a moment when conceptual and avant-garde poetries are being pilloried for their ‘delusions of whiteness’, and when writers of colour whose conceptual techniques are being called out for not toeing the party line arbitrarily drawn by an anonymous coalition.[1] Experimental writings emphasise producing narratives and voices that are removed from the political sphere. Due to the avant-garde form being largely defined by individuals who were, by and large, straight white men, this inward, apolitical voice is universalised is thus implicitly white. This discriminates against writers of colour, whose identities as minorities are inherently politicised. Thus, the suggestion that poetry should not be utilised as a mode of expressing political discontent or exploring wider social issues, alienates a whole sub-section of individuals from using the writing style. Lam notes that even when minority poetry writers are celebrated, it is usually done by anthologizing them via their ethnicity, which “implicitly underwrites ‘whiteness’ as racially unmarked.”[2] The expressive traditions of experimental writing are implicitly coded as white and thus the neutral poetic voice supposedly removed from dogma, upholds the white experience as universal. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen can be interpreted as a response to this “moment,” Lam argues that she seeks to “present black poetry outside the conventional bounds of ‘personal narrative’ and ‘MFA program verse’” and seek to disrupt the theoretically apolitical nature of avant-garde literature by “demystifying its white mythology.”[3] Her decision to define her work as an ‘American Lyric’ highlights this disruption of the view that poetry should be removed from politics. The modern lyric poem is defined as an expression of the poet’s emotions and personal experiences in a highly subjective mode – a sort of intimate biography spoken in the first person and usually conveyed in short texts to capture with immediacy and authenticity.[4] Initially this style seems unsuitable as the identification of Rankine’s form of political expression, due its fixation on the experience of the individual, while Citizen is centered around the experiences of the greater black American community. However, Francini observes that by defining her lyric style as specifically ‘American’” Rankine’s subtitle implicitly links her work to the great variety of uniquely American lyrical forms that have voiced political and social issues in the history of the United States, blurring the boundaries between public and private, prose and poetry – from Walt Whitman to William Carlos Williams…[5] Moreover, the lyric poem’s focusing on the short moments of personal experience is conducive to Rankine’s central theme – the racial microaggressions experienced everyday by black Americans. Using elements of the lyric style Rankine valorizes these seemingly banal interactions, and dissect the motivations and societal pressures behind such interactions. By adopting a poetic style undeniably linked with both political discourse and the American poetic canon Rankine seeks to prove that ‘good’ poetry cannot exist in an anti-political vacuum, that to engage with poetic form innovatively she does not have a suppress her ethnic identity.

Yet, Rankine also seeks to distinguish her work from previous American lyrical poets and it’s also decisively white, male history. Gillian White notes that there is a sense of “lyric shame”[6] surrounding the genre, as “a sense, now often uncritically assumed, that modes of writing and reading identified as lyric are embarrassingly egotistical and politically backward.”[7] A key example of this is Whitman who, though espousing anti-slavery and egalitarian racial sentiments in much of his work, was a social Darwinist who believed “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not.”[8] It is therefore unsurprising that Rankine, as a black woman, would seek a degree of distance between this literary ‘shame’ and her own work. One way in which she does this is through her subversion of the typical language of the lyric. While certain aspects of the lyric’s musical stylings are evident in Citizen, such as the repetition of the phrase “What did you say?” which functions texts chorus, or the in the exacting sound patterns she employs “Some years there exists a wanting to escape-/you, floating above your certain ache.” However, Rankine also favors a quality of language poetry with a distinct sense of anti-lyricism, with an awareness for the power that lies in accessible language over the flowery language of traditional Lyricism and the ‘new sentence’ of contemporary avant-garde poets. Instead Rankine chooses to present multiple interrogative accounts of experiencing racial microaggressions, using a cool and detached tone associated more with journalism or critical essays, than lyric poetry. You are in the dark, in your car, watching the black-tarred/street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is/making him hire a person of colour when there are so many/great writers out there. More recognizable ‘poetry’ can be found in the latter sections of the text, but it is presented as a signifier of a breakdown in communication. These linguistic choices are a “tactical frustration” and a method of “deprograming bourgeois readerly assumptions.”[9] Lerner argues that as, the reader attempts to combine the sentences – which are grammatical into meaningful paragraphs…But the reader discovers as she goes that many successive sentences cannot be assimilated to a coherent paragraph, that paragraphs are organized arbitrarily…that no stable voice unifies the text[10] By utilizing language whose surface meaning is more accessible to the average reader, Rankine is able to explore the breakdown of dialogue that occurs at the point of a racist micro-aggression through presenting a contrast between ‘stable’ language situated within an unstable form. It is significant that Citizen’s refuses “without in any sense being simple—to advance formal difficulty as a mode of resistance, revolution, or pedagogy.”[11] By deciding to eschew the aesthetically challenging ‘new sentence’- a tool utilized to preserve an isolating and racist experimental tradition – and instead utilise a politically charged linguistic tradition, Rankine’s is able to express the frustrations of the black American experience with an ease poetry tradition would otherwise deny her.

Another technique that Rankine uses to distance herself from the traditions of the lyric poem is by replacing the first-person, intimate narration of the writer – the lyric ‘I’ – with a Greek chorus of black American voices relating to the reader an array of racial microaggressions. This substitution of the insular, individualistic lyric ‘I’ with either the associative you or the all-encompassing ‘we’ suggests the incidents that occur within the text form a communal body of experience. Rankine’s ‘you’ is a comprehensive addressee, any person one encounters or interacts with on a daily basis, just as her we is the voice of the American ‘body politic’[12] This literary conceit further lends itself to Rankine’s investigation of the moment of the racial micro-aggression. Moments that seem superficially ordinary and banal, become universalized. Rankine’s I, we, you interact, giving her work an anthropological scope mainly concerned with the public space a black body occupies. As a witness to American society, Rankine stages the moments in daily life when communication and interaction are broken and racial violence explodes turning the personal into a collective story[13] As most of the micro-aggressions in the text did occur to either Rankine or to the friends and acquaintances she approached for their experiences with everyday racism.[14] The racism detailed in Citizen occurs to many genders, ages, and sexualities. It isn’t limited by time, a transcript of a video project done in memory of Trayvon Martin – killed in 2012 – juxtaposed with an edited photograph of a lynching in 1930. Due to this breadth it is therefore accurate to characterize Citizen as just as much a case-study as it is poetry, a social and collective portrait of race relations in the contemporary United States that remains tied grammatically and experientially to the lyric subject.[15] This focus on the reality of existing as a black person in America, and the collective truths of that experience, can be perceived as a reaction to the poetry that epitomizes Lerner’s “white male universalism”[16]. To explore the scale of the America’s breakdown in communication, Rankine invents must take a form popularized by the singular white experience and subvert it so as to create a universal black voice. For Rankine, it is only a “a unifying fiction”[17] that has the ability to express the severity of black America’s trauma.

Rankine further challenges the avant-garde divide between experimental form and politics by using multiple medias. Photographs, collages, painting, and video – specifically internet video – feature prominently. It can be argued that this further proves that Rankine is concerned with making her work accessible, by using mediums which the reader would interact with more frequently and easily than avant-garde poetry. According to Francini, this use of multi-media “brings readers inside the events they narrate making literary writing a fluid, hybrid and vivid activity in dialogue with external sources”[18] Moreover, by using photo and video mediums Rankine is able to provide a degree of black representation, needed for her critical analysis of racial microaggressions, that the avant-garde poetic tradition cannot. Though, she references important figures in the history of black writing – such as Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Frantz Fanon – they do not feature prominently and are situated within footnotes of her writing. Instead, when she does dissect the moments of the racist microaggression that are endemic to American society, she opts to use black figures from pop culture. She specifically focuses on Serena Williams. Williams is the most famous female tennis player in the world and more recognisable to the average reader than Frantz Fanon. Rankine takes several infamous moments in Williams career where the tennis pro associated with racism, most of which have been captured on video, and analyses them using the linguistic apparatus of literary critical theory. Rankine references to an infamous match in 2009 when Serena let loose an expletive-filled rant at a line judge who had made an incorrect foot fault call. Rankine then explores the societal and psychological pressures leading to the call and Serena’s reaction: Perhaps the committee’s decision is only about context, though context is not meaning…In any case, it is difficult not to think that if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because her body, trapped in a racial imaginary, trapped in disbelief – code for being black in America – is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play the rules. The phrases Rankine employs, “lost context” “code for”, evokes the voice of critical theory. Yet, this form so often associated with elitism becomes much more comprehensible when it dissects easily recognizable figures and moments. Furthermore, it can be argued that applying this critical scope to a visual medium, as opposed to a textual one, there is less ambiguity surrounding Rankine’s conclusions. Parallels can be drawn between the technique Rankine employs in using technology to bolster critical arguments, and the part technology plays revealing the of black Americans oppression. Love focuses specifically on how footage filmed on a mobile phone is often used as proof of racist oppression in America: …exactitude can be a political resource. That potential has been taken up with the use of cellphone cameras to record police violence in examples of “sousveillance,” or surveillance from below.[19] Rankine touches on this relationship when she compares the deaths of Rodney King and Mark Duggan, and the different reactions to the riots that both deaths triggered in the US and UK respectively: In the United States, Rodney King’s beating, caught on video, trumped all other images. If there had been a video of Duggan executed, there might be less ambiguity about what started the riots… Rankine use a camera-like objectivity to her demonstrate her poetic micro-examination of American racism, through her use of the visual medium, which is inherently more objective the written word. Photos are a very effective tool to prove a point of view. For example, after Rankine details a brief history of the racial micro-aggressions Serena Williams has experienced throughout her career, she includes a photo of another tennis pro-player Dane Caroline Wozniacki imitating Serena Williams by stuffing her clothes to present a caricature of the black female figure. This full-color photo is arguably shocking in its own right, but in contrast with Rankine’s stark text the racist moment it captures becomes even more potent and erases any doubt the audience may have concerning Rankine’s critical examination of the Williams oppression. Using several modes of media to demonstrate the moment of the micro-aggression, Rankine expresses how American racism not only transcends demographics, it also transcends a singular mode of communication. Furthermore, the need to prove oppression through many mediums is endemic to the black American experience, to Rankine’s own experience, due to the continued view of many that America is a ‘post-racial’ society, and is why the motif of the camera and video features prominently in Citizen. Thus, Rankine’s need to reveal the racism experienced by herself and other black Americans requires many mediums.

However, it would be inaccurate to characterize Citizen’s focus on visual forms as evidence that the Rankine seeks to capture the objective frozen moment. Instead, the text presents American race relations as something constantly in flux. A key example being that with every reprint of the text, the list of individuals killed by police brutality “In memory of…” has more names added to it. Visual mediums are also used to signify this shift in perspective. In the final two pages of the text are taken up by two pictures of Turner’s seminal painting The Slave Ship. The first presents the painting in full dominated by its many sublime elements of sky, sea and ship. The second is a zoomed in picture of the painting corner in which we see visible the foot of a slave being eaten by fish. By focusing on such a small, but horrifying, detail within the painting, the viewers outlook on the image as a whole is altered. Rankine’s intention to adjust the readers view of the American macro-moment of racial oppression, by focusing on the micro-moment of racism.

In conclusion, Rankine’s ethnic identity causes her to seek and create alternative experimental forms in which to situate her writing, due to the traditional universal voice of lyric and avant-garde poetry upholding the white experience and denying the minority self. Thus, to create space for her inherently political self to exist, Rankine must subvert these traditions, and transcend the boundaries of a racist tradition. She does this by using a form closely associated to the personal voice, to express the universal experience of black America – the microaggression. The personal and public become interwoven, and defy the prevailing view that experimental poetry should be removed from politics. She finds representation of herself, and evidence of the oppression that this self is subjected by utilizing other forms of multi-media. These techniques result in Rankine leveraging her own ethnic identity, what she has experienced because of it and the similar experiences of others, into an experimental space where such things were previously rejected.


Francini, Antonella. “Claudia Rankine’s American Lyrics.” RSA Journal 2015, vol. 26, 177-181

Lam, Joshua. “Beyond the Norton: Anthologizing Innovation in Contemporary Black Poetics.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 40, no. 1, 2016, pp. 169–176.

Lerner, Ben. “Beyond Lyric Shame: Ben Lerner on Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson” LitHub, 29 November 2017. <> [accessed 2/1/2018]

Love, Heather. “Small Change: Realism, Immanence, and the Politics of the Micro.” Modern Language Quarterly 1 September 2016, pp. 419–445

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. (New York: Appleton, 1908)

White, Gillian. Lyric Shame: The “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014)

[1] Joshua Lam, “Beyond the Norton: Anthologizing Innovation in Contemporary Black Poetics.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 40, no. 1, 2016, p.176 [2] Ibid, p.170 [3] Ibid, p.176 [4] Antonella Francini,”Claudia Rankine’s American Lyrics.” RSA Journal 2015, vol. 26, p. 179 [5] Antonella Francini, “Claudia Rankine’s American Lyrics.” RSA Journal 2015, vol. 26, p.179 [6] Gillian White, Lyric Shame: The “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2014) [7] Ben Lerner, “Beyond Lyric Shame: Ben Lerner on Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson” LitHub, 29 November 2017. [8] Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman, p. 283 [9] “Beyond Lyric Shame: Ben Lerner on Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson” LitHub, 29 November 2017. [10] Ben Lerner, “Beyond Lyric Shame: Ben Lerner on Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson” LitHub, 29 November 2017. [11] Ibid [12] Antonella Francini, “Claudia Rankine’s American Lyrics.” RSA Journal 2015, vol. 26, p.178 [13] Ibid, p. 179 [14] Heather Love, “Small Change: Realism, Immanence, and the Politics of the Micro.” Modern Language Quarterly, 2016 [15] Ibid [16] Ben Lerner,“Beyond Lyric Shame: Ben Lerner on Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson” LitHub, 29 November 2017. [17] Ben Lerner, “Beyond Lyric Shame: Ben Lerner on Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson” LitHub, 29 November 2017. [18] Antonella Francini, “Claudia Rankine’s American Lyrics.” RSA Journal 2015, vol. 26, p.181 [19] Heather Love, “Small Change: Realism, Immanence, and the Politics of the Micro.” Modern Language Quarterly, 2016

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