On Warsan Shire, Peter Riley and Poetry Criticism

Last week, Beyoncé released Lemonade, an hour-long multi-genre piece made by leading artists in film, music and poetry. London Young Laureate Warsan Shire’s poems “For Women Who Are Difficult To Love”, “The unbearable weight of staying (the end of the relationship)” and “Nail Technician as Palm Reader” are all adapted as interludes between songs. On the back of this peerless good news, Inua Ellams spoke about Shire’s permanent relocation to the United States, finding poetry culture in Britain hostile to her and her work (Pascale Petit, Shire’s mentor in The Complete Works, mentioned on Facebook how Shire had become frustrated with with the ‘struggle against the (white) grain’). Ellams spoke on Twitter (the whole thread is vital reading) about her epochal collaboration in Lemonade:

“My homegirl Warsan Shire just did a thing with Beyonce. An incredible thing and the only thing I am surprised about is myself response:

For not seeing it coming. It was inevitable. It only happened because Warsan left these shores.

She moved to where her voice would be included, taken for what it is, for the brilliance it is and shared exponentially.

If you disagree, consider this: even Beyonce could not have existed in Britain. The Music industry would not have supported her talent.

To the poets of colour reading this… follow Warsan’s lead. I’m not saying leave Britain…

… but find environments that are welcoming to the poetry you create, to what you write and the way you write them.

Most of us come from oral traditions. We tend to write accordingly. Most of our concerns are “real shit”.

Most of our shit references other real shit. Most of the shit we reference is found in “World literature” dusty sections of book shops…

…so when we pack our real shit with our deep shit, that nuance and intertextuality, the weight of its importance… isn’t even recognised.

Try and find spaces that welcome your poetry. And those spaces might not be in the poetry world.”

Shire is an incredible talent and we weren’t good enough to accept her. We couldn’t read her work the way it deserved to be read and she was compelled to find a place that would.

Poetry in these islands is not a billion dollar industry. The culture of entitlement and resentment towards positive change, however, does not reflect poetry’s reputation or self-image as unique, progressive, liberal, free-thinking. After a winter in which Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade and Mona Arshi’s Small Hands had the quality of their work recognised and rewarded (Rankine and Howe being the first women of colour to win their respective prizes), there was a backlash from upset, barely rational white men clutching at their degrees and lamenting the state of the union. Those complaints rested, predictably, on extra-literary matters of appearance, education, publishing ‘fads’, a disappointing narrow-mindedness about what ‘poetry’ might mean, anything but the work. A few weeks ago, Peter Riley began his review of Vahni Capildeo’s excellent Measures of Expatriation by venting spleen about “identity politics” (scare quotes his), how having an ‘identity’:

“seems to mean that any possibilities a poem might have of contacting existential realities is disallowed; the poem must arise directly from personal experience (standard practice in modern poetry anyway) and stay there.”

Riley very likely means well. He begins this part of his essay by quoting Capildeo’s own frustrations about feeling the expectation to perform her otherness by an extremely white publishing industry:

“I found that marketing and identity politics were combining to crush, like in the Star Wars trash compactor, the voice, the voice on the page, the body, the history… You had to choose, you had to be a sort of documentary witness wheeled around and exposing your wounds in the market place.”

But in trying to defend Capildeo from harmful stereotypes, he throws digs at poets for whom personal experience (their own or their peers’) is the urgent, beating heart of their work. His praise for Capildeo noticeably centres around not making too conspicuous a fuss about one’s suffering or marginalisation, while condemning unnamed others for drawing attention to it. Riley’s complaint that, ‘the poem must arise directly from personal experience’, is immediately reneged, arguing that ‘its admissibility depends not on experience itself, but on participation in a group and thereby involved in cultural conflict’. Riley does not specify who is performing the admission, which poet, group or conflict is being indecently referenced, or what the consequences are for poets who refuse to conform to these standards. His argument is a rorschach blot, empty of substance and ready for the reader to insert the ‘identity’ whose visibility in contemporary poetry they most resent.

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In “In AnOther’s Pocket: The Address of the “Pocket Epic” in Postmodern Black British Poetry”, Romana Huk writes:

“in current poetic projects, there is little reckoning of how the identificatory self is still at work, often with a nationalistic sub-project powering epic desire; the “other” still gets othered, if at the hands of more and more sophisticated theories of reading.”

Huk and Capildeo are, I think, talking about similar processes. Writing by poets of colour can no longer be entirely ignored by white readers; what can be done, by a culture still deeply uncomfortable with writing that does not recognise canon-endorsed standards of quality control, is corralling it into the kind of self-othering box that Capildeo denounces. Inclusion with strings attached is exclusion by another name, and Riley is not wrong to highlight the problem. The failure is in his sudden pivot to declare that actually, it’s about ethics in poetry prize judging:

“A glance at the big prize-winning results this season shows immediately how these ethics have been taken on wholesale by the establishment and now dominate popular perception of poetry’s function — a pre-existing function defined and formulated outside poetry to which it is now expected to conform. The basis of judgement shifted from aesthetic to moral very quickly.”

Poetry has few ‘big prizes’ and few winners. He is subtweeting Rankine, who beat Riley to the Forward Prize with a book that is both aesthetically unique and morally challenging; I wrote about it a while back if you’re curious, and if you’re even more curious you could read what black critics like Shaelyn Smith and Holly Bass thought about it. Riley’s objection is that judgement has shifted from the ‘aesthetic’ to the ‘moral’; these terms are difficult to define and deserve far more careful unpacking than Riley offers. A cynical reader might guess he means the lyric poetry supported by the canon and reified by generations of elite readers has, for once, been deemed second best to an experimental form written by a poet for whom the canon has little time. As Ellams notes, black poets engage deeply with poetic traditions, just not those valued by the British critical mainstream; refusing to acknowledge the value of alternative routes to poetic achievement is a powerful means of excluding black writing from positions of cultural influence. To put it bluntly, just because you don’t understand it doesn’t make it bad; it’s your job as a critic to learn.

Back in Riley’s essay, put-upon aesthetic poets are ‘now expected to conform’ to these moral standards; a strange concern for a poet who very clearly expresses contemporary moral concerns in his work. Riley employs wounded tones more commonly modelled by Piers Morgan, confusing criticism of his opinions with a threat to his freedom of expression; like Oliver Thring’s inability to acknowledge intelligence that does not come in his own image; like Craig Raine’s abysmal, Oxford-don-knows-best reading of Citizen, which he memorably dismissed as ‘moral narcissism’. It is an insult to Rankine’s achievement to dismiss it as ‘parad[ing] the wound’, which Riley praises Capildeo for refusing. His commendation of Capildeo’s work is deeply compromised by first deploying it as a weapon against other poets whose own work has been marginalised by aggressively careless white readers.


Poetry in the UK is making tiny, positive steps towards a more complex vocabulary with which to discuss race, sexuality, gender, mental health, income and other inequalities, but at a price. The backlash in poetry is not (as with video games’ harassment campaigns) from trollish men on 4chan with free time and a grudge against those whose inclusion and success they cannot abide, but from well-read men in well-regarded periodicals with notably similar grudges. Even framed as a battle for poetry’s heart, Riley’s critique is hamstrung by his refusal to acknowledge the racial inequalities that force poetry-as-witness, poetry-as-‘moral’ to be a function of survival; Citizen explicitly frames itself as a response to external threats to the wellbeing of black people in America. In an interview with Africa in Words, Shire’s approach to memory and witness is explicitly one of preservation, both of the self and the ‘history or the global ranges of perception’ Riley claims are under threat in British poetry:

“it’s being able to tell the stories of those people, especially refugees and immigrants, that otherwise wouldn’t be told, or they’ll be told really inaccurately. And I don’t want to write victims, or martyrs, or vacuous stereotypes. […] my family are really amazing – they’ll tell me, ‘I have a new story for you’, and I’ll get my Dictaphone and record it, so I can stay as true as possible to the story before I make it into a poem.”

To labour the point, well-respected literary white men don’t need recording equipment to keep their stories alive. Suggesting that such poetry sacrifices its aesthetic-ness is a deeply conservative gesture, both artistically and politically, one that figures the white male poet as the normal, central, rightful inheritor and the black woman poet as interloper, over-promoted, aesthetically invalid.

I’m acutely aware that while making these criticisms, my whiteness etc more or less means that my place in this community is safe come what may. I’m also aware that in all my previous encounters with radical thinking in other forms of art, it’s not cishetero white men leading the way. If we want art that leads us to better ways of thinking about each other, if we believe that poetry does make something happen (more than awards, tenure and hardback Collecteds), that it is a function of the heart and soul (whatever that means) as well as meter and rhyme, we must listen to those who are most vulnerable to the violence our culture has been designed to carry out, and from which we benefit so richly. That means changing how we read, how we write, questioning how much space and praise we assume to be our birthright. It will take a lot of work, and a lot of what will look like giving away what is ours to take, but if we can make a culture in which the next Warsan Shire can feel at home, welcomed, valued, in charge, it’ll be worth it.

Further Reading: Inua Ellams on Twitter

Shaelyn Smith on Citizen at TheRumpus

Holly Bass on Citizen in The New York Times

Interview with Warsan Shire at Africa in Words

Profile on Warsan Shire in The New Yorker

‘Decolonise, not Diversify’ by Khavita Bhanot at Media Diversified

‘Responses to a Tantric Poetics’ by Nisha Ramayya at datableed


Some (But Not All) Of The Good Books I Read In 2015, According To Ill-Defined And Highly Subjective Criteria

Full Disclosure: I, too, dislike end of year lists. They’re usually either confusingly partisan or uselessly inclusive, have as much potential to upset as to enlighten, and given that I literally spent the year talking about what books I like, this might well be a waste of time. HOWEVER, I do think there’s something to be said for taking stock of the year, doing a bit of memorialising before pushing off into a big bright shiny new one, and maybe underlining a few things that you might have missed first time round.

So this piece is less about which books I thought were Best Poetry Books 2015™, which would rely on a largely arbitrary and probably deeply compromised set of aesthetic norms and value systems (specifically, my reading history as an academically-trained white bro), and more about which books changed how I read, shed light on the (often unconscious) assumptions I bring to this or that poem. Maybe that’s not the kind of recommendation you’re really after; maybe you’ve already crossed these bridges; maybe this all misses the point in ways I can’t imagine.

Whatever the case, thanks for reading.


Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe)

In October, the poet and critic Sandeep Parmar wrote in The Guardian about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, praising its formal innovation and timely examination of racism both daily and structural, concluding that ‘In Britain, we don’t talk about race and poetry enough’. In December Parmar published the essay ‘Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK’ in the LA Review of Books. It’s a clear-eyed, intensely well-researched and damning appraisal of how monolithic British and Irish poetry remains; it demands that white readers work harder to make space for BAME poets that doesn’t insist on a kind of self-exoticising that leaves the white-as-central/normal, BAME-as-other binary untarnished.

Ten: The New Wave, with its generous selections of, among noteworthy others, Jay Bernard, Kayo Chingonyi and Warsan Shire, is not only a great example of how to anthologize (relatively few poets, a large enough selection to allow the reader to inhabit the poet’s idiosyncracies), but provides concrete ballast for Parmar’s argument: the dominance of white poets in the UK is not for want of talented BAME poets. What is it for?

Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

A poetry book that reached a huge readership, and a powerful response to the question of whether poetry needs an active social conscience.  Citizen is a beautifully, intricately composed piece of poetic work; every word is purposeful, each tableau masterfully pitched and weighted. If Citizen isn’t poetry, we all need to get new hobbies.

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade

Loop of Jade is a curious, angry and humane collection that makes lyric poetry carry an uncommon amount of emotional and philosophical freight. A book that does that lovely thing of slowly releasing its deeper arguments as you pay closer attention. Incidentally, Howe’s critical prose is also staggeringly good.


Okay so turns out writing these blurby things is causing me borderline physical pain. The above three books are the ones I would happily and without reserve recommend to just about anyone. Here, in alphabetical order and by no means authoritatively, are some other really good books I read for the first time this year, which I’d also happily lend to people that I like and who like reading poems. NB: my memory sucks, and I’m not necessarily as up to date as I’d like to be. If you’ve recommendations please leave them in the comments; BAME, LGBT and women poets are preferred.

AK Blakemore – Humbert Summer [sharp, dramatic, making alt lit/post-internet tropes FUN]
Harry Giles – Tonguit [probably the best politically-minded poetry I’ve ever read, also funny af]
John Glenday – The Golden Mean [humane, elegiac, heartbreakingly graceful]
Melissa Lee Houghton – Beautiful Girls (2013) [stark, clear-eyed, narrative poetry at its best]
Kathleen Jamie – The Bonniest Companie [mindful, deep time-y, bolshy as fuck]
Rebecca Perry – Beauty/Beauty [generous, earnest, far stranger than I think I gave credit for first time round]
Warsan Shire – Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011) [can’t believe yous let me go this far without reading this book, get your shit together]

Tl;dr: next year I’m keeping a spreadsheet. Thanks to everyone who reads this thing, and particularly to the folk contributing to my work via Patreon – it not only makes it so much easier for me to keep doing the work I’m already doing, it’s also the best motivator I’ve ever had. See you all in 2016, and from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

Full Disclosure: This is my first encounter with Rankine’s work. For anyone new to the site, I am a middle class white fella, and I will do my best to recognise how that impacts my reading of Rankine’s work.

Review: Okay, straight out of the traps, cuz I want to get this out of the way, this is poetry. It is a bunch of words arranged with painstaking precision. There have been any number of successful poetry books in these islands that use prose extensively or even exclusively (see Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars), and focusing on the form too easily elides the vitally important messages Citizen delivers.

The book is a collection of stories, essays and traditional lyric poems that (in part) attempt to expose and explain the harm caused by structural and microaggressive racial violence; its recurring use of the pronoun ‘you’ is partly an attempt to circumvent whatever defence mechanisms we might have against the idea we might be complicit in racial oppression. The social mores that enable the situations narrated in Citizen are so basic, so much a part of the wallpaper of daily life as to be near-invisible; as Holly Bass notes in her review, “this seems to be part of Rankine’s conceit. What passes as news for some (white) readers is simply quotidian lived experience for (black) others”. The bare facts of Rankine’s readership demographics are of no small importance: of the top ten hits on google search for ‘claudia rankine citizen review’, for instance, eight reviewers are white; three of the top four are white men working for the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and Slate. A relevant question might be, talented though these critics are, why these authoritative sites decided that white writers were best positioned to discuss this particular work. If your response is ‘they just picked the best writers available’, you should read Citizen. ‘The best writers’ is not a politically neutral category.

Seeing as the autocorrect on this word doc doesn’t recognise ‘microaggression’, here’s a brief definition. Racism and other oppressions do not maintain their social dominance solely by overt, conscious acts of bigotry. Microaggressions generally happen below the level of awareness of members of the dominant culture (cf Hilary Clinton’s speech identifying the ‘open-minded and well-intentioned’ citizens in America who fear black men in hoodies; when our own Prime Minister decides that our Muslim friends, family and peers do not deserve to live in peace, how does that impact the way our own ‘open-minded and well-intentioned’ citizens think about each other?).


In the US and the UK alike, the dominant culture means middle/upper class white people, like myself, and if I know poetry culture round these parts, very likely yourself too. And it doesn’t take much research (though Fiona Moore’s studies are extremely relevant here) to see that poetry in these islands have a serious problem acknowledging and supporting work by black and minority ethnic poets. The message runs: white people have won prizes and are taught on the curriculum, thus are culturally central, thus constitute the category ‘good poetry’, thus white people make the prize lists [ed – the Forward Prize has done sterling work in this regard as of late]. White people are the default and will be met with little/no critical objection; BAME poets are other, their presence requires justification. If they write in a way that does not fit within the existing poetic norm, they are very easily ignored, filed away in pre-made and ill-fitting categories that diminish their intellectual work; note how much easier it is for academic white poets to pick apart these aesthetic prejudices. I truly don’t imagine, however, that these decisions are made deliberately (that would be relatively easy to deal with); they seem to uncritically follow the kind of social imperatives that (at one extreme) make us call human beings seeking refuge from international warfare ‘swarms of immigrants’. It takes a huge and conscious effort to identify and expunge ourselves of the reflex prejudices our culture wants to imprint on us; note, for example, the way the term ‘identity politics’ has been appropriated as a means of dismissing the very discussion of those complex and fraught relations.

If the above shows anything, it’s how time- and energy-consuming it is to get around to talking about a book that questions and rejects basic social norms. In an interview with Radio Open Source in Boston (which is seriously worth listening to), Rankine describes the process of accumulating these stories from friends and colleagues, that the book’s early sections – the short, sharp, confounding accounts of language becoming violence – are a kind of communal witnessing or testimony. They are also, as Rankine explains, a means of talking back, addressing what in hindsight seems a blatant act of ignorance and/or violence, but in the moment is simply too unbelievable to address or even process: the phrases ‘What did you say?’ and ‘What do you mean?’ return and return in Citizen. The first act of resistance is believing that these things did, in fact, happen exactly as they appeared to, and part of the book’s challenge to white readers is to see ourselves in these interactions, at the very least to see how these interactions benefit or favour us by making us more comfortable, more firmly situated as trustworthy, welcome, central and normal. Whether or not we are the university employee complaining about how affirmative action meant her son didn’t get into the right prestigious school, or the man who ‘tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there’, as white people we still benefit from these underlying messages and the normalised white supremacy that makes them acceptable. We need only stand by and watch to gain from them.

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In this regard Rankine’s voice is key to how the book expresses itself, and why listening to her read is so informative. Her voice remains flat, calm, reserving all possible energy for a rehearsal of what is, in actuality, one in a series of exhausting reminders of what her body means to a society hostile to its presence. Sections IV and V are dedicated to the poet’s management of her mental health brought about by a daily engagement with the kind of violence detailed earlier in the book. These later passages are difficult reading, elaborating on the impossibility of anything like safe mental space when ‘Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that.’ Perfectly logical emotional processes, like anger at having one’s individuality erased, are precluded by the world’s need to avoid addressing uncomfortable truths: ‘You like to think memory goes far back though remembering was never recommended. Forget all that, the world says. The world’s had a lot of practice.’

The sequence comes after an extended exploration of the career of Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time and a black woman. Rankine opens with a discussion of Jayson Musson’s (aka Hennessy Youngman) YouTube video encouraging black artists to commodify their anger, in a way that Rankine identifies as ‘tied solely to the performance of blackness and not to the emotional state of particular individuals in particular situations’. Musson’s ideal black anger that creates marketable personae and sells music does not make room for Williams’ real, unpalatable and ostensibly inappropriate anger, which ‘in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness’. Rankine aligns Williams’ story with Zora Neale Hurston’s line “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”: that background includes the tennis venues Indian Wells and Wimbledon (aka the All England Lawn Tennis Club), and a professional sport that cannot or will not acknowledge its complicity in violence against an individual who refuses to bend or apologise for her brilliance. During Williams’ unbeaten run in 2012, Rankine describes the new narrative shaped by tennis’ commentariat: ‘She has grown up […] as if responding to the injustice of racism is childish and her previous demonstration of emotion was free-floating and detached from any external actions by others’. Citizen makes it clear that no amount of success, achievement or contribution to the body politic can, under the existing cultural system, secure that individual love, respect or peace of mind.

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The essay also illuminates the extreme care and precision that characterises the book’s own use of language. Each sentence moves slowly, treads purposefully – there is little relaxation, little of the personability or openness that typifies lyric poets like Sharon Olds or Mark Doty. Rankine seems prepared for her ideas to be minutely scrutinised, intuits that only the most rigorously exercised thoughts will stand a chance of being heard. And hypothetical anger – dynamic, animating anger that for most lyric poets is a central weapon – will only be pigeon-holed with Williams’, labelled as ‘crazy’ (for a high-profile example, cf Taylor Swift lashing out at Nicki Minaj’s valid criticism of the music industry, and how swiftly that industry moved to frame Minaj as the aggressor). That Rankine creates both absolute clarity and valuable complexity is an incredible achievement, and deserves to be recognised as such. She is a writer of almost peerless skill, and in a better world this review would be free to discuss her talent with subtle organising metaphor, details that seem perfectly incidental until it emerges that they underpinned the entire endeavour. That she has proven the lyric form capacious enough to hold some of the most complex thinking on racial inequality I’ve ever read is worth celebrating on its own. For what that’s worth; lest we forget what countless awards and achievements have done for Williams’ emotional wellbeing.

Returning to her Open Source interview, Citizen is a book about the intimacy of racial violence, about how the body can be made into the locus of racial hatred, how that process becomes gradually corrosive in the most personal ways, and how resistance to these acts will be wilfully misinterpreted. The short sequence on Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt of Marco Materazzi, after the latter called him a ‘Big Algerian shit, dirty terrorist, nigger’, quietly but joyously reframes the episode: ‘The rebuttal assumes an original form’. Zidane, a brilliant and articulate athlete hitting back against a career’s worth of diminishment and abuse (‘what he said “touched the deepest part of me”’), was still unable to control the subsequent narrative which, like Williams, refused to contextualise his actions. Rankine’s book is a reminder that Materazzi, like the line judges at the US Open, like the employees at the university or commuters on the train or drivers in the car park, all act in the interest of maintaining white supremacy, from which people like myself benefit every day. As Rankine asks an English colleague regarding the death of Mark Duggan and the subsequent riots in London, ‘How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?’ This is an important book, and hopefully the catalyst for a long and difficult discussion.

Tl;dr: Citizen is an astonishing work, an accusation and a call to action. Read it over and over.

Further reading:
Claudia Rankine’s Open Letter: A Dialogue on Race and Poetry
Holly Bass in the New York Times
Nick Laird in the New York Review of Books
Interview with Rankine on Open Source
Dan Chiasson in the New Yorker
Shaelyn Smith in The Rumpus