The following is a guest post by Anastasia Nikolis, a graduate student intern in the Poetry and Literature Center and a PhD candidate in the English department at the University of Rochester.
This week’s National Poetry Month post features the two 2016 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry winners: Claudia Rankine for her 2014 book, Citizen, and Nathaniel Mackey for his lifetime achievement in poetry. The Bobbitt Prize recognizes the most distinguished book of poetry written by an American and published during the preceding two years, or the lifetime achievement of an American poet.
The two winners of this year’s prize—reading Thursday, April 20 here at the Library—have not only contributed to the field of poetry by deepening its practice but also by broadening its scope, demonstrating how poetry is not such a rarefied literary practice, and can be an engaging, dynamic, interdisciplinary artistic enterprise.
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was met with a huge response when it was released. A quick internet search will return hundreds of hits, reflecting the many voices that were moved to speak in response to its vignettes testifying to the ubiquity of racist microaggressions, and large-scale aggressions, in America. As the myriad responses will attest, Citizen is remarkable for its timeliness, its energy, its forcefulness, but it is also remarkable for the way it tests the boundaries of what we think of as poetry.
Citizen has been honored with dozens of awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. But it’s notable that Citizen was also nominated in the criticism category, making it the first book in the award’s history to be a double finalist, and deservedly so. Poetry is often believed to only have aesthetic value, but Rankine proves all the ways it can be critical as well. In between the sections of the book composed of short prose poem-like sequences and vignettes describing racist microaggressions are longer essays or passages that make arguments about how racism manifests in America in a few salient case studies: most notably, in the treatment of Serena Williams in the whitewashed tennis community, and in the ways the media has presented cases of police brutality. Furthermore, the book’s distinct sections and different modes of language—essay, prose poem, and “scripts for situation videos”—are collaged on the page with photographs and images. Part of reading Citizen is stitching together these different modes into a coherent whole.
Whereas Claudia Rankine’s book derives energy from showing us the seams where the different modes meet—where prose poem gives way to essay and gives way to visual image—Nathaniel Mackey’s poetry marshals just as many modes while obscuring the seams in the lines of the poems.
Mackey explains that his six poetry volumes—the most recent of which, Blue Fasa, was published in 2015—comprise two “ongoing serial poems”: Song of the Andoumboulou and “Mu.” When reading the book, each poem in the sequence is titled according to which serial poem it belongs to. In the introduction to his National Book Award winning volume, Splay Anthem, Mackey explains that the Song of the Andoumboulou comes from the cosmological tradition of the Dogon of West Africa and “is addressed to the spirits. Part of the Dogon funeral rites, it begins with sticks marking time on a drum’s head, joined in short order by a lone, laconic voice—gravelly, raspy, reluctant—recounting the creation of the world and the advent of human life.” The focus on music is crucial: the way sounds and instrumentation are woven with singing. He goes on to explain that “Mu” comes from jazz musician Don Cherry’s “Mu” First Part and “Mu” Second Part in this same introduction. Again, the focus is clearly on infusing the language of poetry with music, and vice versa.
In other places, however, “Mu” “splays with meaning: muni bird, Greek muthos, a Sun Ra tune, a continent once thought to have existed in the Pacific.” Mackey’s own revision of the project’s premise indicates how the work has a life and trajectory of its own that changes and revises with each new installment in the series. It is a testament to the long life of this endeavor and highlights the dynamism of the project. But it also suggests that mapping the ways the narrative morphs might be a bit beside the point. In the words of the late, great poetry critic, Geoffrey Hartman, understanding references and allusions like these are a bonus, not an entry pass to enjoying the poetry.
Rather, it is worth focusing on how the sounds of language and the sounds of music come to inform one another in the poetry. In this way, like Rankine, Mackey is exploring how poetry edges toward music and song. In this excerpt from the opening poem in Blue Fasa, “A Night in Jaipur: ‘mu’ sixty-fifth part,” the action is clearly focused on a couple embracing, but the facts of the story arc dissolve into the sounds of their environs conjured by the poem:
Whatever after-the-fact embrace
had hold of her we listened,
bamboo hollow the heart of it,
bamboo hollow the heart of it, bam-
boo flute’s burnt opening blown
boo flute’s burnt opening blown on,
hole his breath finessed… Flush
lozenge lipped, let go of.
The fact of the couple is beside the point: the “h” sounds alongside the long and short “o” sounds in “bamboo hollow the heart of it” are soft and quiet. Notice how in the next two lines the consonance of the “b,” “p,” and “t” sounds are more pronounced, which quickens the pace of the lines and challenges the previously established softness. Mackey repeats the word “bamboo” in all four lines—establishing consistency and refrain—but the rhythm comes from the ways that different sounds are more or less repeated in the lines. He chooses which notes he wants to emphasize. All of Blue Fasa plays with refrain and repetition of letter sounds in these ways.
In part of the introduction to Blue Fasa, Mackey reminds readers that the word ‘lyric,’ the term used to refer to short poems, shares an origin with the musical instrument, the lyre, which “the ancient Greeks accompanied songs and recitations with.” He goes on to say, “It’s not that I’ve wanted to forget, though at times I’ve wondered if it were something I’d made up or been misinformed about, the lyric of late being so widely equated with phanopoetic snapshot, bare-bones narrative, terse epiphany and the like much more than with music, signaling an ongoing split between poetry and musicality perhaps.”
Mackey’s project laments the split between poetry and music, much the same way that Rankine’s laments the distance between criticism and poetry. Perhaps one way to understand this year’s Bobbitt Prize winners is to think of the ways they broaden the field of poetry, asserting its dynamic capabilities in a world that sometimes overlooks poetry’s power.
Bobbitt Prize Reading: Nathaniel Mackey and Claudia Rankine. Thursday, April 20, at 6:30 p.m. Mumford Room, Sixth Floor, Library of Congress James Madison Building. Tickets are available here.