Sunday, February 13, 2011

Claudia Rankine, Tony Hoagland's Poem, Rhetoric and Race

More on Rankine and Hoagland at

I've been trying to get a steady beat, nothing overly elaborate nor sedate, on the poetry controversy involving race at this year's AWP, the 2011 conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Writers met in D.C., February 2-5.

The controversy came to my attention when I received a message from poet Jericho Brown on Facebook that only had an open letter from another poet, Claudia Rankine, which you can read here at another poet's blog, Oliver de la Paz's space. (I'm linking you through Oliver in case you can't find the open letter when you visit Claudia's website, which is also linked below.)

The controversy involves Tony Hoagland's poem "The Change," a poem published in Hoagland's 2003 book What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf Press) that some people feel is offensive, even "racist" possibly, although nobody wants to use the "r" word these days for fear of ... oh, um ... fear. (Some people of color, it seems, shiver a bit at how being labeled an angry black person might throw off their social and career trajectories. Angry black people are passé.)

Others say the poem, in context of Hoagland's book and the poem's text itself--given that the speaker of a poem is not necessarily saying what the poet thinks--is actually "anti-racist," the poet's disapproval perhaps of the speaker's attitudes. The poem's speaker hopes that "some tough little European blonde," who is in a tennis match "against that big black girl from Alabama" with the "cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms" and has "some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite," beats the black girl on the court because the blonde is white like the speaker, a member of his tribe. Later, the poem's speaker laments how the world is changing. (You can also listen to Garrison Keillor read the poem, "The Change," on a 2008 edition of The Writer's Almanac on public radio.)

Well, Rankine has words for Hoagland about how that poem makes her, a black woman, feel.

For the time being, I have no long comment of my own. (On March 9, I added my final thoughts in a new post.) Here, I'm simply providing interested parties with links beginning with a summary from the Poetry Foundation, and I am pondering this slice of life in the light of Kenneth Burke's words from A Rhetoric of Motives (Make no mistake, poetry is a kind of rhetoric):
For this imagery, so long as it was humorous, would contain a dimension which essentially qualified the animus. The imagery could foretell homicide only in the sense that it contained an ingredient which, if efficiently abstracted from its humorous modifiers, would in its new purity be homicidal. And such abstracting can take place, of course, when conditions place too much of a strain upon the capacity for humor.
I've been thinking lately that given the current state of America, her frazzled hair and ragged nerves related to race and political ideologies, evidence of her people's political polarization, some words may be too heavy a burden; they may strain the "capacity for humor" and love the way words sometimes do.

Would Rankine have had the same perception of the poem if she'd read it in 2003 before Barack Obama's 2008 win exposed the deepest phobias of skin color tribalists (that's what it takes to avoid the "r" word at all cost)? Would the poem have seemed less threatening before certain speakers of certain political parties clarified the distance between America today and anything post-racial? Would anyone on either side have felt differently eight years ago?

I'm sure when Hoagland woke up the day Rankine responded to his poem at AWP he had no idea that his 2003 words had been sitting all this time, a bomb rigged for 2011 explosion. However, as a poet, he may have hoped some day someone would feel fire from his words. In fact, based on his email response, as recollected by John Gallaher, I think that's exactly how Hoagland hopes his words hit people, like a thing that burns.
This is when he brought in the poem itself, by saying that people tend to read contemporary dramatic monologues as the voice of the poet. There is a difference between the voice of the poem and the actual poet. He then said that, even so, yes, he is a racist. But he’s also many other things, including a AAA member, a homophobe, a Unitarian, and a single mother, as all are personae.

He then defended the idea of tribes, saying that many poems by African Americans are written for African Americans, he believes. But also, he believes that poets, who he also considers his tribe, will figure out what he means. ... His poem is not racist, he asserts. It is, like America, racially complex.
Given what I've said about the "N-word" and Huck Finn sanitization, my agreement with John McWhorter on the topic, readers who know my opinions on racism in this country can guess that I lean more toward Hoagland's assessment of himself and America's racial predicament. But like America's racial predicament, my additional thoughts about Hoagland regarding the rhetoric of his poem and how he chooses to leverage his privilege as a white male are more complex.

So, please read what you care to read about this matter at the links below, ponder our dysfunction, and pass on your thoughts via Twitter, blogs, and Facebook. American poets probably haven't had this much attention since the 1960s.

It came to my attention on March 17 that Claudia's response to "The Change" and Tony's response to Claudia are now available at

A summary from the Poetry Foundation: Tony Hoagland's Poem on Race Heats Up at AWP

Claudia Rankine's website: Click "AWP" and also "Open Letter."

From Nothing to Say and Saying It, John Gallaher's blog:
From All Hook, No Chorus, Sara Jaffe's blog: The Condition of Being Addressable--A Response to Claudia Rankine at AWP

Updated to include "The New Patronage Killed Social Activism in Poetry" by Seth Abramson, an excellently thoughtful take on this topic.

Also adding Tony Hoagland's Q&A with Major Jackson and Alicia Ostriker from Kent Shaw.

Updated March 9, 2011: My final thoughts on this thingy.



Seth Abramson said...

FWIW, my own take on all this is here. I'd post it in this thread, but it's a little long. Actually a lot long. --S.

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

Thank you, Seth. I read it and I think you are right on many levels and points.

Eva Salzman said...

And then there's the Kit Wright poem "I Found South African Breweries Most Hospitable" in voice of white cricket player during apartheid days. Does anyone seriously think these narrators are the poets themselves?

Anonymous said...

I received the same message from Jericho, and am working on a response. I'd like to say, however, this conversation between Tony and Claudia started when they worked together at University of Houston, years before Obama became president.

Anonymous said...

it's discussions such as this that make me happy i don't participate in the larger discussion, that i'm not out to manufacture or participate in these kinds of controversy for the sake of developing my name. in others, i'm already, and thoroughly, self-actualized and totally free to create, and as far as i'm concerned i create just as well as anybody.

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

Anoymous#1, I hope you'll come back and tell us who you are so we can read your response. My post isn't really a response as much as it is tossing out a thought or two and so I look forward to reading more thoughtful commentary. Seth Abramson and Sara Jaffe have excellent responses. I hope you'll read them if you haven't already.

WOW! Thinking about your other piece, if Claudia started this conversation with Hoagland that long ago and this year decided to make it public, then "The Change" must have weighed heavily on her. Thank you for that piece of information. Still the question remains, why now? What sense of kairos drove her and caused people to discuss that 8-year-old poem now?

@Eva, I don't know how some people read narrators but are not able to separate the narrator from the poet, but I once wrote a poem about a woman who had killed her husband and later I received a note from someone who considers herself a poet, and she told me she was sorry I had to go through that ordeal. :-) So, I guess she thought I had killed a man and decided to confess it in a poem. *crosses eyes* Thank you for commenting.

Anonymous said...

how does this poem differ from barry hannah's entire oeuvre?

it doesn't. this is a manufactured controversy over a poem that really isn't that exceptional in american literature. ever heard of mark twain?

manufactured controversy. that's all.

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

Since this thread is old, responses are now moderated. I decided to publish the comment of the most recent anonymous poster on this thread, but that was it for me. I now offer a choice for anyone who wishes to comment on this thread from here on out and that is use your real name--take ownership of your words and tone--or don't leave a comment. It's up to you.

Please remember that even though you may post anonymously, identities online are not as cloaked as you think they are.

JMH said...

Here's the thing. A lot goes on, and I'm busy. But if something happens in the room I'm in, I'm going to take some responsibility. And the room I live in, more than any other, is Poetry. So I have to do this.

Whether or not Rankine kind of blindsided Hoagland, and whether or not Hoagland's book (which I own) does something worth doing, this particular poem is too nasty. If a black woman says, at the party I'm part host of, that a white man has said something that makes her very uncomfortable, and I walk over and it is clear that, for whatever reason, he has said these things, zulu bangles and the rest, I'm going to tell him to shut the hell up, and I'm going to say loudly to her and to the room, "I'm on your side, I think he's being a jerk and I'd like him to apologize or leave, but in any case, make no mistake, I do not think this way and I do not like it."

See my post here, if you want more raving. It takes a few paragraphs for me to get to the subject, so skim till then if you want to. But if you read it I bet you'll say, jeeze, I'm glad I read that. Because I am funny.

Jennifer Michael Hecht

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

Thank you, Jennifer.

To make it easier for others to visit JMH's link, I've coded it for you. Click here.


Diann Blakely said...

@Eva: how do I get in touch with you? I reviewed one of your books in ANTIOCH--I'm constructing a website so as to have an archive of such items under different categories, but what my Mac Angel calls "harvesting" and what I call sorting masses of accumulated clips in the pre-internet days is going to take some time--and mentioned you in

Everything that has been posted here has given me new ideas about the subject and I would love to write for the Academy newsletter again and am drafting an e-mail to the appropriate person there.

Diann Blakely

Diann Blakely said...

@Nordette: I think you have proved a marvelous thing in your postscript! The discussion IS continuing, and while Tony and Claudia may have begun it--and good Lord I had no idea she had had this leadening her soul for so long--but you have shown, as have others here, and as I hope to continue in "The New Black," a special feature to be published online in addition to the regular National Poetry Month omnibus in April, which I've been thinking about for many, many years--at least twelve, when I heard Gerald Barrax deliver a statement at the Millennial Gathering of Southern Writers, an enormous undertaking on the part of Kate, longer than that, for Albert Murray is one of my great heroes, and longer than that, when I began reading Andrew Hudgins, Terry Hummer, and Rodney Jones three decades ago--that I'll reprint in a moment.

Diann Blakely said...

@Anonymous: I think you are wrong in some of your assumptions about Barry Hannah, and this will be a topic of discussion in a piece to be published at the new venue for "Notes on the State of [Southern] Poetry." He was a complicated man. I plan to garner some thoughts from Randall Kenan, and I've been e-mailing and talking on the phone with Claude Dickinson as well. They were, respectively, the first and second recipients of the John and Renée Grisham Fellowships at Ole Miss. Yes, I would have crawled under my chair had I heard Barry read the story for which Major Jackson quite properly dressed him down in POETRY DAILY. The use of the "n" word--and the "c" word, and the "b" word (and no, here I don't mean "blurb" and "blog") ALL make my skin crawl because they evince hatred of Otherness. But I'm from Alabama, where Barry taught; he was from Mississippi, and I would argue that he was reflecting the speech he heard around him growing up. Does using it, however, perpetuate it? I'm afraid the answer is probably yes. But so does "ho" and "bitch" (that's the "b-word" to which I was referring) in the ugliest rap music.

Diann Blakely said...

Albert Murray: "mulatto culture."

Gerald Barrax: "How can any American poet, White or Black, not write about race? It is our national ground of being. Southern writers, for what should be obvious reasons, have dealt with it more openly and honestly than regional poets of the North, East, and west, who either politicize race or ignore it altogether. The former should have their noggins thumped for trivializing the crucial human issue of our culture; the latter should have their artistic licenses revoked."

Diann Blakely said...

This is the first item on the Group Page I created for the "Notes on the State of [Southern} Poetry": Below it I wrote "Enlarging the Change indeed."

Diann Blakely said...

9 March -- From a post made in a thread beneath Jericho Brown, where I first learned of Rankine v. Hoagland (and which I'm weeding of all but posts by others for consolidation and quicker reading

But where has Seth's post gone?!?

"This is not to say, by any means, that I believe Tony is a bad person or a racist. As I've said in many e-mails to people, my first reaction to reading 'The Change" was to wince and my second was "What were you thinking?' As I've said somewhere on this page before, and perhaps even in this thread, too much self-castigation in any work of literature becomes all too quickly the assumption of a pose.

I've had a third reaction: has it occurred to anyone except me that "The Change" is a term for menopause?

‎"It's the misogyny, stupid." No clearer or simpler words have been said in our time to demonstrat e a point I have tried to make over and over again: an attack on one minority is not only an attack on all minorities , but it also a hate crime against humankind itself, for it would deny the most basic right of any "Other": that simply to exist, and if not to pursue the myth of happiness, as Jennifer Michael Hecht, then to pursue an existence with integrity.