Critics have called Brooks’s poetry “elegant and earthy.” While she portrays black life in Chicago in realistic detail, she blends realism with lyricism, giving her poems beauty as well as truth. For Brooks, realism for its own sake is not enough; beauty is the essential ingredient that enables a poem to move its audience.
Brooks’s style is characterized by its diversity. She employs a variety of poetic forms, including the sonnet, the ballad, the blues, free verse, and blank verse, sometimes in combination. Her language is also varied. In “We Real Cool” (from The Bean Eaters), she writes in black English; in some works, such as “The Anniad” (the second part of Annie Allen), she uses language reminiscent of the Renaissance and Middle Ages; in still others, she creates compound words such as “whimper-whine,” “heart-cup,” “wonder-starred,” and “oak-eyed,” producing the flavor of Anglo-Saxon poetry. In all of her works, she strives for one central image and gropes painstakingly for the exact words to convey her message. In an interview with writer Brian Lanker, she cautioned that if a line entered a poet’s mind too spontaneously, it probably was not original; quite likely, the poet had read it in the work of someone else.
Although Brooks’s poems depict black life, her themes (at least in the works written prior to the mid-1960’s) are universal. The characters are black Chicagoans, but their problems and experiences are shared by people of all races and in all localities. An example of Brooks’s universality is seen in “Gay Chaps at the Bar” from A Street in Bronzeville. In this poem, the black and white soldiers fighting in World War II are united in a cause. They have common fears, common disillusions, and common concerns about the future—if they survive. Even though the soldiers’ caskets are designated for black or white bodies, a corpse sometimes ends up in the “wrong” box, but, the poet asks, “Who really gave two figs?”
During the 1960’s, Brooks gradually became more interested in black identity, her African heritage, and the need for unity among African Americans in the struggle for equality. She had always advocated black solidarity but had also believed that achieving rapport with whites was the answer to racial inequality. Her poems of the 1940’s and 1950’s present African Americans simply as people; in “Gay Chaps at the Bar,” for example, she notes the surprise of the white soldiers when the blacks look and behave like ordinary men. Another poem stressing the humanity of blacks is “I Love Those Little Booths at Benvenuti’s” in Annie Allen. Benvenuti’s was a restaurant in the black section of Chicago; white diners frequented the establishment, however, in the hope of seeing the black patrons clown or eat in a comical manner. In the poem, the whites are disappointed when the blacks’ table manners and general decorum are as “normal” as their own.
Near the end of the 1960’s, Brooks changed her mind about the effectiveness of racial integration. Undoubtedly, she was influenced by the Civil Rights movement, the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a growing unity among young blacks. In an interview with Ida Lewis, a writer for Essence magazine, she admitted her belief that blacks should work together for equal rights, independent of white aid, rather than hope for understanding and help from whites. Although Brooks never expressed hatred of whites (as did some of the students in her poetry workshops), she commented in her 1972 autobiography Report from Part One that it is rare for blacks and whites to establish true rapport.
Nevertheless, Brooks’s later views of the racial situation did not change her from a poet into a prophet or a preacher. In Report from Part One, she counters critics who accuse her of sacrificing lyricism for political activism. She maintains that she still regards poetry as an art and still writes lyrically of the things she sees about her. In her maturity, however, she notices phenomena she overlooked in her youth. Two poems reflecting Brooks’s growing awareness of racial conditions are “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” and “Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath,” both written in the early to mid-1960’s. Rudolph Reed is a black man who purchases a home in a white neighborhood, only to be harassed and killed. “Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath” illustrates the pent-up anger of African Americans. Although he has learned to hold his tongue—as have most members of his race—the narrator of the poem implies that the era of black submission is coming to an end, for he concludes with the words, “We extend, begin.”
Brooks’s poetry reflects her attitude toward motherhood as well as racism. In her autobiography, she confides that she always wanted children. Not only did she desire offspring for their own sake, but she also wished to utilize the reproductive function of her body. Unlike some highly talented women, she did not view procreation and child-raising as impediments to art. For Brooks, motherhood represents wholeness in a woman’s life. In “Sadie and Maud,” a poem about two sisters from A Street in Bronzeville, Sadie, “one of the livingest chits,” has two children out of wedlock, to the disgrace of her family. Maud, the respectable sister, attends college. It is Maud, however, whose life is empty and who ends up living alone “like a thin brown mouse.” “The Empty Woman” echoes the theme of futility in a life without children. The “empty woman” takes great interest in her nieces and nephews, but her life is unfulfilling, as she has no children of her own. In “Children of the Poor” (from Annie Allen), Brooks begins by saying, “People without children can be hard.” Brooks’s poetry, then, presents the life she knows in stylistic beauty and also serves as the means of conveying her philosophies.
First published: 1945 (collected in A Street in Bronzeville, 1945)
Type of work: Poem
Brooks wonders whether dreams can germinate and survive amid the details of everyday life—especially in a small tenement apartment.
The efficiency apartment described in “Kitchenette Building,” the first poem in A Street in Bronzeville, recalls the apartments in which Brooks and her husband lived prior to the early 1950’s, when they purchased a house. Bronzeville, so named by the Chicago Defender, was a black ghetto consisting of forty square blocks on the South Side of the city. With its cross-section of people and lifestyles, Bronzeville provided Brooks with a wealth of subject material.
Written in an irregular rhyme scheme that moves toward pentameter, “Kitchenette Building” bears stylistic traces of the work of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and John Donne, while its message is reminiscent of that in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Or, Life in the Woods (1854), which Brooks had read and admired. Discussing the need for simplicity, Thoreau states that “our life is frittered away by detail.” In a similar vein of thought, the narrator of the poem muses about whether dreams and aspirations can compete with the mundane details of life—onion fumes, fried potatoes, garbage rotting in the hall—especially in a cramped ghetto dwelling. She does not muse for long, however; another tenant has just vacated the communal bathroom, so she must scurry down the hall to use what is left of the hot water before someone else beats her to it. Practicality must supersede dreams.
The first line in “Kitchenette Building” suggests the wryness of Eliot: “We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan/...
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