Interview with poet Claudia Rankine

First published in For Books' Sake

Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric is an eloquent, yet sprawling piece of literature, exploring race relations and the racialised body, on a domestic and global scale. Our Features Editor, Nikki Hall spoke to Rankine, Jamaican-born, New York-bred poet and professor, discussing the black female body, Rachel Dolezal, Serena Williams, and the policing of race.

Nikki Hall: As alluded in the organic nature of Citizen – that the racial discrimination is just history repeating itself, over and over again – do you ever think that America will become post-racial?

Claudia Rankine: Well, I don’t think that being post-racial should be the destination. I mean, I think we will always, ALWAYS, be raced. The question is at what point, will whiteness recognise its own prejudice. Because right now, part of the problem is that the white imagination does not understand the ways in which historical, systemic racism determines what they think and how they act. So when will that happen? We will never not be black. So the idea that wanting to get to a post-racial moment is the desire but I do not think so. I want to be seen for who I am. And I want to understand the history I came out of. Do I want to be projected on as a criminal by an imagination that has no recognition that it’s doing that? No. So that’s a change I’m waiting for.

NH: Perhaps by changing the negative signifier of what blackness means? However this would probably take many generations?

CR: Despite the change in laws, despite centuries passing, white American imagination has held on to its racist beliefs. Maybe because the culture has supported that. So it’s in the advertisements, so people believe they’re not racist and then they say racist things and the question is why, often people would say “oh the race is a generational thing, racists will die out”.

NH : Exactly, and as long as the media projects this. It is the same thing that happens in Scandinavian countries – everything, their perceptions of race has always been from Hollywood. Even though they haven’t had any contact with cultures, or experienced what America is really like or producing.

CR: And what they’re producing are black people are drug addicts, criminals, deserved to be shot and the authorities deserve to be in the street, unattended.

NH: What are thoughts on The Wire?

CR: It portrayed a segment of the society that is a product of the racist. The disenfranchisement of those black men on The Wire has to do with education, and I think that was part of The Wire’s message, that it wasn’t unconnected that the drug crime wasn’t unconnected from the educational system, the media, all of that. That when you have a society that refuses to educate, that ghettoises certain people then they have no option and they have no belief in their own possibility. And they have no way to enter into mainstream culture. Is that all blacks in the United States know?

NH: Although black people – particularly black women – are the most successful in the entertainment industry, is that a spectacle or a facade to what is truly going on underneath? The multi layering of multimedia used in Citizen are in contrast to the mundane mediations of – autobiographical blacks moving in certain upper class circles, and still having to deal with slips of the tongue.

CR: Well, what I wanted, I mean, one of the things I wanted to show in Citizen is that I’m not talking about communities like The Wire, I’m talking about communities that are populated by people who are educated, people who are supposed to know better. People are partaking in quote on quote “the good life” and who feel themselves aware, sympathetic, good intentioned. And yet, still hold these racist disbeliefs and they way it comes out. It comes out through language. And then you get the “I’m sorry”, ” I didn’t intend that”, “That’s not what I mean” – “I say it but that’s not what I mean”. But it’s still arriving in the body, that’s what it means, because you say what you mean.


[pull] NH: As a black person moving in those circles, there’s always a silence. Is the silence partaking in black oppression?

CR: One of the ways that black people are silenced is that you criminalise expression. You say that black women are angry, and if they speak up they are out of control – like Serena Williams, like Michelle Obama. You’re not allowed to express disdain or distress, if you do, then the problem is not in source of the white gaze or the white mouth that might be soliciting, the problem is inherent in you. And that’s a mechanism of silencing people. and i think one of things that, I myself, has had to be ok with is speaking up and not caring. What that means in terms of servility, if you say something to me and it’s unacceptable, I’m going to say it’s unacceptable and you can then say that I’m classless whatever because that’s your language for silencing me.

NH: Silencing can also be found in the manipulation of the N-word, however taking it back into our culture does support a certain performance of blackness.

CR: One of things about the N-word is, it’s become a point of scandal that is less interesting than its subject. Let’s talk about the N-word and not talk about the N-word! Let’s not talk about Michael Brown’s body in the street or let’s not talk about the fact that Dylann Roof just shot nine people. Because even this week (recently) I saw something about how Obama mentioning the N-word. (laughter) The man was talking about a massacre of nine people and all you can talk about the fact that he had mentioned the N-word. I think it’s become one of those points of scandal, that is a distraction from the realities that are actually affecting lives, and extinguishing lives.

NH: Double consciousness, and you do mention in Citizen about  The conflict between being hyper visible and invisible simultaneously. How do you feel about that?
CR: The hyper-visibility has to do with that way the media deals with black athletes and black celebrity so there everywhere. So it makes it look like there is a level playing field but one as we see in the case of Serena it doesn’t immunise them from the same kind of racism that you and I encounter on a day to day level. I also think that when you think about white privilege, what you’re really thinking about is both white mobility and white ownership of space. And so when whiteness enters a space and sees blackness the fact that blackness is within the space makes blackness hyper-visible because they feel that they own the space. And if it’s not, if the blackness cannot be made invisible by turning it into staff or turning it into some mechanism that is in the role of service or property then it seems hyper-visible and then its not just another body, it becomes this huge body inside their space. Even though, clearly the space is just space.  But that perception that we own the space so if you step in, you take over that space, in their imagination, which is why they need to shoot you or get you out of the space, because you’re taking it over.

NH: Which is exactly what Dylann Roof said.

CR: Exactly, what Dylann Roof said.

NH: Do you think Roof’s comment subconsciously explain a shift to black and white equality?

CR: First of all, it’s not black. It’s brown bodies, it’s the hispanics that are evening out the numbers. So black and brown bodies will overtake whiteness. But I don;t think we have to bring a logic to a logic, you know, this is just the power dynamic inherent in whiteness that “we automatically own this space” and so anxiety around having  the space taken away from them has nothing to do with reality. It’s been that way forever, that’s part of white supremacist thinking. So to say that numbers say this and the numbers say that means nothing.

NH: Even though you are an America, being born in Jamaica, you are still part of the British Empire and has that influenced bringing the race discussion to London and to Algeria. Because I feel that an African American born in America could not have written Citizen for some reason. I mean, when you talk about Mark Duggan and conversations I’ve been in, in London you know art-filled houses in Hampstead when you’re talking about race. I don’t think an African – American could have had that insight – or am I wrong?

CR: I would beg to differ. Only because I think that we are at a point where we are such global citizens. I think the ability to understand that these dynamics are postcolonial dynamics and not actually really locked down nationally.That all of these countries are engaged in a relationship to balck bodies that began with ownership of those bodies and that the level of racism in the United States might seem greater only because of the militarised nature of their culture, where the police pulling out tanks in the face of protest. And willing to use those tanks, at that level of armour against their own citizens which that I think is unique.

NH: But the history is slightly different.

CR: It’s different but it still comes from the same place. I really think that because we are global citizens now, it’s easier to understand how a dynamic in France or a dynamic in Britain, in London,  or in the United States might actually move similarly, relative to the white imagination. Relative to hegemonic culture, whoever’s in power, relative to who’s not in power, the histoy what got us heremight play out less violently here and that might have to do with the role of guns.

NH: It probably all boils down to gun control.

CR: Yes, in a sense. I think even Americans were surprised when the protests in Ferguson was answered by tanks in the street. I don’t think we realise that these small towns police forces owned that material, that equipment. You know, they weren’t the only ones that own that equipment across the country! The local police!

NH: It’s the policing of black bodies.

CR: Yeah. You wouldn’t pull out that equipment in Springfield, Mass. You know, in some white community. That would not be allowed. That would not be tolerated. They would take those armed vehicles away from those people.

NH: Did you follow the riots? I was out in the riots and was barracaded in New Cross – was studying at Goldsmiths at the time – but I did not feel any racial tension. What are your thoughts on this?

CR: I do think that even though the postcolonial history is similar in some ways, the United States has a very vehement and explosive relationship to blackness, even more so. And nothing seems to alter it. Laws don’t seem to alter it. A black president doesn’t seem to alter it. Even the people that voted for the black president, when they feel their own position being threatened, are capable of the same thoughts of a Dylann. They might not pick up a gun, reload it five times and shoot nine people but if they feel  threatened in the same way those thoughts are very available to them. I mean, we did not make him so, he is a product of the country, and so every thought available to him is available to everyone.

NH: When massacres happen in recent times, they were usually in schools. I wonder why at this moment in time there has been a large scale church massacre?

CR: In the black community, it’s often in churches. Or white supremacists predominantly attacked churches in the black community throughout the 20th and 21st century and they do that because the church is a safe place. The one place that blackness owns as a safe place. In ’63, that’s when the church was bombed and those 4 girls were killed. When Obama was elected a black church in Springfield was burnt down to the ground. So there is a kind of history that Dylann Roof was stepping into consciously. He researched that church because of its historical significance in the black liberation movement. So it wasn’t a random moment, he wanted that church because of its historical significance and he is able to do that kind of research, he is obviously able to understand how black churches have functioned in the black community up till now.

NH: It was particularly eerie that he sat with them, and that they welcomed him into the church. How do you feel about that?

CR: I’m not surprised it was a church. They were at church, they were in the environment where one is one’s best self. So you expect everyone to be their best selves. It was not like they were in a bar. I think given the location, he could depend on the generosity of the people’s around him.

NH: On art – Citizen closes with Turner’s The Slave Ship, were you conscious of using it as a representation of blackness being submerged and bleached by whiteness?

CR: If you want to take on the classification that is being to constructed for you. I don’t see myself determined by the white imagination. I see myself as in conversation with the constructions made by white imagination. But you and I are black women, with different histories and different lives and different ages and experiences, and all of that contributes to who we are. but we both also understand history in ways that can be in conversation with and in dialogue with. And we understand that that history might inform other people’s reading of us and our bodies but that’s not us.

NH: What are your thoughts on the black female body today?

CR: (On Rachel Dolezal) That situation, that has nothing to do with race! That has to with a woman who is traumatised. That racial thing is about trauma, that is about a woman who is traumatised within the dynamics of a family that had apparently sexual trauma. There was trauma, there was sibling rivalry between the black adopted children and the white biological children. To me that has nothing to do with race. Race  is just being used in this but the woman needs psychological help and I think one of things about race in the United States is because it’s such a volatile category, things that don’t belong in it get put it in and then that discussion trumps the actual reality of the thing itself. And in her case, people should talking about what it means for a woman to be traumatised to the point of wanting to escape into another culture, another identity. This is disassociation at its extreme and i think that’s the conversation people should be having relative to that woman.

CR: Because they’re using the situation to talk about other things, but they don’t need to be talked about through her traumatised body.

NH: Why did you chose Serena Williams as the female subject inCitizen?

CR: Because Serena to me is the example of what it means to work hard,to strive, to do everything that you’re think you’re supposed to do, and still you are subject to the most hateful, and unrelenting racism. The woman has won everything. There is nothing left for her to win, except break obscure tennis records. And yet, she has been attacked and attacked and attacked and you know, I went to the US Open a few years ago and she was playing in the final against Victoria Azarenka and the white Americans standing around me were cheering for the woman from Belarus. And I said to the people, standing near me I said, “you’re Americans, why aren’t you cheering for the American player?”

NH: What was the answer?

CR: “Oh, we just wanted to be competitve!” And then when it got close why aren’t you cheering for  American player and then they moved away because nobody wants to turn to me and say “we hate her because she’s black.” But it’s the reality.

NH: So what’s next for you?

CR: I am working on a play. But I don’t like launching into another writing project immediately after finishing one, because I think then you end up just writing the same thing again. So I love sort of, just doing something different and then coming back to it.

NH: Were you surprised at the success and embrace of Citizen?

CR:No I was surprised! I didn’t think when you’re working on something  you can never anticipate what the reaction is going to be, so I was just doing the book I was doing. I had no idea that it would have been embraced in the way that it has done. I am grateful. Partly because it means that the subject is being engaged.

Hysteria 2.0

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

A recent in-depth study by the World Health Organization (WHO) states that the “traditional gender roles further increase susceptibility [to mental illness] by stressing passivity, submission and dependence.” Reassuringly, the WHO concluded that “the pervasive violation of women’s rights” contributes to the growing burden of their mental disability.

However, the problem with this mass diagnosis of female ‘madness’ is that it relies on social, economic and cultural constructs. Therefore much of our understanding of mental illness and women has to lie in the controversial term, hysteria. Once described as a “mimetic disorder”, as it tended to mimic culturally acceptable expressions of distress, the term has appeared in our lexicon under many guises, from the ‘wandering womb’ to ‘unmanageable emotional excesses.’

Today its root can be found in a extensive list of disorders including anxiety, depression, psychosis, body dysmorphic disorder, borderline personality disorder, sexual dysfunction, amnesia, bipolar disorder and many more.

The term hysteria, from the Greek meaning ‘womb’, was first used to describe “the restless, migratory uterus that caused mental disorders”. This idea of the “restless and migratory” female can be seen in the diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder and, in a metaphorical sense, in the continual waves of the feminist movement and the numbers of those within the movement suffering from mental illness.

Shulamith Firestone, author of the radical feminist text The Dialectic of Sex, blames Freud’s failure to “question society itself” for the “massive confusion in the disciplines that grew up around his theory”, since the Freudian talking cure for the hysterical Dora, and his theories of the sub and unconscious, were ruled by the potent theory of the Oedipus Complex – or ‘penis envy’.

Freud’s “poetic genius” and failure to question the constraints of women has followed on into the 21st century; current psychiatrists and doctors still fail to consider alternative factors in diagnosis, whilst reeling off an elegiac list of symptoms. Looking back to borderline personality disorder, an often misdiagnosed illness, we can see the irresponsible reliance on outdated diagnostic rubric. Its emphasis on “impulsivity” and “instability in sense of self” mirrors traits pinned on to the wanton, unfeminine woman. Used when psychiatrists could not decide if a woman was being “psychotic” or “neurotic”, this catch-all diagnosis for women has led to many sane women walking around thinking they are mentally ill. Cue once again mass hysteria – the proverbial wandering womb.

Firestone accounts that psychological moulding by the “patriarchal nuclear family”, where women and children are the dependents, led to the greater risk of psychological problems. Similarly, gender inequality from childhood experiences have conditioned children into believing in what equates to ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, which is reinforced and constructed through the sensationalism and male dominance of the media.

According to journalist and author Kira Cochrane, the fourth wave of feminism is all about ‘the rebel woman’: the women who will not sit down and shut up; the women who will speak up against patriarchal media. However, I have a problem with the word ‘rebel’, which suggests a mob, a frenzy, and consequently leads back to that controversial word ‘hysteria’.

Despite Cochrane’s best efforts to allude to empowerment, she has managed to reinforce second wave feminist Phyllis Chesler’s idea that psychoanalysis regards madness as a normative characteristic of femininity. The 21st century rebel woman is equivalent to the 19th century hysterical woman.

Recent campaigns such as Slutwalk and No More Page 3 challenge terms and images that were once used to oppressed women, transforming them into punchy media slogans and sealing their negativity in the public consciousness. The female mind interprets the eradication of these illiberal ideas as a means to liberate ourselves, and yet the oppression continues, anxiety rises, and women are still searching for their own lexicon to establish mental liberation.

As Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex argues, in the context of Freudianism and feminism, like all Freud’s theories about women, he “analyses the female only as negative male.” While Freudianism gave women the ‘talking cure’ – the means to express their oppressed unconscious to cure hysteria – it developed a feminine stream of consciousness, littered with inverse male words; a modern repetition of penis envy.

This relentless quest, or to quote Hippocrates, this “restless and migratory” quest, has left a generation exhausted, depressed and anxious. Female rebellion has been going strong for decades, when so many women in the 1960s and 70s thought that everything would be alright in the end. Unfortunately, as we get deeper into the 21st century and our perspectives broaden to become more global, women’s lives are actually getting worse.

If, as the WHO study suggests, mental health has much to do with freedom we need to scrutinise the high points of women’s liberation: getting the vote; sexual liberation thanks to the contraceptive pill; and the rising prevalence of successful career women. Fast-forward to today, and women face corrupt politicians, frequent threats to reproductive rights, and vast unemployment, as well as bearing the brunt of government austerity measures. Women’s rights have indeed once again been violated; this time against many of the victories once crusaded for.

As Deborah Orr points out in the Guardian, the very thing many “leftwing feminists” don’t like to hear is that “combining motherhood with a demanding career is hard”, but there has to be a better solution than the lines of our sisters queuing up for sedative doses of “mothers’ little helpers”.

Women’s mental health will always be a sensitive subject, as it plagues so many lives, and 21st century feminism is indeed suffering from its own form of hysteria. Its unmanageable, emotional excesses towards reform are likely to have triggered a psychosomatic response within women. As the number of women turning to feminism is rising with the hope of change, the internal conflict of its stagnancy is troubling for many. It’s an uncomfortable question, but what if the very thing that has shifted women’s liberation to its height is also what has mentally exhausted us?

First published in the Feminist Times here: 

Hardcore Highbrow

With the paperback release of Alissa Nutting’s novel, Tampa, this week, writer, Nikki Hall examines taboos within literature.

You can never deny the power of controversy within literature. Especially if abundant in sex, murder and lechery. The moral importance placed upon books is that it allows the writer to harmlessly exercise their morality against dispute and abhorrence. A type of book which continually divides readers and critics is the taboo-breaker. Breaking taboos is usually deemed objectionable by society, and that is, a main factor in our wish to read books that make us privately salivate, and blush in public. Even bestsellers quietly tackle the darkest of the human spirit, with Harry PotterGames of Thrones and Twilight all tackling witchcraft, incest and the undead, respectively.

Yet, taboo-breaking literature has a long and illustrious history. The extensive references to bodily functions in 18th century literature, notably satiristsJonathan Swift and Alexander Pope led the way to the modernist novel,UlyssesUlysses subsequently became a cause célèbre. The ever so Orwellian,New York Society of the Suppression of Vice (yes, it’s real) tried to ban the book from entering the United States on obscenity grounds. They succeed, after trial, in 1921.

In the 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov’s loin burning novel Lolita, brought paedophilia to a wider reading public. Professor Humbert’s obsession with a prepubescent girl, broke one of the most unsettling taboos of modern life; the illicit affair between the predator and the innocent. Considering the current media fixation on padeophilia trials, Lolita remains an undisputed taboo-breaking modern classic.

Sexual fetishism became a recurring motif within taboo-breaking novels; think “highbrow toilet humour” or a more erudite 50 Shades of Grey.

The literary origin of this motif started with John Cleland’s 1748 prose porno,Fanny HillIt is largely considered to be one of the most controversial novels written but it was not until Marquis de Sade’s French erotica, 120 Days of Sodom that sexual taboo reached literature. Other French writers tackling saucy taboo include Georges Bataille (Story of the Eye) and Pauline Reage (Story of O). The Marquis de Sade‘s 120 Days of Sodom introduced to the modern lexicon the term “sadism” – meaning to derive sexual pleasure from infliction of pain on others. 120 Days of Sodom, broke ground with its 1904 publication due to its intricate descriptions of sexual fetishism. 120 Days’ barbaric tale of four wealthy, anarchic gentlemen who lock themselves in a castle, inflicting sadistic acts on their female prisoners, echoes a certain transgressive American novel from the early 1990s…

Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 transgressive classic satire, American Psycho, on one level embarks on psychotic diatribe against consumerist society, it is the immersed offbeat tortures by narrator and serial killer, Patrick Bateman that seeps in and tarnishes the readers‘ minds. Set in the yuppified 1980s, a time synonymous with corruption, American Psycho horrified readers with its gratuitous violence against women, which included that rat scene. Like Lolita, the novel spawned adaptions; a cult film and a recent hit musical, despite references to massacre, necrophilia and cannibalism. Other examples of similar works of US transgressive fiction include, Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, andExquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite, with an honorable nod to Henry Miller’s 1961 squalid, hyper-sexual masterpiece, Tropic of Cancer.

There has been a shift in taboo breaking novels in the past couple of yearsTampa by Alissa NuttingNatalie Young’s Season to Taste both, taking somewhat feminist twists on the taboo subjects of paedophilia and cannibalism. But does taboo in cosy, domestic settings work? The lack of moral panic on both titles suggest, not so much. The publication of Nutting’s Tampa, while raising several eyebrows was actually based on fact, thus failing to capture the wayward imaginations of its readers.

The rise of online activity has given a new dimension to the meaning of taboo. We no longer find anything immorally extreme.

However, the lack of uproar towards the story of the novel – its factual background, its depiction of paedophilia, its suburban setting – is disquieting. In comparison to Lolita, have we become immune to such immorality? Today, as the male dominated world of taboo and literature becomes over run, gender reversal has added a shocking new twist to age old subjects. Natalie Young revisited the controversial subject of cannibalism in her dark modern fable,Season to Taste, following a middle aged, middle England divorcee who slowly eats her husband, after killing him with a spade, and shoving him in the freezer next to the Haagen Dazs and frozen peas. She then forms a questionable relationship with a young local lad. The novel’s deadpan, morbid humour would not feel out of place in an episode of BBC’s The League of Gentlemen.

While the moral code of taboo within literature has given writers a chance to exercise the darkest depths of the human spirit, our means to escape the limitations of real life have risen to a multitude of outlets. The rise of online activity has given a new dimension to the meaning of taboo. We no longer find anything immorally extreme.

Looking forward, how will taboo-breaking literature evolve? We have seen recently the rise of the “bad girl literature”of Zoe Pilger (Eat My Heart Out) and Emma Jane Unsworth (Animals) to “book club transgression” of Young and Nutting, that it is now female writers that a set out to break taboos. It is far cry from Radclyffe Hall’s transgender-lesbian-femanifesto The Well of Loneliness standing trial for obscenity in 1928,A once male dominated area of fiction, taboo breaking in the 21st century now relies on subverting gender expectations for taboo fulfilment. But can bad girls and “mummy porn” substitute the ineffable foul literature of the 18th century or the hyperbolic, transgressive literature of postmodern literature?

Taboo breaking literature tended to create moral panic, hence the book burning, banning, obscenity trials of the yesteryear. We seem much more morally pacified and in the light of new wave of taboo-breaking literature, somewhat civilised.Sigmund Freud proclaimed in his seminal text, Totem and Taboo,  that incest and patricide were the only two universal taboos, and they both formed the basis of civilisation. Could it be that, despite their controversy and shady history of prohibition, these taboo-breaking books have contributed to a much more civilised literary canon?

My top ten taboo-breaking books

American PsychoBret Easton Ellis

LolitaVladimir Nabokov

120 Days of SodomMarquis de Sade

UlyssesJames Joyce

Season to TasteNatalie Young

TampaAlissa Nutting

Fanny HillJohn Cleland

The Well of LonelinessRadclyffe Hall

Story of the EyeGeorges Bataille

Tropic of CancerHenry Miller

Nikki Hall, for

Psychogeography and the American Literary Tradition

“Once I pass’d through a populous city imprinting my brain for future use with its shows, architecture, customs, traditions...”

Walt Whitman’s prerequisite for poetic allusions embracing the American landscape, highlights the impact it has on the poet’s psyche for infiltration into their verse. The American landscape, being an organic cornucopia constructed through its diversity in cultures, activities and minds. Its history can be traced through the evolution of this abundant range which emulates the development of American literary tradition. Like the literary form, landscape is composed of the amalgamation of visible, natural formations, the metaphysics of life forces and social transience. All these components can be related to poetic versification. Stephen F. Mills, an American Studies academic, reinforces landscape’s interchangeability with its artistic inhabitants. Both offer a layering of realms for the reader to penetrate as it offers experiences and inspirations from a synthesis of offerings. A unique part of America that incapsulates this fusion, is the populous city of New York; while former inhabitants, poets Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara compose part of its lyrical discourse. Ginsberg and O’Hara extract parts of New York’s landscape and transform them into idiosyncratic approaches to poetry. The whole body of Frank O’Hara’s work has been described as a labyrinthine hyperspace while Ginsberg is deft in at detecting the physical and psychological panorama of things present in a particular location.’

The reason for their conflicting similarities is the rigidity of New York’s architecture and grid pattern which controls and congests its dwellers. As the poets are conflicted with this intransigent space alongside their psychological and transient inspirations, their poetry remain to be mediated. The thesis of this essay is to discover the perspective layering of how the New York landscape is a living synthesis of people and place and how it is expressed in Ginsberg and O’Hara’s versification and themes. The key poems used for analysis will be O’Hara’s Lunch poems, A Step Away From Them and The Day Lady Died alongside Ginsberg’s seminal poem Howl: Part I and My Sad Self ; a poem of stylistic mediation between himself and Frank O’Hara. Their poetry can be used as self-definition and as a mirror of the union between psychology and surroundings. An exploration on the psychological effects of the landscape will be demonstrated in the poets’ methodological approaches and manipulation of and economics of the 1950s.

As the freedoms and limitations of New York City are undeniable, this essay will abstain in exclude a complex social and economic history. However, biographical details of the poets will be included to support ideas. Furthermore, the assertion of this essay regards the city’s history being unequivocal in the poetic content. While, Frank O’Hara is commonly regarded a flaneur, as his poetic method to writing is influenced by his lunchtime walks, he personally classified his poetry as ‘I do this, I do that.’

Through this thesis, I will be exploring these ideas further yet only for to support the hypothesis that the principles that lead up these methods that inspire both poets to utilize their surroundings in exploring and developing their own self identity. Thus, they reciprocate New York landscape’s abundance of elements by employing them in the individual poetic discourse; hence the polarity of their styles. Ginsberg’s poetic license encapsulates the universality of New York, his amalgamation of experience and external stimulus. In contrast to O’Hara’s corporeal liberation of walking is constricted by the socioeconomic captivity, and tyrannical environment of the city. His constriction is shown through the rigidity and banality of his poetic style; yet it exposes his solace in the city. Therefore, through the theory of Psychogeography particularly the theories of Michel de Certeau andfurthering existing landscape research on both poets and their influences would a discovery of the union between the poet and their landscape be distinguished. The act of writing poetry mirrors the union between people and place. This illustrates that the affinity to react to one’s surroundings, either stifles or triggers an emotional response. Frank O’Hara’s A Step Away From Them signifies the antagonism of being within the New York humidity and his impulsive creativity.

It’s my lunch hour, so I go

for a walk among the hum-colored

cabs. First, down the sidewalk

where laborers feed their dirty

glistening torsos sandwiches

and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets

on. They protect them from falling

bricks, I guess. Then onto the

avenue where skirts are flipping

above heels and blow up over

grates. The sun is hot, but the

cabs stir up the air.


The staccato and abrupt tone of ‘the sun is hot’ emphasizes New York’s fervency, yet this is followed by the elongated lull of stir and air reflect the carefreeness and mediative nature of his walks. The eye rhyme of these words symbolizes the literary connection of O’Hara’s visual experience with the sensations of the city. However, the line’s enjambement, signifies how the city’s hurried pace works disharmoniously alongside O’Hara’s leisurely walking pace. This exposes O’Hara’s endeavor to incorporate the city’s essence with his lunchtime walk episodes. However, O’Hara’s confused state of mind amongst the ‘hum-colored cabs’ is suggested through shift in architectural states. First he observes the ‘laborers feed their dirty/glistening torsos sandwiches’ to inner contemplation of ‘falling bricks’. Within a short space of time, O’Hara reflects on the idea of construction and of destruction. As Hazel Smith would describe as ‘a city in flux, constantly inventing and reinventing itself’

The sensual imagery of their ‘dirty glistening torsos’ implies a homosexual desire but this diminishes along with the ‘falling bricks’ as he then pictures ‘skirts [are] flipping/above heels and blow up over/grates.’ O’Hara asserts anxiety over his homosexuality, at a time when homosexuality was considered a taboo, feminine and anti-nationalist. Thus, this line inverts his sexuality by alluding to the infamous Seven Year Itch scene of 1950s sex symbol Marilyn Monroe’s skirt blowing up over grates. However, this is purely a glamorization of O’Hara’s New York. His love of film and movie stars, as noted with the reference to Fellini and his e’belle actrice of a wife, Guilietta later on, infiltrates into the poetic vision of his landscape. Even though the New York ‘sun is hot’, it cannot stifle the homosexual desire which ‘stirs’ within him. Susan Rosenbaum suggests that O’Hara ‘does not move inwards, to protect the “natural” or authentic body from urban landscape in all its artifice. […] he represents the surface of his body literally blending into parts of the city.” The cabs within O’Hara’s landscape can be seen as an embodiment of the repressive nature of his homosexuality. As he walks among the ‘hum-colored cabs’, he unifies himself with the landscape while driving the ‘hum’ or sensual throb of his sexuality away. We are exposed to his repressed inner thoughts within his walk poems, as he incarnates repression amongst the visuals. O’Hara’s psychological thought process as triggered by walking is summarized by Michel de Certeau. ‘Walking is a way of subverting the city-concept, the all-controlling rationalized city which must repress all the physical, mental and political pollutions that would compromise it.’ Hence, O’Hara uses the act of walking as a rebellion against the constraints of the city, yet he cannot complete rebel against his subconscious mind as shown through the complex duality of his poetic voice.

In Howl, Ginsberg uses also the landscape as a detection for his frame of mind as opposed to that of his ‘generation.’ ‘His generation’ as presumptuous as this may appear, it refers to his kinship with his fellow members of the Beat Generation and other writers and visionaries who share his perspective. Disregarding Howl’s ‘ashcan rantings’ and stream of consciousness nature, each small stanza of Howl reflects a triggered recollection of Ginsberg’s. From isolating the stanzas that reference New York, he subconsciously tries to conjoin the reader with New York landscape, yet, they remain heavy with connotations of psychosis and instability. The following stanza attempts to lyrically illustrate the New York’s oppressive atmosphere categorized with Ginsberg preoccupation with morality.

Who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s

floated out and sat through the stale beer after-

noon in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack

of doom on the hydrogen jukebox […]

However, its emphasis lies on the cliche words related to depression. ‘Sank’,‘night, ‘submarine’,‘stale’,‘desolate’, ‘crack’, ‘doom’ and even ‘hydrogen’ connote allusions of despair but implies an illusion of false depth. The uncanny juxtaposing of these words with ‘light’,‘floated’,‘noon’,‘jukebox’, ‘listening to’ and ‘sat through’ represent a nonchalance and tolerance for the moment, representing a transitory nature of New York. Hence, the binary oppositions of float/sank, night/light adhere to the bipolarity of his senses in New York and while constructing this poem in California. His mocking tone signified by the trite, jaunty rhyming of ‘night’ and ‘light’ with the abruptness in rhythm with ‘of Bickford’s’ towards the end of the line. This represents a dissonance of a bond with New York, yet the connotations of the juxtaposing words suggest an inner turmoil, albeit cliched, resonating through these memories. Ginsberg’s biographical locations instantly forces the reader to adhere to his version of New York. The significance of this narrative isolation emphasizes the stress on ‘who’ which transforms the stanza into a rhetorical question of Who?, obviously Ginsberg. Thus, while he tried to promote universality in Howl, this stanza reveals his ghostlike presence within the poem’s narrative. The use of his New York experience suggest the transient quality of the city. The idea of moving from one place to the next in the space of a day reflects that his submersion in New York, was unfulfilling and devoid of humanity. The use of the phrase, ‘hydrogen jukebox’ suggests the shallowness of New York City pop culture and the vacuousness of this novelty.

The visual function of the jukebox is to create a snapshot of his memory, thus Ginsberg can be considered a verse photographer. The iconography of the 1950s jukebox conjures imagery similar to that of a Robert Frank’s The Americans of a quintessential American city diner. Each stanza represents a ‘photograph’ of an episode in Ginsberg’s life, hence the biographical element inserted with the chronicling of New York places frequented by the Beats. George P. Castellitto says, of Ginsberg use of Whitmanian cataloging of location, ‘Ginsberg is fundamentally a verse photographer of images, a cataloguer of objects and places, and his method, as he states in the interview, ‘its not so much impulse’ but rather “a method which is very specific”, a combination of observation and ‘being a stenographer of [his] own mind’ Thus, by giving the reader a visualized representation of landscape it is tainted by the unconscious and is not a true, realistic approach to experience. It places the reader below and outside the poem. However, the trancelike rhythm of Howl entices into his visions emphasized further with his noted performances of the poem. The stenographic element of Ginsberg’s Howl, is shown through alliteration, onomatopoeia and chanting which signify the phonetic and arbitrariness of his free verse poetry. O’Hara has given the reader an individual visualization of landscape through his precision in literary illustrations of his surroundings that he sees at the exact moment that the poem is written. Ginsberg refuses to be regarded as a purely aesthetic poet, thus he transforms the visual into visionary. He keeps the reader afloat by his deceptive regularity of form shown through the repetition of who, elaborate stanzaic structure and controversial poetic voice. Thus, remarking on the superficiality that masks the erratic New York landscape with the malleability of poetics. By sinking oneself in the superficiality of it, they are inevitably waiting to be judged. This is an intuitive allusion to Ginsberg’s 1971 poem My Sad Self which was dedicated to O’Hara, thus contending his claim as a visionary. O’Hara’s frivolous, conversational tone with an emphasis on surface rather than depth was the victim of poetic mimicry. Ginsberg referred to O’Hara as the ‘gaudy poet’ (FN) in his elegy, City Midnight Junk StrainsO’Hara is probably the one ‘who talked continuously seventy hours from park to/pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brook-/lyn Bridge.’ Following the premise of the rhetorical who, to the now characterized who, the “who did this, who did that”, there is shift in identity from the previous line. Here, Ginsberg suggests the inconstancy of the self mirrored within the New York’s landscape. The impersonality of its places fails to concrete a sense of identity, until a personal or historical landmark is reached. Here, Howl reveals the duality of individual and collective space while exposing the whole New York landscape in just one line. The jerking, sharp rhythm shown assonance of park, pad, bar, illustrates the regulated yet transient existence that Ginsberg felt in this time in New York. The rhythm also emulates the short jerks of a car in traffic, typically a taxi. Thus, once Ginsberg figuratively arrives at ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ to leave, the rhythm alleviates and the poem’s mood shifts.

The reference of the French ‘Bellevue’ correlates with the disparity in landscape use between himself and O’Hara. Allusions to French culture routinely appear in O’Hara’s poetry he even poses the question “Or religious as if I were French?’. For Ginsberg, his relationship with landscape remains faithfully to conditions of the mind, Bellevue being an infamous psychiatric hospital on Fifth Avenue. As O’Hara widens his scope beyond the city’s offerings, however the casual asking the tobacconist for a carton of Galulsoies and a carton of Picayunes’ exoticizes the humdrum of his everyday life. Merlin Coverley describes this as ‘familiar outline of how the city must be rebuilt upon new principles that replace our mundane and sterile experiences with a magical awareness of the wonder that surrounds us’ The frivolous and ephemeral nature of O’Hara’s everyday life is explored within the sequential mapping of his movements ‘the day Lady died.’ The impersonal wristwatch accuracy of his day’s progression tries to mimic a travelogue, however localized O’Hara’s reality is, he embarks upon a journey to France (“Bastille Day”, “Verlaine”, “Gauloises”), Ghana, Greece (“Hesiod”), Ireland (“Brendan Behan”) and Italy (“Stega”) with entering a limited selection of stores. The worldly, pseudo-intellectualism of his choices, evoke to the reader to contraction and expansion of New York’s cultivated landscape. His worldliness leads him to buy ‘Gaulioises’ and ‘Picayunes’ thus broadening his localized landscape, yet the image of Holiday’s face on the tabloid New York Post shrinks the poem back to ’12:20 in New York on a Friday’; the moment when he knew she had died. The devoid of a full stop at the close of the poem restores the poem back to the title. The final line would read ‘to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing [...]The Day Lady Died.’ This cyclical finality satisfies the reader, however the drawback is the endurance of the tiresome quandaries of O’Hara’s life. This is also representative of the ‘city in flux, constantly reinventing itself’ He persuades the reader of the ‘quandariness’ of New York’s consumerism, the act of buying as momentary deferral. Yet, the inclusion of namedropping within this poem suggests that O’Hara is still searching to define himself amongst Patsy, Mike, the crowd of people ‘who will feed him’ in East Hampton. As he embarks on his quest for that moment, which was the original stimuli for the poem, his purchase potential guides him to a recollection of watching Holiday sing at the ‘5 Spot.’

O’Hara deceives the reader through the stream of consciousness narrative distinctly in the third and forth stanzas. The climax in these stanzas suggests O’Hara’s uneasiness amongst the in-crowd of the Easy Hampton as pressure increases he begins to start ‘sweating a lot by now’.  O’Hara’s apprehensiveness over his position within New York briskness of his literary walk. He weaves in out of stores, leaving himself exhausted and sweating as emulated by enjambement and sudden stanza stops that leaves the reader breathless before embarking on the next predicament. At the end just when the reader believes they finally ‘stop breathing’, the poem loops around. O’Hara ensures the reader that life does go on and the poem’s cyclical form reinforces the regularity of O’Hara’s; of the 24/7 New York environment, always on the go. Paradoxically, O’Hara’s poetry managed to become a stimuli for one of Ginsberg’s poems. Timothy Gray remarks that he ‘was crucial to New York precisely because he refused to remain fixed.’ O’Hara’s omnipresence throughout New York has allowed himself to become part of its landscape; thus, metaphorically crossing paths with Ginsberg. The mocking tone of the poem is suggestive of the privilege in which O’Hara has acquired, not from walking but as a ‘white middle-class poet’ using poetry as a way to turn ‘the days encounters into humorous anecdotes to relate to his equally privileged friends’ The repressions of his homosexuality and institutionalized art curator job remain hidden beneath the facade of how the others of his wider environment may perceive him. Just as Ginsberg wanted to make us of his poetry to emote and inspire ‘the best minds of his generation’, he perceived it was fallacious for O’Hara to exploit poetry as ‘a little supper-club conversation for the mill of the gods’.

However, Ginsberg to possess much affection for O’Hara which can be demonstrated in the poem’s dedication. The use of to instead of for which he had used for Carl Solomon in Howl suggests a conversational tone and the opening of communication between himself and O’Hara. Here, the poems sets itself up as a response and a celebration of the effectiveness of O’Hara’s style in using the city of New York as one’s own psychological map. Ginsberg’s ‘Sad Self’ can be tracked through his excursion through New York starting from the ‘top of the RCA Building’ to ‘deathbed or mountain’ This binary opposition connotes the uncertainty of whether New York is Heaven or Hell, a place ‘once seen’ and ‘never regained or desired’. Through the staggered form, inconsistent syntax and punctuation, Ginsberg desires and fails to regain control of [his] Manhattan where he had ‘done feats in’, where his ‘history summed up and where he had ‘greater loves.’ However, for the solemn context of this poem, Ginsberg reverses O’Hara’s approach of being a ‘cheerful type who pretends to/be hurt to get a little depth into/ things that interest me’ Ginsberg uses punctuation to mock the depressive tone and of O’Hara’s presumptuousness in creating poetry for surface rather than depth. Thus, visually My Sad Self is an array of dashes, ellipses and ampersands amongst short and long sentences cleverly placed for archetypal poetic emotion. The use of an em dashes in the lines, ‘and gaze at my world, Manhattan-’, ‘faraway-’, ‘in my last eternity-’ evokes to the reader that the poem’s speaker is too emotional to speak. Yet, there is comic relief in the line ‘where I have no desire-/for bonbons-or to own the dresses or Japanese/lampshades...’ This ridicules O’Hara’s frivolousness and the way in which he manipulates the landscape as a means of window shopping for is poetry. Evidence of Ginsberg’s conflicting yet mediating presence alongside O’Hara in New York is conveyed in the first stanza.

Sometimes when my eyes are red

I go up on top of the RCA Building

and gaze at my world, Manhattan-

my buildings, streets, I’ve done feats in,

lofts, beds, coldwater flats

-on Fifth Ave below, which I also bear in mind,

its ant cars, little yellow taxis, men

walking the size of specks of wool-

Panaroma of the bridges, sunrise over Brooklyn machine,

sun go down over New Jersey where I was boen

& Paterson where I played with ants-

Ginsberg’s places the speaker on top of the RCA Building which was the building used in Ebbets’ iconic photograph ‘Lunchtime Atop a Skyscraper’ Thus, the I within the poem is O’Hara himself, as it refers to his methodological approach of writing poetry on his lunch break. However, the stillness and immobility of the speaker’s movement suggests that Ginsberg is informing O’Hara that if he were to go atop a skyscraper and sit and gaze down below, he would have had a greater emotional response from his readers. From above, the speaker views the ‘men/ walking the size of specks of wool’, which could shift the perspective if O’Hara was the speaker, he is essentially gazing at himself. The use of ‘wool’ over another fabric implies the insignificant, ‘sheeplike’ nature of the people within the landscape. It also implies pastoral imagery as Timothy Gray describes O’Hara as a ‘semiotic shepherd.’ Ginsberg uses the pastoral imagery to signify O’Hara’s tendency to romanticize and idealize New York. Nevertheless, the pastoral visions and connotations of wool to lamb refers to Ginsberg’s preoccupation with spirituality. Therefore, where O’Hara would focus on the aesthetics and materialization of the wool in the consumerist landscape, Ginsberg cannot forgo his visionary principles to ‘this countryside’ of New York. The elongation of the line and aposiopesis after ‘wool-’ to ‘panorama’ visually indicates the stretch of the cityscape and Ginsberg reflecting back to O’Hara’s aesthetic of presence rather than transcendence. Graham Clarke reinforces the poets’ methodical diversity to the landscape, helpfully verified with Ginsberg’s use of ‘Manhattan,‘New York is a double city. As Manhattan it retains its mythic promise and remains an image at once familiar and inviting. As New York City it becomes part of the urban process: denied its mythic energy, its transcendental base, it moves into a historical reality in which social, political questions are prominent. It becomes, in other words, a city of people rather than images - of social contingencies rather than mythic projections’

Through the development of their individual style, O’Hara and Ginsberg expose the construction of self image with their interconnection with the factors of the land. Like New York City, their poetic expression diverges from each other and from others which is shown through the multitude of their influences. Their susceptibility of their surroundings to reproduce the rhythms and imagery of the landscape and the application of their predecessors and peers in crafting a contemporary take on the existing cultural landscape.  A Step Away From Them celebrates the European and Abstract Expressionist influence over O’Hara and within 1950s New York culture, while Howl exposes Ginsberg as an architect of emotions. He builds his poetry from the mental landscape of himself and others while retaining a metaphysical elevation over the land of America. Fortunately, New York or America is expansive and surplus enough to provide enough fuel for these emotions. Hence, the epic nature of Howl and the structural contraction from city localization in My Sad Self. Howl ‘s poetic quest for clarification of the mind builds up through a hybrid of stream of consciousness, free verse and a succinct flow of word association. His poetry becomes a literary symbol for the heterogeneity of New York’s societal landscape. In contrast, O’Hara maintains his poetic character with the only shifts being of immediacy he epitomizes the architectural iconography. As the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building still stand, the influx of people walking in and around change over time. Timothy Gray exclaims that, ‘O’Hara’s movements read the city as one would read a text, and this text of New York, as he was able to translate it, bespoke a new cultural and artistic capital.’

Both poets achieve mediation with My Sad Self. The poem embodies the agreement, the reconciliation between their differences. While poets, Ginsberg and O’Hara are the ‘two molecules clanking against each other’, the ‘required observer’ is New York City itself. It observes while its individual fragments react to and bond with each other to the New York landscape amalgam. Their poetry becomes a historical chronicle of 1950s New York and the composition of their poetry reflects the diversity and perpetual influx of ingenuity that is eternally on New York streets. To resonate Walt Whitman crossing Brooklyn Ferry, a hundred years prior in 1856, reminds them of his own mediations. As his prophetic voice echoes through, he bridges the gap between the future poets of New York, their influences within and outside the landscape, and of the mind.

Nikki Hall

Also published in Inky Needles Literary & Culture Journal