Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The first section of Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems is devoted to an investigation of the world that the poet has chosen to represent: “A Street in Bronzeville.” The street is dominated by women, as the presence of such figures as the mother, a hunchback girl, and Sadie and Maud indicates. The first poem in the sequence, “Kitchenette Building,” is a central one because it asks what the fate of a dream would be in this world. Would it penetrate the “onion fumes” of garbage and “fried potatoes”? The speaker wonders if it might be possible, but at the end of the poem she recognizes that ordinary needs such as “lukewarm water” would keep any dream from taking hold. This is a world of limitations in which any higher aspirations must be put aside for immediate needs. The immediate needs that drive out the dream are chosen by both male and female, since these needs involve “feeding a wife” and “satisfying a man.”

The next section includes two very different poems on the men of this society. The first, “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith,” is an ironic portrait of a dandy and ladies’ man. His careful dressing and scenting of his body are more elaborate than those of any woman. His treatment of women is, however, arbitrary; he admits of no “compromise.” Everything must be done according to his desires; there is no commitment to any woman, since he has a different prostitute each week.

In contrast, “Negro Hero,” based on Dorrie Miller, a black sailor in World War II, portrays a man who fights for equality in order to save “a part of their democracy.” He had to...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

Selected Poems Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems was published in 1963, a number of years before women’s literature and feminist criticism became prominent. Her portrayal of women characters and speakers does, however, represent a clear feminist perspective.

Brooks consistently celebrated those women who live and take chances. For example, Sadie, in “Sadie and Maud,” “was one of the livingest chits/ In all the land.” She had two children without being married and lived every minute. In contrast, “Maud” was safe and went to college, only to end up as “a thin brown mouse.” “She is living all alone/ In this old house.” Annie Allen may depend too much on dreams, but she does realize the value of saying no. She can reject the conventional traps that society places before women and live. So, too, “Cousin Vit” refuses the confinements of a ritual funeral as she goes “Back to the bars she knew and the repose/ In love-rooms and the things in people’s eyes.” There seems to be an injunction to live in Brooks’s poems, especially those about women.

Another area of women’s experience that Brooks explored is that of the mother. In the section “The Children of the Poor,” Brooks traces the experience of mothers from a period in which they do not have any children through child rearing to death. The second section asks, “what shall I give my children?” For poor mothers, there is a gap between the desire and the ability to...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Selected Poems Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Kent, George F. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. This work, the best full-length biography of Gwendolyn Brooks, reveals the close relationship between her life and her art.

Melhem, D. H. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987. Melhem begins with a very brief life of Brooks and then examines in detail the poetry up until the mid-1980’s. Melhem is especially good at discussing the technical aspects of Brooks’s poetry and at connecting her work with the poetic tradition.

Miller, R. Baxter. Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. Somewhat outdated, but still a valuable research tool for a study of Brooks’s work.

Mootry, Maria K., and Gary Smith, eds. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. An excellent collection of essays on a wide range of subjects dealing with Brooks’s art. The essays that discuss the aesthetic aspects of Brooks’s poetry are especially valuable.

Shaw, Harry B. Gwendolyn Brooks. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A life-and-works study of Brooks in the Twayne authors series. Shaw focuses primarily on the social aspects of Brooks’s poetry and fiction.