Review: On Pentameter and “Citizen”

Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014. 160 pp. ISBN: 1555976905

Reviewed by Timothy E.G. Bartel (Windhover contributor 2015)

I am a believer in iambic pentameter, that ancient meter with a pronounced limp that has not stumbled since the Greeks were new. I was reminded of this recently when I picked up Milton’s Paradise Regained, having avoided it since sophomore year of college for all the usual reasons—it seemed a minor work of a poet of off-putting puritanical theology, married more to the monotony of his blank verse than the wives he neglected.

I still find Milton’s theology and biography off-putting, but his pentameter is sublime. It is a visceral tutorial in the craft of line-making, in the rhythmic nature of the English tongue. We often say these things about Shakespeare, but it is the blank verse poets in the centuries after Shakespeare—Bradstreet and Dryden and Wheatley and Milton most of all—who show how much there was still to be done with pentameter after the last lines of the Tempest had been penned and performed. And just when it looked like the Victorians had squeezed the last ounce of aristocratic worth out of the meter, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens showed its cultural buoyancy in lines of blank verse so effortlessly contemporary that they made the free verse of Eliot and Marianne Moore seem somehow the less demotic of the two modernist linguistic projects.

Why this broad and somewhat reckless rehashing of iambic history from Shakespeare to the moderns? Well, I’ve been missing those old iambs in contemporary poetry, especially that which is hailed as the cutting edge of poetry today. It seems to me that what this poetry often lacks is the wedding of the craft of metrics to the subjects of urgent concern that many a praised poem addresses.

Case in point is Claudia Rankine’s much lauded Citizen (Graywolf 2014) an often harrowing series of prose poems and visual art that explores the contemporary black American experience. All but a couple of these poems are prose poems, and it is telling that the book is sometimes shelved with essays instead of poetry (indeed, it was nominated for the National Book Award in both the categories of criticism and poetry—the latter of which it won). When, in the eighteenth century, Alexander Pope and Phillis Wheatley wanted to write essays about topics of contemporary urgency, they wrote them in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. Today, when one of our finest poets wants to write of the same topics, she writes poems in the form of prose paragraphs. What does this say about our formal assumptions?

As prose goes, Rankine’s throughout Citizen is seldom less than splendid. Her essay-length treatment of Serena Williams and the politics of professional tennis is especially poignant, and ranks with David Foster Wallace’s “Both Flesh and Not” as sports writing raised to the highest levels of humanist prose. Rankine’s short prose poems too bite and cause unease. Many of them are written second-person perspective, implicating the reader in the trauma. In one such passage, the speaker visits the house of a trauma counselor for an appointment: “At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?”

In passage after passage, Rankine addresses such urgent and deep seated problems in our culture that it seems a shame to nitpick about metrics. But nitpick I will. The problem, as I see it, with giving it the National Book Award in poetry to a book that is effectively a book of creative nonfiction with a few verse interludes is that it sends two suspect messages to poets: first, verse—that is, writing in metered lines instead of prose paragraphs—is on its way out; second, and more specifically, if you want to write about issues of special cultural urgency (race, gender, sexuality) prose is the way to go. Especially for young writers who do not share Rankine’s mastery, but are imbued with the same activist spirit, it seems to say: if you must write in lines and stanzas, do it in such a way that you avoid any semblance of metrics, rhyme, exalted diction, or vibrant, connotative language. Go listen to John Oliver rant about your favorite political issue, rewrite it making the language less British, and you will have a prose poem worth giving an award, or at least our much coveted attention.

There are many historical trends to be debated and objections to be made at this juncture. I’ll limit myself to three anticipated responses. First, if a collection of prose poems happens to be the best of the year, that’s due to verse having failed to live up to its potential. It’s not Rankine’s fault that no one wrote verse as stunning and immediate as her prose. Very true. But this impotence of verse is no accident—it is attributable to the rise of free verse and can be traced through the success of Eliot, Plath, and Ashbery to the contemporary scene where free verse is default, and traditional forms (both western and non-western) a curiosity. All this has been said before by Dana Gioia in his two excellent collections of critical essays (Graywolf 1992, 2004) and I direct the reader to them. My worry, in ceding the field to prose poetry, is that it will seem a natural progression of poetry and not a direct result of the intentional and not irreversible banishing of prosody—the study of English metrics and traditional forms—from contemporary writing.

Second, it could be countered that ours is simply not an age of verse, and that poets like Annie Dillard and Claudia Rankine who trade verse for prose are simply seeing the sign of the times. But I remember the examples of Pope and Wheatley, who lived in the first the great age of modern prose and still wrote powerful verse of immediate interest and lasting cultural import that holds its own among the prose of their contemporaries Voltaire, Jefferson, Johnson, and Wollstonecraft. If Phillis Wheatley had rejected poetry for the lure of the essay, American poetry in general and African-American poetry in particular would be the poorer for it.

Third, it could be said that those who intentionally reject western prosody are right to do so from a philosophical standpoint. Is not my beloved iambic pentameter the favored poetic form of white, male, western, colonial power? Should it not be intentionally rejected as part of the great cultural liberation we now find ourselves in? I hesitate to say so. I remember that pentameter is as much Bradstreet’s as Milton’s and as much Wheatley’s as Pope’s. The feminist skeptic Dickinson did more with iambs than her Puritan detractors ever did. Sylvia Plath, that great rejecter of the fascism of male hegemony arguably did her most powerful work in pentameter. No, we cannot reject even pentameter as hopelessly entangled in the old oppressions. We would lose the best works of those poets who led the fight against the oppressors. We should, however, refresh our prosody with new forms, forms that take the metrical and mathematical nature of language seriously—I would point here to the example of the protest poets of Iran who have recently gained attention in the west for their Landay poems, which play with strict syllable patterns. Personally I have found my poetry—especially at the level of line-crafting—aided by studying and imitating the Korean sijo form.

In closing I return to Milton. Milton’s political hero Oliver Cromwell seems to me a cruel bully, and Milton’s Arian-tinged theology a hollow outlook. But through the power of Milton’s pentameter they become to me matters of import. If I reject them, it is because I have seen the heights they can reach in song, and have, even then, held my ground. So let it be, again, with the matters we hold dear—let them have their chance in metered song, before they join the earth-bound piles of prose. If they’re really worth our time, they’re worth our craft of verse.