Lyric Essay, Part One: Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is subtitled “An American Lyric” and categorized by the publisher as “lyric essay/poetry.” What does lyric suggest or mean? In what ways does this poetic element of her essay play a role in the rhetorical project? What is Rankine’s rhetorical project: what is she doing in here?

In simplest terms, I presume the publisher means it as something of a synonym for poetic. Here is the OED entry for the adjective “lyric.”  Another term, then, might be prose poem. And lyric, in poetry, has come to mean something personal or autobiographical, in contrast with the epic; poetry of the I. Think Whitman, “Song of Myself.”

Calling prose lyrical or poetic may also just be a cop out: an attempt to describe prose that doesn’t behave like it should–and thus seems ‘poetic,’ transgressive of the rules of the genre. There may be something to this. And that something has a history in American nonfiction. It is one way that we can continue to explore the rhetoric of the essay, and particularly the rhetoric of race, as we read and discuss Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. The lyrical quality is a poetic element of her writing; but I would also argue that it speaks to the rhetorical project as well.

When I look at Rankine’s text, I think back to the poet Walt Whitman–and not his poetry but to his prose. Specifically, the autobiographical prose he would write and collect under the title Specimen Days. As you can see from browsing it, the prose is composed of lots of paragraph or two long sections that not only feel fragmentary–but are presented as such. Consider how Whitman begins Specimen Days.

The fragmentation of the book is part of the story. It is not simply a case that an older Whitman has difficulty putting together all the ‘scraps’ and ‘memoranda’ from his life spent as a writer recording the poetry of America, it is that the very record is necessarily a pile of scraps. He makes the point particularly about the section of the text (its heart, really) that re-collects the notes and memoranda he recorded while in the Civil War hospitals. Where Whitman saw, and wrote about, wrote from, fragmentation at first hand.

Whitman named this “Convulsiveness“:

As I have look’d over the proof-sheets of the preceding pages, I have once or twice fear’d that my diary would prove, at best, but a batch of convulsively written reminiscences. Well, be it so. They are but parts of the actual distraction, heat, smoke and excitement of those times. The war itself, with the temper of society preceding it, can indeed be best described by that very word convulsiveness.

So lyric may well mean poetic. But it also seems to me, with Whitman’s example in mind, that lyrical for Rankine’s type of essaying can mean a resistance to poetry–if by poetry we mean some sort of meaning that comes together into wholeness, a place where things are worked out by the end of the poem. Whitman’s poetry wants to do that; the prose doesn’t seem able. In 1876, Whitman published a volume of poetry/prose titled Two Rivulets: where the prose and poetry exist on the same page. He begins this volume in a manner similar to Specimen Days, by emphasizing his declining health, and his effort to put all the various scraps of his writing together. It is interesting, then, to think about Rankine’s focus on mental health and the sense of illness we see in her book.

Whitman expresses an understanding that Emerson, in his very lyrical essay, “Experience,” puts this way: “I know better than to claim any completeness for my picture. I am a fragment and this is a fragment of me.” And of course, let’s not forget Frederick Douglass, who concludes his narrative by commanding the reader to undergo his fragmentary experience as a fugitive in order to understand him. Let you, reader, be as lonely as I was, he seems to say. Perhaps this is Rankine’s interest as well: don’t let me be lonely (without you being lonely). I think of the statement by the Irish poet Yeats: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric; we make out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Rankine, and perhaps the lyric essay form, seeks to combine the quarrel with others and herself.

John D’Agata, a contemporary nonfiction writer and scholar of the essay, expresses several of these qualities in his definition:

The lyric essay, as some have called the form, asks what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem. What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank spaces, or–worse yet–leaving the blanks blank?What happens when statistics, reportage, and observation in an essay are abandoned for image, emotion, expressive transformation?… What’s a lyric essay? It’s an oxymoron: an essay that’s also a lyric; a kind of logic that wants to sing; an argument that has no chance of proving anything. [D’Agata, The Next American Essay, 436-7]

A final thought about the meaning of “lyrical.” It also strikes me as a way to get at the multimedia and documentary elements of this narrative.  For Rankine, the lyrical ‘I’ seems to exist, thoroughly if uneasily, in a world of eyes. We are all individuals, but watching the same commercials. Or so it seems. Some of the images, as we know, are racially focused, coded. In fact, the book began (she told the audience when she visited Washington College several years ago) in response to imagery from the Byrd lynching in Texas, and a comment President Bush made about it during a debate. In using a more recent, racially charged and coded image, namely from the Trayvon Martin shooting, I am updating the discussion.

As we will see in the last section of the course, Rankine also composes essays in video form, for example this one titled Zidane. Several others are listed under “Situations” on her website. We will be visiting these again in a couple weeks when we explore the video essay.

Could you imagine your own essay  expressed through video or photographic forms? Rankine will be on campus in September; the first-year read this coming summer will be her latest book, Citizen.

One of the rhetorical elements of this essay we need to consider: its appeal to logos, to evidence. Consider all the footnotes at the back (you might not have known they were there). What’s going on with all the evidence?






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2 thoughts on “Lyric Essay, Part One: Claudia Rankine

  1. Pingback: Eating Poetry (XXXII) – The Ecstasy of Unreasoning Happiness

  2. Further Reading:

    Claudia Rankine is a poet, writer and a play writer. She has published six books and edited many plays, her third book Plot is divided into nine sections and an afterword which directly correspond to the nine months of pregnancy. The book’s playful and philosophical meanderings, bring to light some questions (Is the separate being growing inside of me part of myself? Have I become a part of the child?) that new mothers face.
    Claudia Rankine is an innovative writer whose intelligence is in evident on every page, of Plot bears a definite resemblance to Don’t Let Me Be Lonely in its use of multiple voices. Her fragmented style shows in this text as it does in Don’t Let me Be Lonely, and although it often feels jumbled and disoriented the rhythm and the flow of her thinking brings everything together. In one sense, the fragmentation feels appropriate to the harried state of an expectant mother’s mind, but I am a reader who is very interested in non-linear poetry, though Don’t let me be Lonely was a lyric I found myself wanting more to read. I was satisfied when Rankine slips into an extremely deep way to challenge the reader to think deeply about the few words that she would write.

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