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From the Archive: Pulitzer Prize Winner Jericho Brown’s “Invention”
For the month of May, Harriet will feature blog posts from the archive, along with a brief introduction. This week’s post, “Invention” by Jericho Brown, was originally published in April 2019.
What if we thought of poets as inventors who take language apart and put it back together again in different forms, to see how it works, what it can do or be made to do? In “Invention,” Jericho Brown invites readers into his process of creating the poems that would make up his 2019 Pulitzer Prize winning collection The Tradition . Brown began writing these poems while recovering from a severe case of the flu, and his descriptions of illness and a heightened sense of his own mortality resonate with our current moment. Rather than starting out with words, Brown says, he began with a form—the sonnet—and with a set of questions: “What does a sonnet have to do with anybody’s content? And if the presumed content of a sonnet is that it’s a love poem, how do I—a believer in love—subvert that. What is a Jericho Brown sonnet?”
I do wish we’d talk more seriously about what the flu really is. Everyone I knew up until the winter of 2017-2018 would discuss it as if it were a very bad cold. But that particular flu season, so many people died of the illness that everyone I knew was telling me to be careful. People were suddenly talking about the flu as if it were a car accident I could avoid: “Be careful.”
When I caught the flu in early 2018, I was pretty sure I was going to die… and not because I knew of other people who died after getting it. I thought I was going to die because the illness puts those who have it in a proximity to mortality that only can be compared to certain kinds of near misses. I’ll use the car again. If you’ve ever almost been in a car wreck but weren’t, then you know the associated panic that overcomes your body. It’s a short panic, perhaps only a few seconds. The flu amounts to feeling those seconds without pause every day for several days. The aches and pains and weight loss and fevers have a lot to do with that panic, yes. But I think what adds to it is consciousness. I became aware that I was surviving these severe pains, and that awareness made it clear that there was a large chance I might not survive.
Once I began to get better, I got proof again that I am a poet. I mean that I went about trying to do many of the things I had been planning to do in, through, and with poems. And I gave up a good deal of sleep to do it… which, by the way, is not advisable for getting over the God damned flu. I didn’t run to get in a relationship or to try and finally see the Grand Canyon. I all the more wanted to use the time which now felt more precious to sit my ass down somewhere and write the poems of my life.
By mid to late January, I had already written several of the sonnet subversions that were beginning to make their way into a book which is out now. I didn’t yet know that book would be called The Tradition. One such subversion that I had thought through for about 10 years—while washing dishes and cleaning the tub and grading papers and falling asleep next to one form of earthly beauty or another—was a sonnet crown that only included the repeated lines of the sonnet. Yes, I’m so angry I spent years thinking of ways to gut the sonnet.
I was asking myself: What does a sonnet have to do with anybody’s content? And if the presumed content of a sonnet is that it’s a love poem, how do I—a believer in love—subvert that. What is a Jericho Brown sonnet? Though I may not be, I do feel like a bit of a mutt in the world. I feel like a person who is hard to understand, given our clichés and stereotypes about people. So I wanted a form that in my head was black and queer and Southern. Since I am carrying these truths in this body as one, how do I get a form that is many forms?
Meditating on the crown as a series of couplets with something murdered between each line led me to think more about what the ghazal manages through the juxtaposition of the two lines that make up each of its couplets. I was questioning my need to write the very strict ghazal, “Hustle,” that appears in my second book The New Testament. I was wondering if my rigid used of the form meant to mirror its end-word, “prison,” was worth what I conceived as an emotional register or if it could have done some kind of harm by reifying the abhorrent and racist fact of prisons in our culture. Be careful.
I needed to remember other ways to think about ghazals in order to make the idea of my new form more palpable. I re-read Robert Bly’s The Night Abraham Called Out to the Stars —a really beautiful and vulnerable and forgiving short book by Bly—and I re-read Adrienne Rich’s “Shooting Script”—which has always been helpful to me when I have questions about possibilities for vernacular.
I hadn’t written a thing and had no idea where to start and was fascinated by the fact that I was in the midst of inventing a form starting with the form itself and not with a single line of poetry. But it felt exhilarating to know I was doing so much of it unconsciously.
I should remind everyone who knows me that I do not believe that poems are made of our beliefs. Instead, I believe poems lead us to and tell us what we really believe. I think poems—working with language and seeing where it may lead us, seeing what kinds of choices we make when we have to find a rhyme or a syllable—tell us things about our individual and collective subconscious minds. I write in forms because formal work helps to push me toward saying what I couldn’t imagine I would say in poems.
In order to test whether my form could be made flesh, I printed every line I have ever written and cut them up until I had little slivers of lines going as far back as 2005 (when a computer was stolen). I keep everything. And every day of my life, I try to use and repurpose lines that haven’t found themselves in a poem.
I could not fit it all on the floors of my living room and bedroom and on my dining room table. A literal need for space made one of my first decisions for me. The new form would only have 9 to 11 syllables further marrying East to West with lines that would probably echo blank verse through an approximation brought about through syllabics. I put the longer and the shorter lines in the bathroom and kitchen (and later made “Hero” and “Foreday in the Morning” and “I Know What I Love” out of them) and focused on the lines I finally had room for on my floors that were less likely to get wet. Careful.
The earliest drafts of the duplex were composed of couplets formed simply because the juxtaposition of two lines woke me up. One may have been from ’07 while another may have been from ’13. Here’s an example.
The poems became more whole and revisable when I saw in them the need for tonal shifts made possible by the blues lyric. Starting at the fourth line, every other line of the poem aims at “incongruous humor that…becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears.” The blues allowed for a poem that we teachers like to describe as “voice-y,” which is to say that the poems begin to take on more personality in those moments. I think this becomes clear in some of the other duplexes published in that same issue of The American Poetry Review (in which the repetition present in the form lends itself to association and metaphor in some duplexes, and to narrative in others)::
A poem is a gesture toward home.
It makes dark demands I call my own.
Memory makes demands darker than my own:
My last love drove a burgundy car.
My first love drove a burgundy car.
He was fast and awful, tall as my father.
Steadfast and awful, my tall father
Hit hard as a hailstorm. He’d leave marks.
Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark
Like the sound of a mother weeping again.
Like the sound of my mother weeping again,
No sound beating ends where it began.
None of the beaten end up how we began.
A poem is a gesture toward home.
I decided to call the form a duplex because something about its repetition and its couplets made me feel like it was a house with two addresses. It is, indeed, a mutt of a form as so many of us in this nation are only now empowered to live fully in all of our identities. I wanted to highlight the trouble of a wall between us who live within a single structure. What happens when that wall is up and what happens when we tear it down? How will we live together? Will we kill each other? Can we be more careful?
The opposite of rape is understanding
A field of flowers called paintbrushes—
A field of flowers called paintbrushes,
Though the spring be less than actual.
Though the spring be less than actual,
Men roam shirtless as if none ever hurt me.
Men roam that myth. In truth, one hurt me.
I want to obliterate the flowered field,
To obliterate my need for the field
And raise a building above the grasses,
A building of prayer against the grasses,
My body a temple in disrepair.
My body is a temple in disrepair.
The opposite of rape is understanding.
I wrote several of these that are not in the book, many of which I’m still revising. One recent one will be out in The Progressive soon. And the final duplex in the book is a cento made of lines from all the other duplexes in the book, and it appears in Vinyl here.
Of course, I hope that you’ll read The Tradition , and I’d love for you to write a duplex. In the meantime, stay alive. Drink water. Read poems. Be good to your friends. Take care of yourself.
Here are the boundaries:
Write a ghazal that is also a sonnet that is also a blues poem of 14 lines, giving each line 9 to 11 syllables.
The first line is echoed in the last line.
The second line of the poem should change our impression of the first line in an unexpected way.
The second line is echoed and becomes the third line.
The fourth line of the poem should change our impression of the third line in an unexpected way.
This continues until the penultimate line becomes the first line of the couplet that leads to the final (and first) line.
For the variations of repeated lines, it is useful to think of the a a’ b scheme of the blues form.
Originally Published: May 15th, 2020
Jericho Brown’s first book, Please (New Issues, 2008), won the American Book Award, and his second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon, 2014), was named one of the best poetry books of the year by Library Journal and received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. His third collection, The Tradition (Copper Canyon, 2019), won the Pulitzer Prize…