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Review: Jericho Brown’s ‘The Tradition’

By: Josh Brown

Jericho Brown is the most exciting poet in the USA today.  On May 4th this year he was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his latest collection ‘The Tradition’ which Pulitzer described as “A collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of the bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence”  Two previous collections had established him as a voice for the voiceless, oppressed by virtue of their colour or their sexuality. The murder of George Floyd three weeks later (to the day) gave Jericho’s work a bitter prescience that measured just how  pressing that ‘historical urgency’ was.

As the BLM protest erupted across the world challenging centuries of historical complacency in the face of injustice, violence and oppression, as the facts of racism were reflected in the higher pandemic fatalities amongst people of colour, ethnic minorites, the poor and disadvantaged, The Tradition could be its manifesto. Poetry is enjoying heightened popularity but few poets riding the crest of its wave can compare to the talent and impact of Jericho Brown.

Before ’The Tradition’ was published last year Jericho Brown was already recognised as a poet of exceptional importance. Winner of a host of prestigious awards. Published in some of the USA’s finest including The New York Times, New Yorker and Time magazine. The Pulitzer placed him at the end of a list that runs from Robert Frost (sadly not without prejudice) to W H Auden and Allen Ginsberg.

Born and rasied in Shreveport Louisiana part of ‘Bible Belt’ American, Trump country, Jericho Brown is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta and director of its Creative Writing Program. He was speechwriter for LaToya Cantrell the first black woman to hold the post of mayor of New Orleans.

His first book, ‘Please’ (2008), won the American Book Award. ‘The New Testament’ (2014), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award which honours written works that make an important contribution to the understanding of racism and the appreciation of the rich diversity of human culture. Earlier recipients include Allan Paton, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer and Zadie Smith, pretty impressive company. In 2011, he received the Fellowship for Poetry awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts an American NGO under threat of defunding by POTUS Trump. In addition to his academic work, Jericho is assistant editor of ‘Callaloo’, a quarterly literary magazine of the African diaspora and the longest continuously running African-American literary magazine.

This impressive CV reflects the unique quality and power of Jericho Brown’s poetry. He follows in exalted footsteps in both the majesty of his poetry and the righteousness of its causes – Gwendolyn Brooks, Langstone Hughes, Audre Lorde, Robert Hayden, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and others walked that difficut path too.  

“The people of my country believe
We can’t be hurt if we can be bought”

When Shelley claimed poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” he was talking about more than polemics. There is a place for slogans. There is a time for anger, for demonstrating.

Anger and statements of truth are the blood in the veins of the poetry of Jericho Brown.

“Gratitude is black—-
Black as a hero returning from war to a country that banked on his death”                            

They hit you in lines as deadly as gunfire, mirroring the violence that is part of the everyday life of black folk in the USA and over here.

                                “I will not shoot myself

                                In the head, and I will not shoot myself

                                In the back, and I will not hang myself

                                With a trashbag, and if I do,

                                I promise you, I will not do it

                                In a police car while handcuffed

                                Or in the jail cell of a town

                                I only know the name of

                                Because I have to drive through it

                                To get home.”

But the true power of poetry is not just that it produces a good line, a punchy combo of words that can grace a placard or make an epitaph. What places poetry above other communication is its ability, in the right hands, to make us understand that which we have never experienced, what we may never experience. To make us know and feel what that person feels, what it is like to be in that situation. I knew what love and heartbreak were before I met either through the poetry I read as a juvenile. Owen and Sassoon and the many other ‘war poets’ don’t just rage against the slaughter, they take you into it, its tragedy, its lack of meaning, its horror and its crippling ennui. In an interview in 2018 Jericho said “A poem should go beyond what you already know……….. I do want poets to feel empowered to announce politically, but I also want them to go beyond the pronouncement.”

This is the core of poetry, to take you into the most complex, unbelievable, horrific or beautiful of circumstance through the medium of just a few lines. This is its potential, to get to feel what it is to be another human being and, through that, to know and change yourself.

It is a subtle craft, easily mishandled, but when done well the result is breathtaking.

“The opposite of rape is understanding”

Jericho does not merely rant at the injustices that are the daily experience of black Americans, he examines its chillling normality, the banality of evil. He places it into the context of his own experience as Afro American, as a gay man, as a son and as a lover. He connects the political and the societal with the individual. Tracks its line from the general to the specific. Into the home, the breakfast table, the bedroom.

“I love a man I know could die
And not by way of illness
And not by his own hand
But because of the colour of that hand and all
His flawless skin.”

The generic of prejudice and oppression is personalised, made at once political and intimate. It is not just the ‘big issues’ of black experience Jericho Brown exposes, it is the cloying suffocating corruption of everyday existence on the street, in the home, among family and  between lovers.

With the same incisive verse he lays open the experience of love and intimacy.

                                “Come, love, come lie down, love, with me
                                In this king-size bed where we go numb
                                For each other letting sleep take us into
                                Ease, a slumber made only when I hold
                                You or you hold me so close I have no idea
                                Where I begin—where do you end?—where you
                                Tell me lies. Tell me sweet little lies”

Poetry he said in an interview for Barren Magazine “is better when it comes from and happens to real people we can imagine. No oracles!” His poetry includes modified sonnet and the use of ‘ghazal’ both in content and the way he writes. An Arabic form, ghazal expresses both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain. One of the poems in ‘The Tradition’ is called “Duplex” reflecting that duality. It talks of both the cruelty of an early lover and that of his father. The potency of ghazal can be seen in the closing lines,

                                “None of the beaten end up how we began
                                A poem is a gesture toward home”

Duplex is the term Jericho uses to describe his decision to write sonnets in a shortened or ‘gutted’ form, a series of repeated couplets. Embracing the sonnet and the metric traditions of ghazal allows him to question America but not be constrained in response. “If I can take a sonnet and I can take a ghazal and I can take the blues—we’re not gonna get around taking the blues, since I’m black—if I take those three things, is it possible for me to merge them into a single coherent form?” And that’s how the duplex came to be.”

Asked to reflect on the harsh childhood which features in his poetry he said, “Literature is about opposing characters being right. So poetry is about opposing feelings being right, about ambivalence being the proper state of being. I’m glad my parents are old and that I’m older. There’s really a wealth of new language born from reflecting on this.” Jericho Brown’s poetry has enabled him to move beyond just anger, though it is righteously justified, so it gives the reader the same opportunity. To understand, to empathise, to be outraged but to see the journey’s end where strength and humanity, possibly love, is more powerful.

Jericho Brown is a professor who says that reading Milton taught him how to rhyme and calls him his ‘homeboy’. As you’d expect, he is prodigiously well read, an intellectual. But the language of his poetry is clear, precise, engaging. There’s a musical influence, no doubt coming from the church which he still attends despite the less than ‘Christian’ response of most non-conformist denominations toward being gay. Just as Gospel fed Soul so hymns and the music, which is still the greatest cultural gift America has given the world, has seeped into the way he uses words and constructs his “gutted sonnets”. (That, of course, should be the great gift Black America has given the world!) You can feel it, for example, in the opening line of the poem “Dear Whiteness” quoted earlier. A poem which even repeats the chorus of Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies”. In another interview he explained how he starts a poem, “I usually get (or overhear) some series of sounds I find musically attractive. I try to transliterate those sounds into lines and follow them with lines that riff off of the sounds of those lines. I don’t concern myself with sense, at first.”

The poems in ‘The Tradition’ remind me of something James Baldwin said in ‘The Fire Next Time’.   “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within”

The cover notes say “The Tradition is a timely, necessary book….” Published just months before George Floyd died at the hands of a white policeman you could not have gauged just how timely it would be save for the fact that these injustices are decades, centuries old. It continues,  “….from one of the most vital poets of our time” Amen to that.

‘The Tradition’ is pubished in the UK by Picador Poetry and is available from the usual sources for a mere £10.99. His earlier collections, ‘Please’ and ‘The New Testament’ are also available. We urge you to purchase from small booksellers struggling under the impact of Covid-19 and to buy ‘The Tradition’ if it is the only book you buy this year.

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