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”)...
(The entire section is 2974 words.)