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...
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- Critical Essays