The poetry of Claude McKay defined and portrayed the experience of African-Americans during the years surrounding World War I, the Great Depression, and the first steps toward what would become the Harlem Renaissance. Six decades after McKay's death, Jericho Brown echoes the frustrations of McKay's generation, but Brown's voice is relays a degree of self-awareness -- urgent in 2011, impossible in 1921 when America was published in Liberator (Sherman, 1999), and a time when exigencies were about the people and less about the self.
Jericho Brown, American Poet. To experience another person's death or another person's torment, Jericho Brown would have the reader follow his emotions and then follow the words to an understanding. This is the way Jericho Brown writes -- this is the way he himself understands his own poetry.
I mean to write poems that are felt before they are understood. Of course, anyone who reads or hears my poems can tell that I have an investment in story and folklore, particularly as they are understood in the African-American literary tradition, but no matter how obvious the narrative, I have never thought that knowing exactly what is going on in a poem makes it attractive. (Brown,"Crossroads").
Brown's poetry is at once clear and obscure. Obscure, not because of style or technique or intent, but because Brown himself does not know where a poem will take him -- in its writing -- though he may know where it begins.
I hardly feel that I have any control or power over the "story" that begins to emerge from a poem while composing it. I do my best writing when I am most vulnerable to the writing, when I allow for the construction of images and lines that, in the midst of composing, frighten me (Brown, "Crossroads").
Many poets begin their writing by naming, if only to themselves, the reason or the emotion that triggered the desire to write a poem. But this is not the case for Brown, who explains that the sounds come first, and the writing only happens when he gives himself over to their embodiment. "Because I'm so interested in both music and voice, I find myself trying to figure the personality of the sounds as I am composing (Brown, "Crossroads")."
Music is a vital aspect of Brown's life and it underscores his approach to writing poetry. While he is creating his first drafts, he hears sounds -- which become the music of his poetry before the words do -- and interprets the voices that emerge from that discovery of sound. The words are birthed as a result of the coupling of what is heard and what is felt, as emotion and music meld to condition the space for his poetry.
Brown's poem, Langston Blue, exemplifies this amalgamation of sound, emotion, voice, and music. In Langston Blue, the word blood connotes the emotions that are the slurry in which the concrete of racial hatred hardens. Blood is dread, fear, sorrow, stain, and the slur of the South where a young black man bears that label instead of his name ((Poets.org"). Blood is life, family, and salvation. Brown has the reader examine every emotion that he harbors about the word blood. Relief comes only in the form of invocations -- and Gospel music, and The Blues, as sung by Bessie Smith and his bereft mother. If The Blues have an existence -- a persona as recognizable as Langston's -- the title of this poem is half eponymous. As Brown wrote, "Poems need not be about trees. Poems can be about and in the shape of the blues" (Brown, "Crossroads").
Jericho Brown does not accept the popular notion of erasure of identity as a path to creativity (Brown, "Crossroads"). He makes it clear that a poet must appreciate, understand, and convey the "vastness and variedness" of his individuality.
I am everyday feeling more and more homeless because of a kind of thinking on the part of artists of color and queer artists who call for an erasure of identity that is supposed to somehow allow them (and me?) to be better artists. Our lot in life as poets in this nation has a great deal to do with how many ways we can see a thing and accept its complexity as well as how many ways we can see ourselves and put into our art every inch of us (Brown, "Crossroads").
In Odd Jobs, Brown honors his identity, giving the reader a glimpse of a complex self and of a gay man living in the world, surrounded by women.
And not one friend their own age -- only
Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss
Them around, women they want to please.
And pray for the chance to say please to.
Jericho Brown more than meets his own standard for an American poet, who "must be vulnerable to her [his] work . . . so vulnerable that complete contradictions come through her [his] poems in a gorgeous way" (Brown, "Crossroads"). The requisite glorious contradictions are evident in the work of Charles McKay, a Jamaican who eventually embraced America.
America by Charles McKay. In standard sonnet form, Charles McKay sings us a song of home and betrayal and strength alloyed with hate. His imagery evokes a dysfunctional relationship between a child and a parent whose behavior is erratic and dangerous, say, because of drugs or alcoholism. Like a young child mistreated by his parents, McKay struggles with the recognition that nurture may be eclipsed by harm, and trust must erode in the face of betrayal. He experiences, as black artists have through the decades, what Gates has termed "an anxious amalgam of intimacy and enmity" with the culture of the time (Gates, 1994, ¶9). [1: Sonnets have three quatrains and a concluding couplet in iambic pentameter with a conventional rhyme scheme.]
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth! (McKay, America).
Giving himself over to a hope for the future and a longing for what could have been his -- given the richness he sees but cannot have -- McKay examines his inability to find fault with his beloved country. He declares that one man, who follows his righteous thoughts to fruition, rising up against power in search of justice, finds courage enough to stand his ground. For McKay to have "strength erect against her hate," it is not necessary to cloak his courage in hatred or fear or -- as a lesser man might -- to demean this country while he challenges it.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
As fate would dictate, he is susceptible to large and impersonal forces, sometimes working for the good, but as often as not, undercutting his well-being. McKay is sorry, not for himself, but for the promise that is America -- a promise that he sees being squandered in his day and eroded, such that, opportunity is stolen from a future time as well.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
The duality of pride and rage that black people experience in America is deftly described in McKay's phrasing "Stealing my breath of life" and "Her vigor flows like tides into my blood."
The Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930's marked a time when African-Americans began journeys. They traveled North, venturing into new artistic and cultural expressions…