Claudia Rankine Essay - Critical Essays


Claudia Rankine is a poet who is fascinated with language’s hidden meanings and writes to get at what is underneath the simple spoken word. Often cited as a postconfessional poet, Rankine realizes that the self is never a coherent, stable entity, and her poetry explores this fragmented self as a means to address social issues such as race and identity. She explores how poetics, in its constant questioning of what it is to be human, can help people attend their social responsibilities by asking them to forgo easy categorization of others and recognize that inner lives are vastly more complex than the everyday language used to describe people. Known for her intimate and thoughtful lyric poems, Rankine does the difficult work of charting open-ended and constantly shifting inner lives as they struggle to find voice and place in a media-saturated and disjointed world.

Nothing in Nature Is Private

Rankine’s first collection of poems, the award-winning Nothing in Nature Is Private, is the most outward evidence of the poet’s social and political consciousness. Rankine developed the book while at Columbia University. She admits that the writing process was much more audience oriented than she had expected and that the work’s dramatic situations sound a bit contrived. The result is a book that grew from Rankine’s interests, but one that she claims she may have preferred not to write. Even so, Nothing in Nature Is Private is frank in its social concerns, and critics have picked up on its political transparency. The verse showcases Rankine’s lyrical investigation of social disparities in the United States by piecing together the experience of a middle-class black woman, not wholly unlike Rankine herself. As different personas move between her parents’ homeland, Jamaica, and the United States, Jamaican dialect is mixed with established poetic forms in a constant attempt to explore the small moments that make up the fragmented, racially “other” individual. While the collection does concern itself with the social consequences of living within categories such as race, class, and gender, its probing and complex language moves beyond such categories to show the deep, inner selves of its personas, forecasting the highly internal content of her next two collections.

The End of the Alphabet

Aesthetically different and more difficult than Nothing in Nature Is Private, The End of the Alphabet traces the psyche of its speaker, Jane, as she attempts to engage the emotional pain of a miscarriage. Rankine considers this extended monologue to be her first book, and like the others, it can be read as a single poem despite the page and section breaks. Written in a sequence of twelve poems, the book uses constant metaphor, broken syntax, and erratic mechanics and punctuation to show what happens when the outer rules governing the private self have broken down. What remains is the speaker’s struggle to find language and the ability to speak so that she can piece herself together after a wrenching loss. In this collection,...

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