Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2974
The image of Gwendolyn Brooks as a readily accessible poet is at once accurate and deceptive. Capable of capturing the experiences and rhythms of black street life, she frequently presents translucent surfaces that give way suddenly to reveal ambiguous depths. Equally capable of manipulating traditional poetic forms such as the sonnet, rhyme royal, and heroic couplet, she employs them to mirror the uncertainties of characters or personas who embrace conventional attitudes to defend themselves against internal and external chaos. Whatever form she chooses, Brooks consistently focuses on the struggle of people to find and express love, usually associated with the family, in the midst of a hostile environment. In constructing their defenses and seeking love, these people typically experience a disfiguring pain. Brooks devotes much of her energy to defining and responding to the elusive forces, variously psychological and social, which inflict this pain. Increasingly in her later poetry, Brooks traces the pain to political sources and expands her concept of the family to encompass all black people. Even while speaking of the social situation of blacks in a voice crafted primarily for blacks, however, Brooks maintains the complex awareness of the multiple perspectives relevant to any given experience. Her ultimate concern is to encourage every individual, black or white, to “Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind” (“The Second Sermon on the Warpland”).
A deep concern with the everyday circumstances of black people living within the whirlwind characterizes many of Brooks’s most popular poems. From the early “Of De Witt Williams on His Way to Lincoln Cemetery” and “A Song in the Front Yard” through the later “The Life of Lincoln West” and “Sammy Chester Leaves ’Godspell’ and Visits UPWARD BOUND on a Lake Forest Lawn, Bringing West Afrika,” she focuses on characters whose experiences merge the idiosyncratic and the typical. She frequently draws on black musical forms to underscore the communal resonance of a character’s outwardly undistinguished life. By tying the refrain of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” to the repeated phrase “Plain black boy,” Brooks transforms De Witt Williams into an Everyman figure. Brooks describes his personal search for love in the pool rooms and dance halls, but stresses the representative quality of his experience by starting and ending the poem with the musical allusion.
“We Real Cool”
“We Real Cool,” perhaps Brooks’s single best-known poem, subjects a similarly representative experience to an intricate technical and thematic scrutiny, at once loving and critical. The poem is only twenty-four words long, including eight repetitions of the word “we.” It is suggestive that the subtitle of “We Real Cool” specifies the presence of only seven pool players at the “Golden Shovel.” The eighth “we” suggests that poet and reader share, on some level, the desperation of the group-voice that Brooks transmits. The final sentence, “We/ die soon,” restates the carpe diem motif in the vernacular of Chicago’s South Side.
On one level, “We Real Cool” appears simply to catalog the experiences of a group of dropouts content to “sing sin” in all available forms. A surprising ambiguity enters into the poem, however, revolving around the question of how to accent the word “we” that ends every line except the last one, providing the beat for the poem’s jazz rhythm. Brooks said that she intended that the “we” not be accented. Read in this way, the poem takes on a slightly distant and ironic tone, emphasizing the artificiality of the group identity that involves the characters in activities offering early death as the only release from pain. Conversely, the poem can be read with a strong accent on each “we,” affirming the group identity. Although the experience still ends with early death, the pool players metamorphose into defiant heroes determined to resist the alienating environment. Their confrontation with experience is felt, if not articulated, as existentially pure. Pool players, poet, and reader cannot be sure which stress is valid.
Brooks crafts the poem, however, to hint at an underlying coherence in the defiance. The intricate internal rhyme scheme echoes the sound of nearly every word. Not only do the first seven lines end with “we,” but also the penultimate words of each line in each stanza rhyme (cool/school, late/straight, sin/gin, June/soon). In addition, the alliterated consonant of the last line of each stanza is repeated in the first line of the next stanza (Left/lurk, Strike/sin, gin/June) and the first words of each line in the middle two stanzas are connected through consonance (Lurk/strike, Sing/thin). The one exception to this suggestive texture of sound is the word “Die,” which introduces both a new vowel and a new consonant into the final line, breaking the rhythm and subjecting the performance to ironic revaluation. Ultimately, the power of the poem derives from the tension between the celebratory and the ironic perspectives on the lives of the plain black boys struggling for a sense of connection.
A similar struggle informs many of Brooks’s poems in more traditional forms, including “The Mother,” a powerful exploration of the impact of an abortion on the woman who has chosen to have it. Brooks states that the mother “decides that she, rather than her world, will kill her children.” Within the poem itself, however, the motivations remain unclear. Although the poem’s position in Brooks’s first book, A Street in Bronzeville, suggests that the persona is black, the poem neither supports nor denies a racial identification. Along with the standard English syntax and diction, this suggests that “The Mother,” like poems such as “The Egg Boiler,” “Callie Ford,” and “A Light and Diplomatic Bird,” was designed to speak directly of an emotional, rather than a social, experience, and to be as accessible to whites as to blacks. Re-creating the anguished perspective of a persona unsure whether she is victim or victimizer, Brooks directs her readers’ attention to the complex emotions of her potential Everywoman.
“The Mother” centers on the persona’s alternating desire to take and to evade responsibility for the abortion. Resorting to ambiguous grammatical structures, the persona repeatedly qualifies her acceptance with “if” clauses (“If I sinned,” “If I stole your births”). She refers to the lives of the children as matters of fate (“Your luck”) and backs away from admitting that a death has taken place by claiming that the children “were never made.” Her use of the second person pronoun to refer to herself in the first stanza reveals her desire to distance herself from her present pain. This attempt, however, fails. The opening line undercuts the evasion with the reality of memory: “Abortions will not let you forget.” At the start of the second stanza, the pressure of memory forces the persona to shift to the more honest first-person pronoun. A sequence of spondees referring to the children (“damp small pulps,” “dim killed children,” “dim dears”) interrupts the lightly stressed anapestic-iambic meter that dominates the first stanza. The concrete images of “scurrying off ghosts” and “devouring” children with loving gazes gain power when contrasted with the dimness of the mother’s life and perceptions. Similarly, the first stanza’s end-stopped couplets, reflecting the persona’s simplistic attempt to recapture an irrevocably lost mother-child relationship through an act of imagination, give way to the intricate enjambment and complex rhyme scheme of the second stanza, which highlight the mother’s inability to find rest.
The rhyme scheme—and Brooks can rival both Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats in her ability to employ various types of rhyme for thematic impact—underscores her struggle to come to terms with her action. The rhymes in the first stanza insist on her self-doubt, contrasting images of tenderness and physical substance with those of brutality and insubstantiality (forget/get, hair/air, beat/sweet). The internal rhyme of “never,” repeated four times, and “remember,” “workers,” and “singers,” further stresses the element of loss. In the second stanza, Brooks provides no rhymes for the end words “children” in line 11 and “deliberate” in line 21. This device draws attention to the persona’s failure to answer the crucial questions of whether her children did in fact exist and of whether her own actions were in fact deliberate (and perhaps criminal). The last seven lines of the stanza end with hard “d” sounds as the persona struggles to forge her conflicting thoughts into a unified perspective. If Brooks offers coherence, though, it is emotional rather than intellectual. Fittingly, the “d” rhymes and off-rhymes focus on physical and emotional pain (dead/instead/made/afraid/said/died/cried). Brooks provides no easy answer to the anguished question: “How is the truth to be told?” The persona’s concluding cry of “I loved you/ All” rings with desperation. It is futile but it is not a lie. To call “The Mother” an antiabortion poem distorts its impact. Clearly portraying the devastating effects of the persona’s action, it by no means condemns her or lacks sympathy. Like many of Brooks’s characters, the mother is a person whose desire to love far outstrips her ability to cope with her circumstances and serves primarily to heighten her sensitivity to pain.
Perhaps the most significant change in Brooks’s poetry involves her analysis of the origins of this pervasive pain. Rather than attributing the suffering to some unavoidable psychological condition, Brooks’s later poetry indicts social institutions for their role in its perpetuation. The poems in her first two volumes frequently portray characters incapable of articulating the origins of their pain. Although the absence of any father in “The Mother” suggests sociological forces leading to the abortion, such analysis amounts to little more than speculation. The only certainty is that the mother, the persona of the sonnet sequence “The Children of the Poor,” and the speaker in the brilliant sonnet “My Dreams, My Works Must Wait Till After Hell” share the fear that their pain will render them insensitive to love. The final poem of Annie Allen, “Men of Careful Turns,” intimates that the defenders of a society that refuses to admit its full humanity bear responsibility for reducing the powerless to “grotesque toys.” Despite this implicit accusation, however, Brooks perceives no “magic” capable of remedying the situation. She concludes the volume on a note of irresolution typical of her early period: “We are lost, must/ Wizard a track through our own screaming weed.” The track, at this stage, remains spiritual rather than political.
Although the early volumes include occasional poems concerning articulate political participants such as “Negro Hero,” Brooks’s later work frequently centers on specific black political spokespeople such as Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, John Killens, and Don L. Lee. As of the early 1960’s, a growing anger informs poems as diverse as the ironic “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” the near-baroque “The Lovers of the Poor,” the imagistically intricate “Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath,” and the satiric “Riot.” This anger originates in Brooks’s perception that the social structures of white society value material possessions and abstract ideas of prestige more highly than individual human beings. The anger culminates in Brooks’s brilliant narrative poem “In the Mecca,” concerning the death of a young girl in a Chicago housing project, and in her three “Sermons on the Warpland.”
“Sermons on the Warpland”
The “Sermons on the Warpland” poems mark Brooks’s departure from the traditions of Euro-American poetry and thought represented by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). The sequence typifies her post-1967 poetry, in which she abandons traditional stanzaic forms, applying her technical expertise to a relatively colloquial free verse. This technical shift parallels her rejection of the philosophical premises of Euro-American culture. Brooks refuses to accept the inevitability of cultural decay, arguing that the “waste” of Eliot’s vision exists primarily because of people’s “warped” perceptions. Seeing white society as the embodiment of these distortions, Brooks embraces her blackness as a potential counterbalancing force. The first “Sermon on the Warpland” opens with Ron Karenga’s black nationalist credo: “The fact that we are black is our ultimate reality.” Clearly, in Brooks’s view, blackness is not simply a physical fact; it is primarily a metaphor for the possibility of love. As her poem “Two Dedications” indicates, Brooks sees the Euro-American tradition represented by the Chicago Picasso as inhumanly cold, mingling guilt and innocence, meaningfulness and meaninglessness, almost randomly. This contrasts sharply with her inspirational image of the Wall of Heroes on the South Side. To Brooks, true art assumes meaning from the people who interact with it. The wall helps to redefine black reality, rendering the “dispossessions beakless.” Rather than contemplating the site of destruction, the politically aware black art that Brooks embraces should inspire the black community to face its pain with renewed determination to remove its sources. The final “Sermon on the Warpland” concludes with the image of a black phoenix rising from the ashes of the Chicago riot. No longer content to accept the unresolved suffering of “The Mother,” Brooks forges a black nationalist politics and poetics of love.
“The Blackstone Rangers”
Although her political vision influences every aspect of her work, Brooks maintains a strong sense of enduring individual pain and is aware that nationalism offers no simple panacea. “The Blackstone Rangers,” a poem concerning one of the most powerful Chicago street gangs, rejects as simplistic the argument, occasionally advanced by writers associated with the Black Arts movement, that no important distinction exists between the personal and the political experience. Specifically, Brooks doubts the corollary that politically desirable activity will inevitably increase the person’s ability to love. Dividing “The Blackstone Rangers” into three segments—“As Seen by Disciplines,” “The Leaders,” and “Gang Girls: A Rangerette”—Brooks stresses the tension between perspectives. After rejecting the sociological-penal perspective of part one, she remains suspended between the uncomprehending affirmation of the Rangers as a kind of government-in-exile in part two, and the recognition of the individual person’s continuing pain in part three.
Brooks undercuts the description of the Rangers as “sores in the city/ that do not want to heal” (“As Seen by Disciplines”) through the use of off-rhyme and a jazz rhythm reminiscent of “We Real Cool.” The disciplines, both academic and corrective, fail to perceive any coherence in the Rangers’ experience. Correct in their assumption that the Rangers do not want to “heal” themselves, the disciplines fail to perceive the gang’s strong desire to “heal” the sick society. Brooks suggests an essential coherence in the Rangers’ experience through the sound texture of part one. Several of the sound patterns echoing through the brief stanza point to a shared response to pain (there/thirty/ready, raw/sore/corner). Similarly, the accent cluster on “Black, raw, ready” draws attention to the pain and potential power of the Rangers. The descriptive voice of the disciplines, however, provides only relatively weak end rhymes (are/corner, ready/city), testifying to the inability of the distanced, presumably white, observers to comprehend the experiences they describe. The shifting, distinctively black, jazz rhythm further emphasizes the distance between the voices of observers and participants. Significantly, the voice of the disciplines finds no rhyme at all for its denial of the Rangers’ desire to “heal.”
This denial contrasts sharply with the tempered affirmation of the voice in part two, which emphasizes the leaders’ desire to “cancel, cure and curry.” Again, internal rhymes and sound echoes suffuse the section. In the first stanza, the voice generates thematically significant rhymes, connecting Ranger leader “Bop” (whose name draws attention to the jazz rhythm that is even more intricate, though less obvious, in this section than in part one) and the militant black leader “Rap” Brown, both nationalists whose “country is a Nation on no map.” “Bop” and “Rap,” of course, do not rhyme perfectly, attesting to Brooks’s awareness of the gang leader’s limitations. Her image of the leaders as “Bungled trophies” further reinforces her ambivalence. The only full rhyme in the final two stanzas of the section is the repeated “night.” The leaders, canceling the racist association of darkness with evil, “translate” the image of blackness into a “monstrous pearl or grace.” The section affirms the Blackstone Rangers’ struggle; it does not pretend to comprehend fully the emotional texture of their lives.
Certain that the leaders possess the power to cancel the disfiguring images of the disciplines, Brooks remains unsure of their ability to create an alternate environment where love can blossom. Mary Ann, the “Gang Girl” of part three, shares much of the individual pain of the characters in Brooks’s early poetry despite her involvement with the Rangers. “A rose in a whiskey glass,” she continues to live with the knowledge that her “laboring lover” risks the same sudden death as the pool players of “We Real Cool.” Forced to suppress a part of her awareness—she knows not to ask where her lover got the diamond he gives her—she remains emotionally removed even while making love. In place of a fully realized love, she accepts “the props and niceties of non-loneliness.” The final line of the poem emphasizes the ambiguity of both Mary Ann’s situation and Brooks’s perspective. Recommending acceptance of “the rhymes of Leaning,” the line responds to the previous stanza’s question concerning whether love will have a “gleaning.” The full rhyme paradoxically suggests acceptance of off-rhyme, of love consummated leaning against an alley wall, without expectation of safety or resolution. Given the political tension created by the juxtaposition of the disciplines and the leaders, the “Gang Girl” can hope to find no sanctuary beyond the reach of the whirlwind. Her desperate love, the more moving for its precariousness, provides the only near-adequate response to the pain that Brooks saw as the primary fact of life.