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Citizen: An American Lyric | Study Guide

Claudia Rankine

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Citizen: An American Lyric | Context


Contemporary American Poetry

The period of American literature that began at the end of World War II (1939–1945) is known as the contemporary period. Poetry of this period is characterized by a wide range of subject matter and form. Some poets, like American writers Adrienne Rich (1929–2012) and Elizabeth Bishop (1911–79), explored new approaches to form. Other poets explored new content. The 1950s to 1970s in particular was a time of major cultural change in the United States, given the advent of the civil rights and women's rights movements. The second-wave feminist movement gained momentum throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and women writers began to emerge in force, including Elizabeth Bishop; American poet and educator Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000); Canadian author Margaret Atwood (b. 1939); and American poet Denise Levertov (1923–97).

The first-wave feminist movement took place during the 19th and early 20th centuries and focused primarily on legal issues such as the right to vote. The second-wave feminist movement, which continued into the 1990s, focused on sexuality, reproductive rights, and social equality. Rankine is part of this second-wave movement, as her work engages with issues of sexuality and social equality. In Citizen, Rankine frequently explores society's problematic relationship with the black female body. She points out that society projects its expectations on black bodies in general, and that the bodies of black women are doubly vulnerable to this projection. Rankine's passages about American tennis player Serena Williams (b. 1981), an extremely public figure, explore the problem of society and media claiming ownership of Williams's body because she is black and female.

Because of political shifts in the 1960s and 1970s, women and people of color began to publish more frequently and find larger audiences. As a result, poetic style and voice began to shift as well. No longer were the main voices of poetry all white and male. Poets emerged with different speech patterns and syntax and with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Rankine, who published her first book of poetry in the 1990s, was greatly influenced by writers of this period such as American poet, scholar, and critic Adrienne Rich and Pulitzer prize-winning American poet Louise Glück (b. 1943).


Prose Poetry

Claudia Rankine's work frequently takes the form of the prose poem, which became especially popular over the course of the 20th century. Versions of the prose poem date back centuries, but its modern use can be connected to French writers in the 19th century. Prose poetry, as its name suggests, is a combination of prose and poetry. Prose poems are written in paragraph form without line breaks. However, prose poems have clear poetic qualities such as intense imagery or emotion and often contain poetic elements, such as repetition, rhyme, and rhythm. From the establishment of the prose poem in 19th-century France to its use in contemporary poetry, the prose poem serves to push the conventional constraints of poetry. In Rankine's Citizen, prose poems appear interspersed among lyric essays. For instance, the first section of Citizen can primarily be characterized as prose poetry. The pieces are poetic and range from narrative to imagematic (sensory) and emotional. Though the pieces are written without line breaks, they still heavily rely on poetic techniques like the alliteration (repetition of initial consonant sounds) found in the line "dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds."

Lyric Essay

The lyric essay is a relatively new form that has become increasingly popular with contemporary writers. It blends elements of lyric poetry, which conveys the personal experience of sentiment, and essay. While lyric essays and prose poems may often overlap, lyric essays may incorporate fragments of traditional prose. Unlike conventional essays, however, lyric essays do not focus on a proving a thesis but instead on evoking a subject through association, connotation, and imagery. They often combine narrative, memoir, and allusion to conjure universal subtext that the writer wishes to explore through a combination of fragments. For instance, a writer may create a lyric essay that details an experience they had, while also exploring the larger implications of this experience. The writing style will often have more poetic and lyrical qualities than a conventional essay, integrating the writer's intimate reflections with the subjects they explore. For example, Rankine reflects on Hennessy Youngman's (persona developed by New York artist Jayson Musson, b. 1977) YouTube project "Art Thoughtz," which focuses on art, race, gender, and popular culture, and American tennis star Serena Williams's (b. 1981) struggles with the tennis world and media. These sections contain specific factual information and read like essays, but they are also characterized by Rankine's use of poetic language and development of the ideas that connect all of the pieces in Citizen.

African American Literature

Claudia Rankine, who began publishing in the early 1990s, has risen to become one of the most important poets in contemporary literature. Her work explores the experience of black Americans through a personal lens. Rankine's genre-bending writing brings attention to issues of racism, identity, and historical erasure. While Rankine's writing breaks new ground stylistically, her work has been deeply influenced by other writers of the African American canon.

Zora Neale Hurston

In the 1920s the Harlem Renaissance sparked an explosion of new writing, art, and music by African Americans, which in turn ignited a larger debate among writers such as Langston Hughes (c. 1902–67), Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), and James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) about the responsibility of African American writers to write about African American issues and identity. Zora Neale Hurston graduated from Barnard College, where Claudia Rankine would later teach, in 1928. Hurston wrote across a broad spectrum of genres, from folklore and anthropology to fiction and plays. Her work focused on African American stories and culture, particularly of the South. She has been called the most important black female writer of the early 20th century, and she influenced many writers after her. In Citizen, Claudia Rankine quotes Hurston's 1928 essay titled "How it Feels to Be Colored Me." Rankine uses Hurston's line to develop the idea of the black body "against a white background."

James Baldwin

American author James Baldwin (1924–87) had a tremendous influence on African American writers and is widely referenced by Claudia Rankine in Citizen. Baldwin played an important role in the civil rights movement and interrogated issues of race with his criticism in books like Notes of a Native Son (1955). In Chapter 6 of Citizen, Rankine quotes Baldwin extensively on subjects such as art, racism, and black bodies. She draws on Baldwin's words as she develops her own thoughts on these subjects, indicating a strong respect for his ideas.

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