(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A common theme of critical discussions of Annie Allen has been the relation of manner to substance. In fact, letters between Gwendolyn Brooks and her editor at Harper, her publisher for many years, establish that this was an issue even before the work was published. Although Harper wanted the book, the editor, Elizabeth Lawrence, passed on to Brooks eight handwritten pages of critical comments by Genevieve Taggard, a poet who had read the manuscript at the request of the publisher following a sharply divided response from the publisher’s own editorial staff. The principal objection raised by these respondents, and by some of the early reviewers of the book when it appeared, was that in comparison to her earlier work, Brooks had shifted her attention from matter to manner, from what is said to how it is said. While conceding some weaknesses, and agreeing to changes and deletions, Brooks for the most part defended her work. What some saw as sacrificing the thing to the word was, she insisted, a matter of looking for the precise word. Years later, Brooks would speak of the delight she took in writing this book, a delight in technique as well as in subject and theme.

Brooks’s style, then, must be addressed as an issue in any discussion of Annie Allen. The variety of forms in the sequence may seem an indulgence in virtuosity that threatens the coherence of the whole. The frequent indirectness of statement may come to seem an irritating mannerism. The fastidiousness of diction, the abundance in the poems of words unlikely to turn up in the speech of the people described in the poems, can strike some readers as empty artifice.

Yet it may be that the difficulty of the...

(The entire section is 698 words.)