Brooks, Gwendolyn 1917–
Brooks is an American poet, novelist, and writer of juvenile fiction. She is capable of handling both the technical demands of the sonnet form and of creating verse whose simple and direct diction recalls the work of Langston Hughes and Robert Frost. Critics have noted a change in the subject of Brooks's poetry, inspired by the racial conflicts of the late 1960s. Her work until this time had generally focused on universal concepts, the poetic consciousness seeking and delineating the human condition and avoiding any overt statement about the plight of blacks in America. In the late sixties, however, Brooks began to explore the condition of black Americans and to recognize their rage and despair as her own. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1950. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 5, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 6.)
Miss Brooks writes tense, complex, rhythmic verse that contains the metaphysical complexities of John Donne and the word magic of Appollinaire, Eliot, and Pound…. [Her style], however, is often used to explicate the condition of the black American trapped behind a veil that separates him from the white world. What one seems to have is "white" style and "black" content—two warring ideals in one dark body. (p. 43)
The real duality appears when we realize that Gwendolyn Brooks—though praised and awarded [by the world of white arts and letters]—does not appear on the syllabi of most American literature courses, and her name seldom appears in the annual scholarly bibliographies of the academic world. It would seem she is a black writer after all, not an American writer. Yet when one listens to the voice of today's black-revolutionary consciousness, one often hears that Miss Brooks's early poetry fits the white, middle-class patterns Imamu Baraka has seen as characteristic of "Negro literature."
When one turns to her canon, one finds she has abided the questions of both camps…. She has the Parnassian inspiration and the earth-mother characteristics noted by [Etheridge Knight]; her strength has come from a dedication to truth. The truth that concerns her does not amount to a facile realism or a heavy naturalism, though "realism" is the word that comes to mind when one reads a number of poems in A Street in Bronzeville (1945).
Poems, or segments, such as "kitchenette building," "a song in the front yard," and "the vacant lot," all support the view that the writer was intent on a realistic, even a naturalistic, portrayal of the life of lower-echelon urban dwellers…. If she had insisted on a strict realism and nothing more, she could perhaps be written off as a limited poet. But she is no mere chronicler of the condition of the black American poor. Even her most vividly descriptive verses contain an element that removes them from the realm of a cramped realism. All of her characters have both ratiocinative and imaginative capabilities; they have the ability to reason, dream, muse, and remember. This ability distinguishes them from the naturalistic literary victim caught in an environmental maze. From the realm of "raw and unadorned life" [for example], Satin-Legs Smith creates his own world of bright colors, splendid attire, and soft loves in the midst of a cheap hotel's odor and decay…. Gwendolyn Brooks's characters, in short, are infinitely human because at the core of their existence is the imaginative intellect.
Given the vision of such characters, it is impossible to agree with David Littlejohn, who wishes to view them as simplistic mouthpieces for the poet's sensibility [see CLC, Vol. 5]; moreover, it is not surprising that the characters' concerns transcend the ghetto life of many black Americans. They reflect the joy of childhood, the burdens and contentment of motherhood, the distortions of the war-torn psyche, the horror of blood-guiltiness, and the pains of the anti-hero confronted with a heroic ideal. Miss Brooks's protagonists, personae, and speakers, in short, capture all of life's complexities and particularly the complexity of an industrialized age characterized by swift change, depersonalization, and war. (pp. 44-6)
[Her work] joins the mainstream of twentieth-century poetry in its treatment of the terrors of war…. (p. 47)
War, however, is not the only theme that allies Gwendolyn Brooks with the mainstream…. In "Strong Men, Riding Horses," we have a...
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Prior to 1967, Miss Brooks' poetry was widely heralded for its lyricism and technical virtuosity. But, when a critic of the stature of J. Saunders Redding favorably compared Annie Allen to a work by Cellini …, he was actually saying many things: First, that she had successfully become a luxury, to be savored by an élite whose training and money afforded them the leisure to peruse her; and second, that she had, with equal success, imposed one of the finest sensibilities of the twentieth century upon a group of values and ideas which, more often than not, were predicated upon white superiority and Black inferiority.
In the case of Miss Brooks' work, it is not simply the internalization of the idea that white is beautiful and Black ugly…. Rather, it is the imposition of an essentially Christian system of values upon the actions of her characters. What has always been most devastating for Blacks about the aspect of Christianity with which they were indoctrinated was its emphasis upon the ideas of forgiveness and salvation through love…. [Anger], rage, the desire to kill, even when one is being killed, are, in the Christian frame of reference, "bad." A "good" person does not even think such things. Yet, in reality, it is these very forces, when channelled, which enable men to throw off oppression.
It is this Christianized sensibility, then, which, in the past, determined Miss Brooks' understanding of action and...
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Beckonings exemplifies Brooks' movement toward her new style, which is characterized by a struggle between her normal tendency to make each word bear its full measure of weight and suggestion and an insistence upon directness and simplicity of diction. Actually, despite her reputation for complexity, there are already many poems across the body of her work which are simple and direct. A Street in Bronzeville contains a large number of simple poems, some of which become favorites with readers. I would suppose the main difficulties for the uninitiated readers in some earlier poems would be the presence of irony and understatement.
Beckonings reduces the element of irony and often goes into direct statement. The poem in memory of her brother Raymond Brooks maintains directness, but in its second verse deliberately slows us into thoughtfulness, although no unusual words occur.
He knew how to put paint to paper—
made the paper speak and sing.
But he was chiefly a painter of days and the daily,
with a talent for life color, life pattern;
a talent for jeweling use and the unusual,
a talent for practical style.
A difference in style can be seen by comparing the above poem with the poem memorializing her father, which has direct, restrained statements, but insists upon more subtlety.
"The Boy Died in My Alley," a poem about conscience and the value of life, uses similar principles for simplicity, moving from lines which may be read rapidly to those which remain simple but slow you down for thought: "I never saw his face at all. I never saw his future fall." "Five Men Against the Theme …" and "Sammy Chester …" use older techniques in a new way; that is, the unusual junction of words, the coinages, the sudden contrasts, and repetitions, remain within the bounds of a simplicity which is accessible to the pause for thought. There are other poems which make such combinations, and still others which move close to direct statement. "A Black Wedding Song" is a good example of this group.
The poems are evidence that the newer techniques will not sacrifice the complex rhythms of existence in their attempts to reach a wider audience. (pp. 110-11)
George E. Kent, "The 1975 Black Literary Scene: Significant Developments," in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture (copyright, 1976, by Atlanta University; reprinted by permission of PHYLON), Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, First Quarter (March, 1976), pp. 100-15.∗
More than twenty-five years ago, in 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks listed three "impressive advantages" possessed by black poets: subjects that are "moving, authoritative and humane"; "great drive"; and "inspiriting emotion, like tied hysteria." She voiced her fear, however, that precisely because of these advantages, the poets might yield to the temptation to substitute them, with "no embellishment, no interpretation, no subtlety," for art…. [But, says Brooks]:
… no real artist is going to be content with offering raw materials. The Negro poet's most urgent duty, at present, is to polish his technique, his way of presenting his truths and his beauties, that these may be more insinuating, and, therefore, more overwhelming.
Never content herself with "offering raw materials," Brooks has, for almost half a century, followed her own dictum by producing poetry marked both by power and by polished technique.
One example is "The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock," first published in The Bean Eaters (1960)…. The occasion for the poem, the integration of Little Rock's Central High School in the fall of 1957, certainly contained "raw materials" in abundance; skillfully Brooks turned these elements into artistry.
Immediately striking is Brooks's use of contrasting images. In the first stanza of the poem, for example, the activities of the people of Little Rock are dichotomized: people bear babes, enabling the continuation of life itself, while tending to the trivialities of everyday living…. (p. 32)
The center of the poem, thematically and literally (lines 27-36 of sixty lines), is the seventh stanza, the most abstract and the most complex division of the work. Before and after this section, most of the images are concrete, while in these middle lines there is not one concrete picture. The intentional ambiguities here intensify the contrast-identity pattern of the earlier sections….
In these richly evocative lines … cluster concepts of heraldry and pageantry, romance, honor, purity, and rightness—called up by oblique references to the Confederacy and its emblems.
Stanza eight emphasizes the...
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Gwendolyn Brooks once said in an interview that she wrote poetry because she liked "working with language, as others like working with paints and clay, or notes."… Her skill in shaping and modulating her words is apparent in one of the finest twentieth-century sonnets, "Piano After War," in which diction, imagery, and the sonnet form are used with consummate craft and artistry.
The octave of the poem depicts in selected detail a piano recital which, for the narrator, revives "Old hungers," that is, memories of similar occasions before the war of the title. The opening lines focus telescopically on the fingers…. The fingers are clever in their ability to "beg glory from the willing keys"; and they...
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