by Jericho Brown
Copper Canyon, $17 paperback, 110 pp.
I used to think empathy was the solution to roughly 90% of the world’s problems. I especially believed that for the world of creative writing, empathy was the essential cornerstone for change and goodness. Novels, stories, and poems written with empathy, for the self and for others, were the great works of history and the current moment. Poet after poet, author after author, critic after critic, seemed to be arguing, either explicitly or implicitly, for a poetics of compassion. I would add that the difference between sympathy and empathy was and is not lost on anyone. Frank Bidart was not sympathizing with Herbert White, his fabricated necrophiliac, but there is a sense that Bidart understands White’s thought process. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that White was a character and not a real person, and more interestingly, a white man like Bidart.
Having empathy for those that espouse horrifying political policies, carry out horrendous crimes, or otherwise differentiated themselves from the norm is a way to try to reach out to those people and change how society views them, but I have come to realize that it’s also a get-out-of-jail-free card. Empathetic writing allows white writers to not only write about people who are otherwise like them (save for their outspoken racist beliefs or obvious fetishes and perversions), but also to write about people of color, members of the LGBTQIA community, anyone outside the literary norm, with carte blanche. They “walk a mile in their shoes;” their protagonists are friends with African-Americans or belong to other minority groups; and because these writers had performed this mental trick while in the writing process, no one could claim that they hadn’t written with empathy, even if it that empathy couldn’t be detected in the final work.
Now I’m not claiming that writers shouldn’t try to understand or learn from people different from them. Instead, I side with Namwali Serpall in her essay “The Banality of Empathy” in the New York Review of Books. Serpall argues that empathy is inherently “selfish”, and because literature is such “an incredible vehicle for virtual experience—we think and feel with characters. It simulates empathy, so we believe it stimulates it.” Moreso, “the empathy model of art can bleed too easily into the relishing of suffering by those who are safe from it. It’s a gateway drug to white saviorism, with its familiar blend of propaganda, pornography, and paternalism.”
Empathy is inherently a privilege. Only a certain community can actually practice it “correctly.” And when it is the only guiding ethics of one’s writing process, it undoes any actual understanding the author gained by putting themselves in someone else’s place. Empathy alone is not enough, or rather, it should be practiced in the conditions that Bidart uses it. Bidart has empathy for another white man, another version of himself, a man he himself could have been if certain events had transpired differently. That empathy does not hold water between those with privilege and those without. To change this notion, Serpall calls for a literary version of Hannah Arendt’s idea of representative thinking: “rather than virtually becoming another, [Arendt] asks you to imagine using your own mind but from their position. It’s a matter of keeping your distance, maintaining integrity, in both senses.”
What we need is a poetics of integrity, of maintaining one’s self while forcing it outside of its comfort zone. But at no point does this self become another self. Empathy must be there for the self, to understand how and why the self operates the way that it does (without excusing it, which would be sympathy), but integrity must be present to bridge the divide between those within the norm and those without.
An important prong of this critique of empathy is that by demanding that writing come from this shared space of understanding, it asks that writers of color write work that white audiences can process, which means that the poems or fictions have to be about suffering, oppression, violence. It makes the white reader feel better about themselves because they are now aware of this pain (this is what Serpall argues), but means that when a writer of color discusses other emotions the poems are dismissed as not as important as the others. Of course, no one makes this same claim when a white writer tackles joy, sex, love, family, etc. It is a fault of empathy that Jericho Brown is all too aware of in his new book The Tradition.
This concern with the misuse and misplaced elevation of empathy is vital to understanding The Tradition. It’s a title that instantly stakes its claim to be arguing back against the poetic “tradition” and the literary canon as a whole. The titular poem seems to establish itself within that tradition by listing the names of flowers, some of them even in Latin, “Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium,” “Stargazer. Foxglove,” and “Cosmos. Baby’s Breath,” but ends with a recitation of the names of black men killed by police officers: “John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.” By listing the flowers first, Brown carves out a space that white readers would be familiar with (who has not read countless poems about flowers?) and then attacks that space for not dealing with more pressing matters such as police brutality and the unjust killings of black men. It makes the white reader uncomfortable, a feeling I admit to feeling upon my first reading (and still in my subsequent readings), because poetry as comfort is a privilege. It should not be an expectation.
Brown also exposes the flaws of the literary tradition by creating a new poetic form, called the “duplex.” The form is a synthesis of parts of other poetic forms— the sonnet and the ghazal— which allows Brown to both demonstrate his technical ability and skill that the literary norm would embrace and to also destroy the notion that form is static. When poets talk about form outside of established structures like the sonnet or the villanelle, they mean that a poem with form is aware of its inner components and its line breaks, stanzas, meter, and more work to make the poem more than its parts. But poets have, until recently, been content to let the classical forms be and not add to their number. Brown’s duplex changes that. Its rules, such as they can be gleaned from the poems themselves, are that the poem consists of fourteen lines in couplets, that the couplets alternate in either being left-aligned or indented, that excepting the first and second lines, each line contains roughly the same language as the line before it, and that the final line is exactly the same as the first line.
In first “Duplex” of Brown’s book, on page 18, the poem opens with “A poem is a gesture towards home./ It makes dark demands I call my own.” It then details the speaker’s relationship with their abusive father and how one can love their father despite his actions, and then ends with “No sound beating ends where it began./ None of the beaten end up how we began./ A poem is a gesture towards home.” Though the duplex is by nature a cyclical and symmetrical form, Brown forces the language to move towards a new idea even as it restates the same idea that began the poem. From starting with a line that seems to indicate the poem is an ars poetica, we wind up learning that poetry for this speaker is a way to process their traumatic childhood as well as a way to reclaim it. It is both the old idea and the new, a combination that serves as an implicit criticism of a literary community that is almost always resistant to change.
However, Brown’s greatest denunciation of poetic tradition comes from his refusal to write poems that make space for white readers, a fundamental requirement of “writing with empathy.” This is clear in poems like “Good White People,” in which the speaker asks of the reader “…to forgive/ My grandmother with her good / Hair and her good white people / And her certified good slap across / Your mouth.” The speaker apologizes for their grandmother believing in such a thing as “good white people,” for not realizing that “All is stained. She was ugly./ I’m ugly. You’re ugly too./ No such thing as good white people.” Brown creates no space for empathetic whiteness in this final line, because even the most well-meaning white person, eager to implicate themselves whenever possible, does so to make themselves more comfortable with their privilege.
It’s easy as a white person to read this last line and vigorously nod your head, snap your fingers, but Brown didn’t write that line for you or me. He didn’t write it to create space for our empathy. I couldn’t tell you why he did write that line, but if we approach it from a desire to understand it within ourselves, and not from pretending to be a self that we are not, we might get closer to a truth. We might never get there, but that’s the point of a poetics (and ethics) of integrity, of working and struggling to get better without any promise of a happy ending.
I am myself skeptical of replacing one nice-sounding word, empathy, with another, integrity. As writers and readers we should always be hesitant and wary of silver-bullet solutions. I offer this idea of a poetics of integrity as one idea to co-exist alongside other poetics and ethics that make space for contradictions and complexity, for writers of color and of different orientations, that fully embrace the impossibility of ever truly understanding another person. We must work on developing literature which rewards the desire to have true empathy but doesn’t deliver it, literature that instills trust in the humanity of others without ever indisputably proving it. The Tradition serves as a fitting call-to-arms for this new approach, and we need more books, and more poets like Jericho Brown, to achieve it.