Holloway Poetry Series: Claudia Rankine

What follows is undergraduate Kayla Krut’s account of poet Claudia Rankine at the Holloway reading event on February 2nd, 2012.

Last Thursday evening, the Maude Fife Room filled for poets Samia Rahimtoola and Claudia Rankine. “So I was telling Louise… about how I’ve been writing poems I’m afraid to read,” Rankine began. And with good reason – the poems from her latest book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), frighten. They disconcert reader, narrator, and writer in their blunt sorrow, and they disarm in their willingness to admit to confusion. Rankine’s poems are not answers, but neither are they mere inquiry: “Exactly why we can sit and look back is beyond me,” she writes in a poem to Robert Lowell, asking after our places in literary heritage as though it were a slight twist of the head. Her poems move between the particular and the universal, sometimes separating the two but more often melding them – she gets personal and yet writes plainly with clear images and the language of speech that can tempt one into a superficial reading. These narrative moments, often prosaic in shape and without lineation, are seductive in their simplicity; yet Rankine punctures these with observational pith and grit that lend surprising scope to the poems’ particulars. “What happens to you doesn’t belong to you,” she writes in “Listen;” a line like this both directly applies to the young girl addressed in the poem and yet reaches further. It sucked the breath from the room when she read it aloud, sonorously and without any dramatic inflection. The line just didn’t call for such a reading – the straightforward words did their own work, and the audience reacted.

Much of her poetry lilted like this, in a gloom of deceptively beautiful diction – “each poem a strange beach.” The subject matter was intimate without being confessional, bold in its straight-faced vulnerability. “I write this without breaking my heart,” Rankine opened another poem, wryly, acknowledging the danger in such sentimentality and yet treading that water. “I’ve been writing poems I’m afraid to read,” she began. “But I’m just gonna do it.”

Claudia Rankine was born in Jamaica in 1963. She earned her B.A. in English from Williams College and her M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia University. She is the author of four collections of poetry, including Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (Graywolf, 2004); PLOT (2001); The End of the Alphabet (1998); and Nothing in Nature is Private (1995), which received the Cleveland State Poetry Prize. A recipient of fellowships from the Academy of American Poetry, the National Endowments for the Arts, and the Lannan Foundation, she is currently the Henry G. Lee Professor of English at Pomona College.