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An Introduction to Gwendolyn Brooks

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Elizabeth Alexander


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April 10, 2017

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Essays
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Since she began publishing her tight lyrics of Chicago’s great South Side in the 1940s, Gwendolyn Brooks has been one of the most influential American poets of the twentieth century. Her poems distill the very best aspects of Modernist style with the sounds and shapes of various African-American forms and idioms. Brooks is a consummate portraitist who found worlds in the community she wrote out of, and her innovations as a sonneteer remain an inspiration to more than one generation of poets who have come after her. Her career as a whole also offers an example of an artist who was willing to respond and evolve in the face of the dramatic historical, political, and aesthetic changes and challenges she lived through.

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born in 1917 in Topeka, Kansas, the daughter of Keziah Wims Brooks and David Anderson Brooks. Her father aspired to be a doctor and studied medicine for a year and a half at Fisk, but ended up working as a janitor. He was the son of a runaway slave. Her mother was a teacher before her marriage and then turned her full attention to homemaking, attending fiercely to the creative talent of young Gwendolyn from an early age. Her mother would tell her that she was going to be “the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.” The family moved to Chicago shortly after Brooks’s birth, and she would spend the rest of her life on that city’s South Side—a great “Negro metropolis”—through years when the innovation, strength, struggle, and vision of its black residents gave her a backdrop and context for all that would interest her in her work.

The Chicago of Brooks’s formative years bustled with creative and political energy. Black Southern migrants from the second wave of the Great Migration flocked to the city in large numbers. In 1936, Harlem was the only neighborhood in the United States with a larger black population than Chicago’s South Side. For many of the Chicago characters in Brooks’s poems, as well as its real-life residents, the rural South was close at hand in memory and ways even as people navigated the rough and ready wind-whipped city. The South represented the beauty of home ways, but it was also the economically, spiritually, and physically violent home of white supremacy.

In 1935, the WPA Federal Writers’ Project began, and Chicago was a hive of subsidized artistic activity that often dovetailed with progressive interracial (if problematically so) political movements. More artists participated in the Federal Writers’ Project in Chicago than in any other city in the United States. In 1936, the novelist Richard Wright formed the South Side Writers group that included poets Frank Marshall Davis and Margaret Walker, playwright Theodore Ward, and the admired poet-critic Edward Bland, who died in World War II and whom Brooks memorialized in a poem. In the flourishing years from 1935 to the end of World War II, Chicago was home at various times to a collection of creative people that rivaled the Harlem Renaissance. There were artists such as Charles Sebree, Eldzier Cortor, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, Gordon Parks, Hughie Lee-Smith, Archibald Motley, and writers such as Wright, Walker, Davis, Fenton Johnson, Margaret Cunningham Danner, Margaret Burroughs, Bernard Goss, Arna Bontemps, Frank Yerby, Marita Bonner, and Willard Motley. Dancer Katherine Dunham was finishing her studies in anthropology at the University of Chicago. Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes would frequently pass through and connect with that crowd. Claude McKay attended the publication party for Brooks’s first book. In the first installment of her autobiography, Report From Part One, Brooks describes the exciting social life that she and her husband, Henry, enjoyed in the early 1940s:

My husband and I knew writers, knew painters, knew pianists and dancers and actresses, knew photographers galore. There were always weekend parties to be attended where we merry Bronzevillians could find each other and earnestly philosophize sometimes on into the dawn, over martinis and Scotch and coffee and an ample buffet. Great social decisions were reached. Great solutions for great problems were provided. . . . Of course, in that time, it was believed, still, that the society could be prettied, quieted, cradled, sweetened, if only people talked enough, glared at each other yearningly enough, waited enough.

The black press was also a powerful force. John Sengstacke was building the Chicago Defender into the most noted black paper in the country, where one could regularly read cutting-edge political news, poetry, and the column by Langston Hughes, which began in 1942. John Johnson, who went on to found and publish Jet, Ebony, Sepia, and Negro Digest/BlackWorld, under the aegis of his Johnson Publications, was in a writers’ group with Brooks.

Brooks attended junior college, began working, and soon married Henry Blakely, who was also a poet. They were both intensely devoted to their work, though like most poets they did other work for money. Their first child, Henry Jr., was born in 1940. In 1941, Brooks joined a poetry workshop organized by a wealthy white woman, Inez Cunningham Stark, who had been the president of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago and had helped bring the likes of Leger, Prokofiev, and Le Corbusier to the city. Stark also had a long affiliation with Poetry, one of the most influential literary magazines of its time. In Stark’s all-black workshop, held in the South Shore Community Center, writers studied Modernist poets and rigorously critiqued one another’s work. In Brooks’s teenage correspondence with James Weldon Johnson (whose 1922 and 1931 editions of the Book of American Negro Poetry would undoubtedly have brought the best of the African-American tradition to the young poet), Johnson had urged her to read Eliot, Pound, and Cummings; she was well read on her own, and so already familiar with the Modernists. But the intensive group study and conversation in the Stark workshop was galvanizing. They studied Poetry magazine (which Brooks continued to support by creating prizes for the magazine over the years) and moved forward in intent and focus with their poems and ambitions. Though Brooks had first published poems when she was a teenager, during this period she began to see publication in serious journals and to win prizes.

Brooks’s first collection of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, was published by Harper & Brothers in 1945. The poet Paul Engle wrote the book’s first review, in the Chicago Tribune book section: “The publication of A Street in Bronzeville is an exceptional event in the literary life of Chicago, for it is the first book of a solidly Chicago person.” He called her a “young but permanent talent.”

The poems of A Street in Bronzeville incorporate many aspects of poetic tradition and conversation. Brooks is attuned to the sounds heard and spoken in various spaces on Chicago’s South Side. “If you wanted a poem,” she wrote in her autobiography, “you only had to look out of a window. There was material always, walking or running, fighting or screaming or singing.” She writes of the front and back yards, beauty shops, vacant lots, and bars. Her formal range is most impressive, as she experiments with sonnets, ballads, spirituals, blues, full and off-rhymes. She is nothing short of a technical virtuoso. Her incisive, distilled portraits of individuals taken together give us a collage of a very specific community, in the fashion of Edgar Lee MastersSpoon River Anthology and Jean Toomer’s Cane. And in that keen and satisfying specificity are universal questions: How do people tend their dreams in the face of day-to-day struggle? How do people constitute community? How do communities respond when their young are sent off to a war full of ironies and contradictions? How do black communities grapple with the problems of materialism, racism, and blind religiosity? Brooks took especially seriously the inner lives of young black women: their hopes, dreams, aspirations, disappointments. How do they make their analytical voices heard in their communities? She continued to explore these themes in her second book, Annie Allen.

In the first half of the twentieth century, black writers were still confronted with the pressure, as had Phillis Wheatley, to effectively “prove” their literacy—and, thus, their humanity—through mastery of European forms. Paul Laurence Dunbar, for example, was a soul tormented by many demons, and he lamented the constraints white audiences placed on his work. According to James Weldon Johnson, Dunbar often said, “I’ve got to write dialect poetry; it’s the only way I can get them to listen to me,” and toward the end of his brief life he confessed to Johnson, “I have not grown. I am writing the same things I wrote ten years ago, and I am writing them no better.” Countee Cullen knew that many saw him as representative and the future of the race and its prime ambassador on the cultural front. So writing expertly within prescribed European forms was a particular, if implicit, pressure on both these relatively successful black poets, Brooks’s generational predecessors whom we know she read and studied and who, like her, favored the sonnet. This form suited Dunbar and Cullen and they spread their wings elegantly within it, but they also labored under the expectation that certain rules must be followed in order to assure one’s place within the mainstream canon. Brooks, on the other hand, worked with expert subtlety to make the sonnet her own.

In A Street in Bronzeville, she concludes with a series of off-rhyme sonnets on black soldiers in World War II, “Gay Chaps at the Bar.” Brooks grasped the profound contradictions these soldiers faced, fighting for their country but knowing all along that they would remain second-class citizens—think, for example, of black soldiers who liberated concentration camps being forced to ride in the back cars of military trains upon their return while German prisoners of war rode in the front. Brooks said that the sonnets of “Gay Chaps at the Bar” are off-rhyme because “I felt it was an off-rhyme situation.” Within conventional form, Brooks made subtle breaks so that her poetics underscore and enact what she speaks of. In so doing, she makes the form do something unexpected and makes an argument for the absolute rightness and necessity of innovating from within that form to make poetry that speaks powerfully to and out of its black reality.

“The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith” is the longest poem in A Street. Brooks wrote it after Richard Wright evaluated an early version of the book’s manuscript for Harpers and observed that most successful volumes of poems had a long centerpiece poem around which the book coalesced. “Sundays” is a tour de force that showcases much Brooksian strength: language that is as “rich” and “elaborate” as Satin-Legs himself but that at the same time displays awareness of its own decoration as well as of the shortcomings of decoration. Satin-Legs is a dandy whose self-image is expressed in his rococo dress and way with the ladies. “He sheds, with his pajamas, shabby days,” Brooks writes, and in that shedding and subsequent ornamentation always leaves behind “his desertedness, his intricate fear, the postponed resentments and the prim precautions.” He is in many ways a pitiable character. Brooks shows us the hysterical pitch of his wish for life’s beauty (“life must be aromatic. / There must be scent, somehow there must be some.”) and yet his wish for and will to beauty is powerful, true, and beautiful unto itself. He loves artifice but also has a “heritage of cabbage and pigtails, / Old intimacy with alleys, garbage pails, / Down in the deep (but always beautiful) South / Where roses blush their blithest (it is said) / And sweet magnolias put Chanel to shame.” Brooks also never lets us forget, in the subtlest way, that Satin-Legs’ life is set against a backdrop of economic and racial challenge.

The poem is at its mock-heroic best when Brooks takes the reader through Satin-Legs’ closet: “Let us proceed. Let us inspect, together / With his meticulous and serious love, / The innards of this closet.” Here she echoes Eliot’s Prufrock—“Let us go then, you and I”—another sad character in a similarly ironic “love song” whose love of language and beauty walks a path toward spiritual and emotional drowning. She takes great poetic pleasure in describing Satin-Legs’ “wonder-suits in yellow and in wine, / Sarcastic green and zebra-striped cobalt,” and yet her empathy forces her to note, without condescension, “People are so in need, in need of help. / People want so much that they do not know.” The poem is mock-heroic, lament, and ballad all at once. Brooks goes beneath the masks of thwarted masculinity to show us “men estranged / From music and from wonder and from joy / But far familiar with the guiding awe / Of foodlessness.”

In her second book, Annie Allen, Brooks invented a form she called the “anniad” for her heroine, a “plain black girl” named Annie Allen whose interior life is richly detailed and deserving its own form; the name of course echoed the Iliad and the Aeneid. She won the Pulitzer Prize for the book, the first African-American to be so honored. J. Saunders Redding praised Annie Allen in Saturday Review of Literature but said, “I do not want to see Miss Brooks’s fine talents dribble away in the obscure and the too oblique.” This note would be sounded intermittently throughout her early career by those who were not responsive to her very particular sense of aesthetics as well as those who expected black literature to speak clearly and directly “to the people” and “their issues.” Her response in later years to those pressures would prove dramatic.

Brooks and Blakely’s second child, Nora, was born in 1951. Throughout the 1950s Brooks raised her children, reviewed books, worked at her poems, and wrote and published the novel Maud Martha. She cast the book as a novel in hopes it would earn her more money than the meager spoils that even a Pulitzer prize–winning poet could expect. Maud Martha was well reviewed when it appeared, but it wasn’t until the 1980s, with black feminist scholarly interest in teaching and writing about the book, that its extraordinariness became fully appreciated and the book found its place in larger conversations about the African-American novel and formal innovation.

In 1963 she accepted her first teaching job and also published her third collection of poems, The Bean Eaters. Many poems in that book were explicitly tied to social issues of the day (though no more so than her poems about World War II and the Bronzeville neighborhood), such as her two poems about Emmett Till, “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” and “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” and “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” which is set in the context of the violent battles for school desegregation. She also further honed the concise short lyric in poems such as “The Bean Eaters,” “Old Mary,” and her most famous poem, “We Real Cool”:

          We real cool. We
          Left school. We

          Lurk late. We
          Strike straight. We

          Sing sin. We
          Thin gin. We

          Jazz June. We
          Die soon.

The poem’s brilliance lies in its economy and manipulation of space. By the end, the missing “we” that the poem’s pattern has led us to anticipate is a yawning chasm, the absence of the we, these young black boys, from the poem and from the earth once they have frittered their lives away. Brooks read the poem with a swift, whispery “we,” moving quickly past the word and using it metronomically to punctuate the rhythm of the poem. The poem’s bebop seduces, as the boys at the pool hall are seduced by the finger-popping siren song of the street, which may make you finger-pop but ultimately offers nothing that lasts.

“Bronzeville Woman in a Red Hat” tells a small, explosive story of a white woman who is horrified to see her child kissed by the black maid. Brooks concentrates all the energy and focus of the poem on the single moment in which the white mother witnesses this kiss and experiences:

          Heat at the hairline, heat between the bowels,
          Examining seeming coarse unnatural scene,
          She saw all things except herself serene:
          Child, big black woman, pretty kitchen towels.

This is a scenario Brooks has explored in poems like “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters . . .”: the corrosive effects of racism on the children and white women who are a part of its system. She critiques ideologies of domestic order and white femininity that would have white women believe that the pedestals on which they’ve been placed are desirable and secure. That devastating line, “She saw all things except herself serene” is where Brooks puts the mirror to her character’s face and exposes the woman’s sense of superiority and order.

Most critics, and Brooks herself, divide her creative life into two parts. The dividing line was 1967, when at the Fisk writers’ conference—in the confrontational midst of vibrant young black writers who were envisioning a new social order and the role the arts should play in it—she had a revelation. “It frightens me to realize that if I had died before the age of fifty,” she wrote in her autobiography, “I would have died a ‘negro’ fraction.” She soon left the mainstream publishing house Harper and Row and intensified her relationship and affiliation with young black poets such as Haki Madhubuti (formerly Don L. Lee), wearing her hair in what she called a “natural,” that most symbolic of hairstyles, the Afro. Further, the style of her work changed discernibly. The tight formal coil of her previous work loosened and the allusions and references were no longer as dense.

Her subject matter did not change—her subjects were still mostly black people who lived in the kitchenette apartments of Bronzeville. Brooks was always clear in her work about who black people were and what it meant to write about them. Her final collection for Harper and Row was In the Mecca, published in 1968. Brooks tried to write this important poem for over thirty years—including a version in prose—after her brief stint working for a charlatan “spiritual adviser” named French who sold love and luck potions door to door in the Mecca apartment building in Chicago. The poem centers on the drama of a child named Pepita, who has gone missing in the warrens of the decrepit building. We meet the building’s residents who together form a portrait of a black community along the lines of A Street in Bronzeville. But in “In the Mecca” the community is in crisis and has fallen prey to its own problems. The child, who is a poet and the hope of her family and community, is found murdered under the bed of one of the building’s residents. The poem ends and so closes the first half of the book in an awful silence that asks, in 1968, what next? The poems in In the Mecca (from “Boy Breaking Glass” to “The Second Sermon on the Warpland”) serve as an answer to that question as the community reconstitutes itself and finds a philosophy (“Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind”) with which to move forward.

After In the Mecca, Brooks published only with black presses, from Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press to her own The David Company, ending with Madhubuti’s Third World Press. She continued to explore form and its challenges in her poems as she asked herself what it meant for her to be “an African poet.” The long poem “The Near-Johannesburg Boy,” written before the end of apartheid and with its powerful refrain “We shall flail in the Hot Time,” concludes without punctuation. Brooks said she did that “because there’s no punctuation in that situation.” She also coined the term and form “verse journalism” (as she had coined “sonnet-ballad” earlier) for the remarkable piece commissioned by Ebony magazine and published in August 1971, “In Montgomery,” which explored that seat of the civil rights movement in the words of its residents, after the whirl of that “hot time” was stilled. The poem was recently published in book form with other poems, some never before collected, in the posthumous book of the same name.

Brooks’s self-commentary was always pithy and vivid. In an interview conducted by Professor Joanne Gabbin, who created the Furious Flower Poetry Festival at James Madison University to commemorate Brooks’s work specifically and African-American poetry in general, Brooks made these assessments: “I am ‘an organic’ Chicagoan.” “The Black experience is any experience that a Black person has.” “I want to report; I want to record. I go inside myself, bring out what I feel, put it on paper, look at it, pull out all of the clichés. I will work hard in that way.” “I don’t like the term African American. It is very excluding. I like to think of Blacks as family. . . . As a people, we are not of one accord on what we should be called. Some people say it doesn’t matter, ‘call me anything.’ I think that is a pitiful decision.”

Brooks titled her collected poems Blacks. She continually strove to articulate an unambiguous race pride in a woman’s voice that was true to the complex and contradictory poetic details of black people’s lives. She was not hyperbolical; she wrote of mighty heroes and those with feet of clay. In her very celebratoriness she practiced a kind of sober love for community. In In the Mecca, for example, she described “blackness stern and blunt and beautiful, / organ-rich blackness telling a terrible story.” She makes her readers think emotionally and philosophically about what it is to be black and therefore human, to struggle through blackness to struggle against and within one’s community. She made public her own struggle for racial self-acceptance in her autobiography, and she was a pioneer in her presentation of the intimate perspectives of young black protagonists whose ideas often ran counter to any expected communal doctrine.

In December 2000, Brooks died at 83. Her loved ones at her bedside said that she died literally pen in hand. On the day of her funeral, Chicago saw a snowstorm wilder and fiercer than any in years. Nonetheless, people came from all over to celebrate that great life, soul, and artistic accomplishment. There was a sense of an era coming to a close. Brooks’s work moved with the times, but her early poems remained indelible. In the 1940s her remarkable voice burst on the scene, and she was an acclaimed poet for the entire second half of the twentieth century, taking us from the age of the Harlem Renaissance through twenty years past the Black Arts and Black Power movements. She was a central figure in the equally potent parallel movements in Chicago, the late years of the Chicago renaissance in the early 1940s and then the Chicago Black Arts movement, which in a sense was institutionalized with the Gwendolyn Brooks Center at Chicago State University and the creative writing MFA there (only the second at a predominately black university), which uses writers of Africa and the African Diaspora as its core.

The late jazz-folk singer Oscar Brown, Jr., with whom Brooks worked in community arts in the early 1960s in Chicago, sang a song called “Elegy,” which is Brooks’s “of DeWitt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery” set to music. The poem invokes the spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” but as Brown sang it, he invoked no tonal remnant of the original. The poem refuses to “carry me home.” Perhaps there is no heaven for DeWitt Williams, no heaven for so many “plain” black boys and girls, those whom Brooks “loved so well” in her poems. The repetition of “sweet” in the line “sweet sweet chariot” resists the full match of the spiritual reference and emphasizes instead the sweet life DeWitt and so many like him loved and which in part took him down: sweet women, sweet wine, “liquid joy.” And yet, true sweetness, too, which Brooks knew and understood and respected because she knew and respected the people she wrote about. She wrote truly great poems whose technical achievements are still guiding many poets. The taut strength of her lines, her formal rigor combined with subtle invention, her syntactical originality, all hold up over the years. At the end of all of this work, its sense of intimacy is most striking. She wrote poems about people she loved who lived in a place she loved and knew. Those necessary American songs had not been sung before Gwendolyn Brooks and now they have.


A version of this essay appeared in The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks (Library of America, 2005). Reprinted with permission.

 

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