May 21, 2020

Jericho Brown’s Historic Pulitzer Prize Win in Poetry

Jericho Brown, a previous judge for the Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Award, is the 2020 Pulitzer Prize Winner in poetry. In light of my previous post on awards, I was elated to hear this historic news: a black, gay man won the Pulitzer Prize. (Especially during our current times, a bit of good news like this goes a long way.)

If you have not yet read The Tradition by Jericho Brown, rush to get the book (preferably from your local independent bookstore). This collection of poems interrogates how and why culture has grown accustomed to various horrors like rape, police brutality, shootings, etc. There is urgency in the speaker’s voice, addressing how these traumas are carried by one’s body, especially the black body, and questioning how someone can possibly bear the magnitude of these now-everyday atrocities.

Jericho Brown reading at the Claremont Public Library last October

In The Tradition, Brown has also built the readers a vessel, one that sustains the emotional heights and tensions of the collection’s subject matter. Through his invention of Duplex poems, Brown employs refrains to create a form that feels like a ghazal, or even a sestina. Yet, each repeated line and short couplet takes on a slight variation, one that imbues the previous thought with a different shade—reflecting the poet’s thought process, his self-editing and/or edification. The Duplex pushes forward with an initial line that the poet also ends with, but that initial line carries the connotations of all the preceding refrains and couplets. (Read this Duplex poem from Poetry Magazine, which is also included in his book.)

Along with giving readers much to think about, Brown reminds readers of the generative power of form. The Duplex creates parameters for the writer to self-interrogate through the poem, which can often illuminate the many reasons for why the initial thought, emotion, and premise exists in the first place. The Duplex does not only have to be a prompt for poetry, I might add. In an age where most of our communication is through emails, texts, tweets, posts, etc., those text boxes can be spaces to exercise incisiveness & brevity. The limitation of these types of communication can force someone to recognize the power of a written line, and how one line can contain multitudes.

I’m thrilled to have read and reread Jericho Brown’s The Tradition because there is so much to glean about the inventiveness, power, and beauty of language. The reasons to celebrate Jericho Brown’s Pulitzer Prize win are endless.

—Stacey Park