Can a Poem Be a Kind of Prayer?

"The Tradition" book cover design by Phil Kovacevich and art by Ralphi Burgess. (Copper Canyon Press)

"The Tradition" book cover design by Phil Kovacevich and art by Ralphi Burgess. (Copper Canyon Press)

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As a poet, Jericho Brown has been working with religious language for some time. His award-winning collection “The New Testament” includes poems “1 Corinthians 13:11”, “Psalm 150” and “Hebrews 13” — which should sound familiar if you were diligent in Sunday school, but they tackle topics you might not expect based on the source material.

Charles Monroe-Kane sat down with Brown and asked him why his poems are always turning to worship, to the Bible — and to religion. Brown did several readings for us from both “The New Testament” and his forthcoming book of poetry “The Tradition,” which you can listen to below.

Deliverance

“I grew up in a black church where so much of what I saw and what I heard was such a good foundation for poetry,” Brown says. “There’s so much pageantry and pomp and circumstance in the black church.”

In “Deliverance”, Brown reflects on his childhood Sundays and being an adult today.

 

Romans 12:1

The Bible passage Romans 12:1 reads “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”

In his “Romans 12:1,” Brown subverts the verse and the notion of a sacrificial body.

“I was like, ‘What about the enjoyment of the body?’,” Brown asks. “Is it possible to reach heaven without the sacrifice of the body, but also through the enjoyment of the body? Through physical, through lovemaking.”

 

Psalm 150

In another biblical poem, Brown connects worship with the body. He draws on the difference between sex and lovemaking and the difference between prayer and worship.

Like many of his poems, he ends “Psalm 150” in prayer.

 

Stand

“There’s one thing that I love more than poetry, and I’ve always been trying to figure out how to get into my poems. So the one thing that I love probably more than poetry is cuddling,” Brown says. “I think it’s the best thing in the world when you can just hold someone or get held.”