Poetry as Criticism of Life: On Claudia Rankine’s Twin NBCC Nominations

citizenThe slate of finalists for the National Book Critics Circle award is strong — perhaps as strong as any shortlist in recent memory. With its stalwarts and new blood, its willingness to rescue books that should have been nominated for other awards while remaining unafraid of recognizing established authors, the list, inasmuch as it is a cross section of American literature in 2014, shows a thriving organism.

For many, the nomination of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric in two categories — poetry and criticism — is welcome and just. Not only was the book snubbed at the National Book Awards, the ceremony itself was marred by a moment of casual racism of the exact kind anatomized by Citizen. Daniel Handler’s joke about watermelon at the expense of NBA winner Jacqueline Woodson could have easily been an episode in Rankine’s book, which is, among many other things, a compilation of such moments and a poetic investigation of the toll they take on black lives and black bodies.

The NBCC’s twin nominations of Citizen are a first: no book has ever been nominated in two categories. It is also, I think, the correct decision. Nevertheless, you can’t just nominate a book in two categories because you think it is superior or timely. The same could have been done for other finalists on that basis; for example, the winner of the John Leonard Award, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, is both strong and topical, but as good as it is, I don’t think it should have received nominations in other categories.

Nor should Citizen have been nominated in the criticism category strictly on the basis of its prose stanzas and essay sections, although they are a factor. Certainly the book’s elegant and purposeful construction brings a new dimension to American poetry, one that recalls the essayistic innovations in cinema made by Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, whose words provide Citizen’s epigraph: “If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.”

But I think that Citizen deserves both of its nominations on the basis of an exceedingly rare quality, one that places it at the height of American poetry: it embodies the ideal of poetry as criticism of life. The first writer to use this phrase, to my knowledge, was the socially conservative poet and critic Matthew Arnold, who wrote:

In poetry, as criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty, the spirit of our race will find, we have said, as time goes on and as other helps fail, its consolation and stay. But the consolation and stay will be of power in proportion to the power of criticism of life. And the criticism of life will be of power in proportion as the poetry conveying it is excellent rather than inferior, sound rather than unsound or half-sound, true rather than untrue or half-true.

If this sounds weird and totally unlike the Rankine you admire, that’s because it is. Arnold’s idea for poetry as criticism of life was rooted in a shared moral impetus between poet and reader. It required “sound” poetic expression matched to a race’s shared ideal, its “consolation and stay.” Here poetry is a “criticism of life” that means to console and fortify, not to upend or redistribute what can be heard, smelled, thought, seen, or said.

There is a much better idea of poetry as criticism of life. It comes from John Dewey, who loathed Matthew Arnold’s idea and tried to change it completely. For Dewey, poetry as criticism of life is not some conservative, one-to-one matching of “poetic truth” to morals, but a question of the gap between what a poet imagines and the actual conditions of society. Arnold’s definition, Dewey writes,

…fails to see or at all events to state how poetry is a criticism of life; namely, not directly, but by disclosure, through imaginative vision addressed to imaginative experience (not set to judgment) of possibility that contrast with actual conditions. A sense of possibilities that are unrealized and that might be realized are when they are put in contrast with actual conditions, the most penetrating “criticism” of the latter that can be made. It is by a sense of possibilities opening before us that we become aware of constrictions that hem us in and of burdens that oppress.

When Rankine’s speaker thinks through the gap between the “historical self” and the “self self,” for example, she is enacting a poetic criticism of life. When the book charts the accumulation of psychic and physical marks against black bodies, too, it is showing the gap between how things are — in a world where the anger of young black citizens is instrumentalized against them — and how the world is perceived or imagined.

For Dewey, too, conditions are collective and social. This is why it is crucial that Rankine writes, as she told Lauren Berlant, from a subjective position:

I made a conscious decision to inhabit my own subjectivity in this book in the sense that the middle-class life I live, with my highly educated, professional, and privileged friends, remains as the backdrop for whatever is being foregrounded.

This allows Rankine to trace the gap or “break” between her own position and the stories of racism gathered “from a community of friends.” Rankine adds:

The entire book is a collection of stories gathered from a community of friends and then retold or folded into my own stories. And though it’s not strictly nonfiction, Citizen is not fiction either. The experience of writing it, which might or might not be the experience of reading it, was to see my community a little better, to see it, to understand my place in it, to know how it sounds, what it looks like, and yet, to stay on my street anyway.

So it isn’t just the prose stanzas or essay sections that make Citizen a work of criticism. Nor is it strictly its timeliness — it would have been timely in any given year. It is everything about the book: its voice, its tone, the speaker’s position in the world, the decision to gather stories from a community. It all amounts to a criticism of this world and this life and the fictions and non-fictions it comprises.