Prose from Poetry Magazine

Brooks’s Prosody: Three Sermons on the Warpland

Black and white photograph of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks speaking at the Wall of Respect in 1967.

As Gwendolyn Brooks famously said in her Report from Part One, “Until 1967 my own blackness did not confront me with a shrill spelling of itself” — 1967 being when she attended the Second Black Writers’ Conference at Fisk University. What she seems to have meant was that a different way of feeling, understanding, and writing blackness overcame her. For, to be sure, her work prior to this is grounded in black family, speakers, and issues. But that work was also cast in sonnets, the iambic pentameter line of blank verse, the traditional English prosody — the master’s tools, as I sometimes think of them (master, as in master and slave) — of which Brooks had shown herself to be a master, culminating in the Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen, a book that both acknowledges a debt to and deftly reworks another “white classic,” Virgil’s Aeneid. After Fisk, Brooks seems to have had a sort of crisis of prosodic consciousness; it’s as if she has to rethink what it means to use English prosodic tradition, now that she has subscribed to the Black Arts Movement’s imperative to speak specifically to a black audience, in language shaped primarily by motivating content, and less in terms of stylistic virtuosity. It’s not that her poems hadn’t been readable by blacks, but her prosody, in a sense, made for a receptive white audience — made her “palatable,” 
I want to say, even if in certain poems (“The Lovers of the Poor,” for example), she was skewering a white elite’s condescending attitude 
toward blacks. The challenge, for Brooks, was to come up with a 
poetry, and a prosody to go with it, that would speak not so much to a largely white academy as to the kinds of people she’d been documenting, the Bean Eaters, Satin-Legs Smith, and the Rangers, those gang members she’d begun working with in writing workshops in Chicago.

Many readers say that this is where Brooks’s work goes into decline, suggesting that she abandoned her prosodic gifts even as she exchanged a high literary idiom for a decidedly more demotic one. It is interesting how evolution in one writer can win praise, and in another be disparaged. What I want to look at here is how, in her suite of three sermons on the warpland, we can see Brooks finding a way to adapt, rather than sacrifice, her mastery of prosody to her new sense of blackness; and across the three sermons, we can see, as well, an enactment of Brooks’s wrestling with, straddling, and ultimately reconciling the seeming conflict between English prosody and the language of black revolution.

How to negotiate the inevitable braid of black and white in American history? “The Sermon on the Warpland” exemplifies that braid:

And several strengths from drowsiness campaigned
but spoke in Single Sermon on the warpland.

And went about the warpland saying No.
“My people, black and black, revile the River.
Say that the River turns, and turn the River.

Say that our Something in doublepod contains
seeds for the coming hell and health together.
Prepare to meet
(sisters, brothers) the brash and terrible weather;
the pains;
the bruising; the collapse of bestials, idols.
But then oh then! — the stuffing of the hulls!
the seasoning of the perilously sweet!
the heath! the heralding of the clear obscure!”

At the most obvious level, you can hear how, for the first three stanzas, each line is a pentameter line — mostly iambic — with the obvious exceptions of the foreshortened lines eight and ten. So, in the tradition of Claude McKay’s “The Harlem Dancer,” Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel,” and, contemporary with Brooks herself, Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage,” — and consistent with all of her work pre-Fisk — Brooks here, at the level of meter, uses English — white — prosody for black purposes, shaping the master’s language to her own subject matter, a decidedly non-white one. What I’m more interested in, though, is the rhyme scheme that governs these first three stanzas, one that unites these fourteen lines into a stylized sonnet. As you can see, we open with a rhyming couplet. Line three is the only line that finds no rhyme, deliberately, I’d say; the line itself ends with the word “No” — it seems appropriate that the imperative to resist “Yes” should resist rhyme’s closure. This is followed by the exact rhyme of “River” and “River.” But look at what happens after this: an interlocking set of rhymes which create no fewer than four instances of sonic chiasmus, abba, cddc, bddb, and bccb:

Contains         a
Together         b
Meet                c
Weather          b
Pains               a
Idols                d
Hulls               d
Sweet              c
Obscure          b

Cage within a cage within a cage, we might say — or frame within a frame within a frame. Chiasmus as a rhetorical device tends to 
suggest sometimes the comfort of containment, other times the claustrophobia of captivity. Brooks seems to be using chiasmus here not to answer but to provoke questions. How far is captivity from containment? What’s the difference between comfort and complacency, between claustrophobia and incipient rage? After which, she abandons the sonnet, and this seems to trigger anaphora (anaphora — an element of oratory as long ago as Thucydides and Cicero, but also a prominent device in the oratory of the black church).

Build now your Church, my brothers, sisters. Build
never with brick nor Corten nor with granite.
Build with lithe love. With love like lion-eyes.
With love like morningrise.
With love like black, our black — 
luminously indiscreet;
complete; continuous.

We’ve seen it earlier in this poem, but here it governs the stanza, three sentences opening with “build,” three with “with love like,” in a stanza of fairly steadily diminishing lines, metrically speaking: three pentameter, two trimeter, one tetrameter, and then a two-beat dimeter finale. But Brooks holds onto chiasmus. One straddles stanzas three and four: “(sisters, brothers)” at line nine and “brothers, sisters” at fifteen; and then, as if for final reinforcement, the last two lines have a chiasmus of rhyme:

Luminously indiscreet;        a         b
complete; continuous.          b         a

What to make of a cage, if cage it be, that sounds so lovely? Or is this the X — the chi of chiasmus — by which those who cannot sign 
otherwise leave their mark?

“The Sermon on the Warpland” shows Brooks using English prosody as a vehicle for exhorting a black audience to say no, to “Prepare to meet / ... / the pains” that will come with resisting the reviled River. In part, the combination of that form and content embodies the intertwinedness of blacks and whites, even as the poem’s final stanza 
suggests a departure from English prosody to one that we more associate with black culture. “The Second Sermon on the Warpland” strikes me as the enacting of a more complete departure. No ghost of a sonnet here, in this poem of four sections of widely varying length. Brooks is direct about this in section two, announcing (in a pentameter line) that “not the pet bird of poets, that sweetest sonnet, / shall straddle the whirlwind.” Rhyme all but falls away. Chiasmus is absent — no cage, no comfort here. Also gone is any sustained pentameter — 
where it appears, it gets quickly undercut by foreshortened lines. In section three, lines two to five are pentameter, but all three open with a reversed foot (a revolt from the iamb?) and two of them are on the baggy side because of some anapests in the mix. The shift from these lines to the three that follow feels like stepping into a space that’s quieter and more clear — it feels like freedom, a freedom linked to the absence of predictable sonic pattern:

All about are the cold places,
all about are the pushmen and jeopardy, theft — 
all about are the stormers and scramblers but
what must our Season be, which starts from Fear?
Live and go out.
Define and
medicate the whirlwind.

Restraint, and release, played out in such a way as to suggest not just prosodic restlessness but the restlessness of an entire people. And — or? — it also seems as if Brooks is arguing for a kind of equality at the level of prosody and, by extension, the level of human lives. Hence lines like “cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face / all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace” — pentameter and rhymed — are on equal footing with lines like “A garbageman is dignified / as any diplomat. / Big Bessie’s feet hurt like nobody’s business.” This is less a dismantling of English prosody than a rejection of its supremacy. There will have to be room made, the prosody tells us, for otherness, and on an equal footing. Not the least part of the prosody, here, is how all four sections are yoked together by the words “live” and “the whirlwind” at the end of each section, as if the relationship between the whirlwind of racial oppression and the need to live in the face of it were not just the one unavoidable fact, but strangely, an organizing principle — for the poem, yes, but also, implicitly, for the kind of communal energy required if resistance to injustice is to effect any real change.

The Third Sermon on the Warpland” is actually part of a sequence, Riot, but Brooks’s title suggests that we are to read this with an understanding of there having been two earlier sermons — hence, my consideration of the three together. “The Third Sermon” does stand apart, though, in not being governed by the imperative, there’s no sense of an addressee — rather, this sermon unfolds by exposition, a filmic narrative of a riot that has dialogue in a crowd, in which some lines read like stage directions in drama. The English pentameter that figured prominently in the first sermon, then seemed intertwined with demotic speech in the second, here becomes the minority; more often than not, what pentameter there is seems incidental, as it is in conversation. This seems fitting in a poem in which two philosophers, whom Brooks calls simply Black Philosopher and White Philosopher, seem to be in their own conversation as they get quoted across the poem — the Black Philosopher suggesting the violence to come as a result of white complacency, the White Philosopher pressing for hope in a time of despair, even as hope becomes force, hope manifested as black violence.

So, black rioting against white oppression = the eradication of English /white prosody, each an enactment of the other? Not quite. While Brooks has systematically pared away the traditional prosodic elements in the course of her three sermons, having cast aside the sonnet as irrelevant to social change in the second sermon, it seems she can’t — won’t — let go entirely. Near the end of the third sermon, I detect a sonnet. Not the single fourteen-line stanza of the poem that serves as an elegy for a dead woman — yes, it has fourteen lines, but not enough of the other elements to convince me it’s a sonnet. I mean the one fifteen-line stanza, whose first line announces itself as the title, “A Poem to Peanut,” in which Brooks presents a portrait of the Rangermen as the new heroes.

A Poem to Peanut.
“Coooooool!” purrs Peanut. Peanut is
Richard — a Ranger and a gentleman.           a
A Signature. A Herald. And a Span.               a
This Peanut will not let his men explode.
And Rico will not.
Neither will Sengali.
Nor Bop nor Jeff, Geronimo nor Lover.        b
These merely peer and purr,                           c
and pass the Passion over.                               b
The Disciples stir                                               c
and thousandfold confer                                  c
with ranging Rangermen;                                a
mutual in their “Yeah! —                                  d
this AIN’T all upinheah!”                                 d

You can see that the poem is almost entirely iambic. Four of the lines are iambic pentameter, and five of the last six lines are trimeter. Meanwhile, there’s a rhyme scheme of sorts, one that offers us a Shakespearean quatrain, as well as a rhyming couplet for an ending. The bcbcca of lines eight to thirteen aren’t exactly the sestet of a Petrarchan sonnet, but they suggest something of the same patterning of resolution that the sestet offers, even as the a rhyme of “Rangermen” ties the poem’s latter half to the words “gentleman” and “Span” at the poem’s beginning. I think Brooks wants us to think of the sonnet, as she wants us to think of heroic tradition — differently. Through the lens of blackness as activism, not as presentation piece. My sense is she stood somewhere between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. in terms of her sensibility. She recognizes the usefulness of violence, the necessity for it; but she also somewhere believes, to quote the third sermon’s opening line, that “The earth is a beautiful place” — she won’t have it destroyed. Likewise she won’t abandon the traditional English prosody that she so clearly loves. But she seems to have seen its limitations, if not made to adapt to cultural change. Most things revolutionary aren’t so much about newness as about understanding the past enough to know what to save of it, and to shape the rest into what, in effect, can bring the old forward to renewed relevance. From the evidence of her three sermons on the warpland, this is the achievement of Brooks after Fisk. Hardly a decline. Rather, she manages to move forward, her gifts intact but newly relevant, deployed in the service of a racial climate vastly different from where she first began.

Originally Published: May 30th, 2017

Referred to as “one of America’s most original, influential, and productive of lyric poets,” Carl Phillips is the author of a dozen books of poetry and two works of criticism. He was born in Everett, Washington in 1959, and his family moved frequently around the United States. He earned a BA from...