Clara B. Jones

The “Oppositional” Poetry Of Adrienne Rich and Claudia Rankine

Poets, “Themes,” Theory, Criticism

Commenting on a special issue on Irish poets in the journal, Poetry (September 2015), Patrick Cotter observed, “To write intimately about your own affairs is to risk making your poetry impenetrable, irrelevant, or both, even when writing in a global language like English. And yet to exclude your own affairs, to eliminate the parochial from your 'epic' entirely risks self-censorship or a denial of one's own truth.” These words apply to all poets located “on the margins” or viewed as “Other” by a dominant group (women by men; Blacks by Whites). These words are particularly poignant for describing two female poets embodying duel identities rooted in oppression: Jewish-identified, Adrienne Rich; Jamaican-American, Claudia Rankine.

Writing in The Critical Flame (2015), Joshua Jacobs discussed similarities between Rich's and Rankine's projects, emphasizing their common role as witnesses to social injustice. Both of these poets “write intimately about [their] own affairs,” but their self-referenced writing has attracted large audiences of readers with different as well as similar concerns. Rich and Rankine address the violence (aggressions and “micro-aggressions”) perpetrated by the powerful against the powerless, as well as, the victimizers against the victims—Rich focusing on women and gender, Rankine on Blacks and race, though, emphasizing oppression runs the risk of overlooking the “agency” and “resilience” of marginalized groups. Nonetheless, Jacobs' ideas initiated an important area of comparative political-social-literary study by poetry critics and cultural theorists.

This short essay has three primary aims. First, I highlight similarities between the poetry of Rich, who died in 2012 at the age of 82, and Rankine, a professor at Yale University, formerly, at Pomona College. These women's writings address experiences of systemic, seemingly, inevitable, and sometimes, obligatory, subordinate status, employing English, their primary language. In Rich's words, “This is the oppressor's language yet I need it to talk to you.” (The Will To Change, 1971), while Rankine asserts, “Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word.” (Citizen: An American Lyric, 2014). In 1983, the Rutgers University poet, essayist, and feminist poetry critic, Alicia Ostriker, described Rich as “the strongest woman poet in the country, and a major influence” (Writing Like A Woman).

Harriet: The Blog, an influential online poetry venue sponsored by The Poetry Foundation, has described Rankine's Citizen as “an oft-cited moral authority in the Black Lives Matter movement.” Both writers have been recognized with major awards, and Rankine, has been highly visible in the popular press since Citizen was published. In addition to addressing the poets' parallel themes of oppression and violence, I suggest that the theoretical roots of both poets are reminiscent of Queer Theory. Second, this essay discusses Rich's and Rankine's poetry from the divergent perspectives of the poetry critics, Ostriker and Helen Vendler. I conclude my article by addressing the questions: “Does it matter who writes a poem?” and “Should all poems be judged by the same criteria?” A concern underlying my contribution is to what extent the projects of both poets depend upon binary, “totalizing” models (male vs. female in Rich's work; White vs. Black in Rankine's), that may be, ultimately, unsatisfactory for a nuanced discussion of whether gender and race are “natural or essential” traits and whether gender and race are social constructions subject to change and [Post-modern] fragmentation?

Adrienne Rich and Claudia Rankine as “political queers”

In her n + 1 (Issue 23, 2015) review of Maggie Nelson's book, The Argonauts, Moira Donegan labeled Nelson a “political queer” who examines “the difference between the subversive form...and the apparently conventional.” Donegan goes on to ask, “What are we signaling, and to whom, when we mark ourselves as different—as queer, as [socially] deviant, as angry or oppositional? Above all, how do we think our way out of the easy sense of contradiction?” Queerness concerns roles (social position[s]) and norms (expectations about beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors), though contemporary Queer Theorists hold that “Queer is less an identity than a critique of identity.” (see, for example, Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, David Halperin). Referring to political queerness in relation to sexuality, Donegan quotes Nelson: “The time for blithely asserting that sleeping with whomever you want however you want is going to jam [Capitalism's] machinery is long past.”

Though neither Rich nor Rankine goes so far as to advocate the dismantling of Capitalism, each poet's work opposes exploitation at the personal and systemic levels [“a critique of identity”]. Rich said, “I cannot now lie down with a man who fears my power or reaches for me as for death.” (Poems: Selected and New, 1975); and, Rankine wrote about the perceived value of “micro-aggressions” directed at Blacks by Whites: “You are not anyone, worthless, not worth you.” (Citizen). Both Rich and Rankine would sympathize with Donegan's interpretation of Nelson's book—“The promise of happiness can be a cruel trick that lures you into participating in your own oppression.” (Rich, in Poems, Selected and New, “I am trying to imagine how it feels to you to want a woman.” and, Rankine, in Citizen, “even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games”). In a recent Guardian interview, Rankine states, “By not speaking up, one is complicit.” Real change, then, requires overt opposition in order to “jam [the] machinery”—in Rankine's case, Institutional Racism (“to understand the erasure of the self as systemic”), in Rich's, Patriarchy (“diving into the wreck”).

Both Rankine and Rich oppose normative codes of race and gender, respectively. In Citizen, Rankine wrote of Serena Williams—“Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history.” In Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), Rich asked, “Was it worthwhile to lay—with infinite exertion—a roof I can't live under?” These and other sentiments ally both of these “oppositional” poets with Queer Theory in an implicit if not public way, counteracting the normal, the centrist, “the legitimate, the dominant.” Though Rich is generally viewed as a traditional “lesbian feminist” affiliated with models of the 1970s and 1980s (“My power is present and local, but I know my power.” in Poems: Selected and New), she, also, seems to be aware of queer theorists' idea of a “fractured identity.” Thus, “Will we do better?” (A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, 1981), and, “I don't want to know, but this is not a bad dream of mine.” (An Atlas of the Difficult World, 1991). Rankine is also aware of the potential for language (the “discursive”) to be ambiguous and unstable saying, “A friend argues that Americans battle between the 'historical self' and the 'self self'.”—a formulation similar to Judith Butler's (Gender Trouble, 1990) treatment of the “performance” of identity (“I am a lesbian, and I have been being a lesbian.”). Both Rich and Rankine might say, “I am an Other, and I have been being an Other.”

Though Rankine is probably not attempting to grapple with Michel Foucault's (The History of Sexuality, 1976) notions of “alliance” (coded regularities or norms) and “power-knowledge” (the power of language or discourse for transmitting norms) as they contrast with Butler's ideas concerning the “performance” of identity or subjectivity, Rankine's poems demonstrate that she has studied Butler's work and is sympathetic to Butler's sensibilities. For example, Rankine writes, “Our emotional openness, [Butler] adds, is carried by, our addressability. Language navigates this. You begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.” As discussed below, the emphasis on “language” characteristic of “oppositional writers,” including, Rankine, Rich, and queer theorists, contrasts with the emphasis on “form” employed by classical (Formalist) critics such as Harvard's Helen Vendler.

Adrienne Rich & Claudia Rankine—Alicia Ostriker's Perspective

Though having reached, virtually unchallenged, iconic status since the publication of Citizen, compared to Rich Rankine has not yet generated a comparably high-profile or ongoing argumentative, including, controversial debate among political, anti-racist, and radical theorists, critics, and academics—though that is bound to change. As a result, my ideas about Rankine in this section are necessarily speculative; nonetheless, I hope to situate her work in the broader narrative of commentary about female poets. Alicia Ostriker and Helen Vendler have published important studies on Rich whose canon has been treated extensively in the scholarly literature and media. In her 2003 book, Dancing at the Devil's Party, Ostriker states, “Some of us believe poetry changes the world. I am of this...persuasion, and I have always enjoyed the work of visionary artists dissatisfied with the rule of 'things as they are.'” Ostriker states, later, “The strongest women poets tend to oppose hierarchy; they like boundary-breaking, duality-dissolving, and authority-needling.” Though hers is no voice of revolution since “duality-dissolving” and “authority-needling” imply accommodation and reconciliation, Ostriker recognizes Rich's politically radical poetry to be major—indeed, precient and necessary (see Ostriker's brilliant Stealing the Language, 1986, as well as, her Writing Like a Woman and Dancing at the Devil's Party).

A discussion of aesthetics applied to female poets is beyond the scope of this essay; however, it is of note that Ostriker states, “The true poet (the good poet) is necessarily the partisan of energy, rebellion, and desire and is opposed to passivity, obedience, and the authority of reason, laws, and institutions. [The poet] can be of the devil's party without knowing it.” (Writing Like a Woman). Compared to Rich's overtly political and disruptive postures, Rankine, winner of a MacArthur “genius” award, is well-mannered, even, conventional, in tone and mien, traits that may, in great part, explain her wide public appeal, the mainstream publishing and reading communities, the foundations, and the media, as well as her elevated status in relation to other female poets, regardless of race, class, gender, or political persuasion. Unlike the rather reclusive, Rich, Rankine is a visible presence on the lecture circuit and might be compared to other poets with a commercial sensibility. Simply, Rankine is a more sympathetic, mainstream figure compared to Rich who challenged norms and roles in ways that might easily be characterized as socially provocative—radical lesbian, unhappy wife whose husband committed suicide, mother of three sons yet virulently angry with men, a “queer” who may be viewed, after retrospective, scholarly, deconstruction of some of her writing, as an intellectual affiliate of the “anti-maternal” radical feminist, especially, lesbian, tradition.

In a now-classic essay (“Ghostlier Demarcations, Keener Sounds,” 1973 in Parnassus), Vendler, applying mainstream, elitist, Formalist criteria to Rich's poetry, is of the opinion that, while her early [conventional] poetry showed promise, her political work is little more than “sociology.” Vendler does not completely dismiss Rich, however, informing us that her political writing sustains her interest and imagination. Like most Formalists, Vendler dismisses “didactic” [e.g., political, “woke”] writing, taking the position that, “Adults do not have to be told what to think.” Though, Vendler, diplomatically, judiciously, and with a scholarly mien, expresses her disappointment with Rich's political poetry, the critic concludes her essay by saying, in mildly patronizing fashion, “When new books follow, these most recent poems will, I think, be seen as the transition to a new generosity and a new self-forgetfulness.”

Conclusions: Does the poetry of Rich and Rankine have “staying power?”

Queer Theory opposes normative literary theory privileging centrism via the “preservation” of (Western) civilized standards, norms, and discourse. How can poetry serve radical political purposes if its end is to resolve conflict? Are Rankine and Rich writing lasting poetry according to classical [Formalist] standards, and does it matter? For Helen Vendler, generally considered America's foremost poetry critic, “lyric comes out of self, not social identity” and out of “temperament,” a Formalist perspective which feminist [or other marginalized, underrepresented, or oppositional poets] critics may need to address. One of Vendler's major influences, I.A. Richards (Practical Criticism, 1956), asserted that poetry is fiction, not intended to tell the truth. Is Citizen, then, only an allegory turning Blacks into fictional characters? Is “institutional racism” a constructed Racial Imaginary (Rankine and Loffreda, 2015)? Is the poetry of Rich and Rankine Sociology or Political Science or Journalism, as Vendler would put it? Do Rankine's and Rich's poems rise to the level of Art [and, does it matter]? Ostriker (Writing Like A Woman) observed, Rich “says we must be born again by our own agency. We can and must give birth to ourselves, create ourselves.”—possibly, it seems to me, because we have been influenced by the norms of hierarchy, including, “institutional” hetero-normativity, sexism, racism, as well as, Patriarchy (“to spin herself a house within a house, on her own terms” says Rich in An Atlas Of The Difficult World, 1991).

Poets from marginalized groups might be critically assessed relative to the relationship between values, politics, personal experience, and poetry, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the standards of Formalism and the mainstream poetry community [e.g., lyric, music, rhythm, image, “interpretive power”], deserving to be heard on a level equal with, mostly white male poets [though, also, Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop] who have been canonized. How, for example, are Language, Content, and Form related and navigated by “oppositional” poets? Can this be studied systematically? Is there need for a new or revised or alternate aesthetics to interpret and evaluate the poetics of marginalized writers? Writing about Rich's political poetry in 1980 (“Self-reflection as action” in Signs), Charles Altieri made the following observations that would apply to Rankine's activist poetry, as well, when he says, political poetry “is not...primarily a political act but a way of insisting that poems and lives can be continuous, can deepen one another when framed as a single process.” This perspective may not satisfy Formalists; however, it allows us to entertain a preliminary formulation of a future, inclusive Poetics.

Clara B. Jones is a knowledge worker practicing in Silver Spring, MD, USA. Her most recent collection can be found at hidingpress.com.
previous page     contents     next page


Post a Comment

<< Home