Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Annie Allen is a poetic sequence: Its structure is looser than that of a poem, yet more coherent than that of a collection of poems. The sources of unity in a poetic sequence may vary. In the case of Annie Allen, the principal unifying element is the pattern of childhood, girlhood, young womanhood, and mature womanhood followed in the development of the sequence’s protagonist.

The first section of the sequence, “Notes from the Childhood and the Girlhood,” consists of eleven poems. In these, Gwendolyn Brooks traces the life of Annie Allen from birth to the longings of adolescence. Annie’s parents, Maxie and Andrew, have sacrificed whatever there might have been in their lives of poetry and passion for the constrained respectabilities permitted to an African American couple of their generation. Annie herself is reared in the spirit of a denial of possibility and an acceptance of limitations and conventions. Something tells her that there is something more, but she cannot find the words to express it. For her mother, the only “something more” for a girl such as Annie is a husband. Annie tries to respond to her mother’s conventionality with an inner “no.” Yet she awaits the arrival of the man, the romantic hero, who will rescue her. Even now, she believes, her hero is making his way to her through a series of conquests of other girls whom he will abandon for her sake, when once he and Annie have met.

The heart of the sequence is “The Anniad,” the long second section (forty-three seven-line stanzas, followed by an appendix consisting of...

(The entire section is 651 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Annie Allen, published in 1949, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry on May 1, 1950. The 1950’s, then, marked a period of ascendancy in Gwendolyn Brooks’s critical reputation. Since this was a period dominated by the discourse of integration, it is not surprising that it was Brooks’s individual talent that was the dominant theme of critical commentary. In those days, the highest praise that a critic could offer an African American poet was to insist, as critics insisted of Brooks, that her work was not “racial.”

It is also not surprising that in the 1960’s and 1970’s attention shifted dramatically to the racial dimension of Brooks’s work. The discourse of identity, associated with a newly urgent spirit of nationalism, now rivaled and threatened to supplant the discourse of integration. That Brooks increasingly identified herself with this new spirit encouraged critics to examine her work from a racially defined perspective. That she made the affirmation of black manhood one of her central themes in the poems that she was writing in this period also certainly influenced critics’ perceptions of the body of her work.

Yet reading Annie Allen reminds one that, whatever she wrote about, Brooks wrote as a woman. She never defined herself as a feminist, and when, in her early poem “The Mother,” she wrote about abortion, she evaded any ideological pigeonhole. In that poem, however, as throughout Annie Allen, she created a poetry in which the voice of a woman is unmistakably heard. Her impact is by no means limited to women. Younger African American male poets such as Haki R. Madhubuti and Michael S. Harper have been eloquent in their tributes. Certainly part of her importance for women’s literature is that she makes men listen, as part of her importance for black literature is that white readers must recognize her force. Yet this is not to deny that Brooks wasa major shaping force in a tradition of women’s poetry that is still in the process of escaping attempts to define it. Harper hears in Brooks a sister. The black female poet Nikki Giovanni reveals that when she read Annie Allen in her teens what she saw in Brooks’s protagonist was a heroine she could recognize as her mother.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Bloom, Harold, ed. Gwendolyn Brooks. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. Contains a biography and several essays examining Brooks’s poetry, including “The Satisfactions of What’s Difficult in Gwendolyn Brooks’s Poetry” by Brooke Kenton Horvath and “Gwendolyn Brooks: Beyond the Wordmaker the Making of an African Poet” by Haki R. Madhubuti.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks. Edited by Gloria Wade Gayles. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. Compilation of interviews conducted during three decades in which Brooks discusses, among other topics, how she creates her poetry and the position of the poet in a humane society.

_______. Report from Part One. Detroit, Mich.: Broadside Press, 1972. An essential work for students of Brooks, this autobiography illuminates her early years as a writer and traces the publication of Annie Allen. The appendix contains useful authorial notes on poems.

Burr, Zofia. “Reading Gwendolyn Brooks Across Audiences.” In Of Women, Poetry, and Power: Strategies of Address in Dickinson, Miles, Brooks, Lorde, and Angelou. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Burr argues that the “canonization” of Emily Dickinson has created the assumption that all women’s poetry is private and...

(The entire section is 494 words.)