Brooks, Gwendolyn (Vol. 5)
Brooks, Gwendolyn 1917–
A Black American novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Gwendolyn Brooks is one of America's most highly regarded contemporary writers. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Gwendolyn Brooks [is] far more a poet than a Negro [writing solely for the sake of expressing racial experiences]; for she is totally a poet, totally dedicated to her craft. She exercises, customarily, a greater degree of artistic control than any other American Negro writer. Not even Ralph Ellison has attained her level of objective and exquisite detachment. At least one Negro, it is worth noting, in the postwar United States … has been able to transcend the assertedly "universal" plight of her race. She is no more professionally black than T. S. Eliot (whose manner and skills she recalls), and should really be read and judged in the colorless company of his followers.
Of all Negro practitioners, only LeRoi Jones demands the same degree of poetic respect as Gwendolyn Brooks. They share a seriousness of poetic purpose, an intensely modern idiom (as opposed to Langston Hughes' "timelessness"), and a coterie audience (as opposed to his popularity). But Jones is a beatific, Blakean disbeliever in words, thrashing out raw problems of self-definition and epistemological truth in hopeless, anti-verbal expressions, all pain and incoherence. For Gwendolyn Brooks, at the other extreme, the issues, the self have all been sublimated into problems of craft, problems which she precisely and coolly solves.
What she seems to have done is to have chosen, as her handle on the "real" (often the horribly real), the other reality of craftsmanship, of technique. With this she has created a highly stylized screen of imagery and diction and sound—fastidiously exact images, crisp Mandarin diction, ice-perfect sound—to stand between the reader and the subject; to stand often so glittering and sure that all he can ever focus on is the screen. The "subjects"—racial discrimination, mother love, suffering—are dehumanized into manerismo figurines, dancing her meters. It is her intelligence, her imagination, her brilliant wit and wordplay that entrap the attention. Always, the subjects are held at arm's length away. Whoever the persona—and she is often forced to make the speakers fastidious, alienated creatures like herself—it is always her mind and her style we are dwelling in. (pp. 89-90)
In many of her early poems (especially the Annie Allen poems) Mrs. Brooks appears only to pretend to talk of things and of people; her real love is words. The inlay work of words, the précieux sonics, the lapidary insets of jeweled images (like those of Gerard Manley Hopkins) can, in excess, squeeze out life and impact altogether, and all but give the lie to the passions professed in the verbs. (p. 90)
She has learned her art superbly. The words, lines, and arrangements have been worked and worked and worked again into poised exactness: the unexpected apt metaphor, the mock-colloquial asides amid jeweled phrases, the half-ironic repetitions—she knows it all. The stylistic critic could only, at his most keen, fault the rare missed stitch of accent, the off-semitone of allusion.
Where, in all of this, is Gwendolyn Brooks? Anywhere? In the proper Donne-to-Eliot manner, she objectifies herself, for the most part, into the figured screen, her "blackness" becomes part of its peacocky color. She is become "all tone," all voice, all fire and air. One can only intuit the inspiring impulses of her works from the intensity of their objective design.
This is not to say she never speaks directly, or communicates ideas—even race-war ideas. There are clear direct statements, human portraits, in A Street in Bronzeville (1945)—though even in the best ("The Mother," for example) technical overcontrol may prevent the full realization of potential power (a matter of fear?). Annie Allen (1950), the Pulitzer Prize volume, is the most Mandarin; but sections VIII and especially XV of "The Womanhood" sequence bring a seething racial intensity of statement that for once gives the controlling art something to control, and produces genuine emotional tension. The latter may be the best statement yet on the latent Jim Crowism of white liberal society. (p. 91)
The same is true, somewhat less deeply, of "Lovers of the Poor" from The Bean Eaters (1959), a suave attack on overcultured whites by one who understands overculture, who can treasure herself the riches she mocks. Elsewhere in this … book Mrs. Brooks tries to expand her human scale—there are a few poignant husband-wife portraits in the manner of her novella Maud Martha, even attempts at jazz. But her fine efforts to take arms (an Emmett Till poem, a Little Rock poem, poems on white snobbery and neighborhood-mixing themes) betray the author through their tissues of arcane allusion, their perfectly chopped metrics. Gwendolyn Brooks has too little of the common touch to be of much use in the war; but she offers, through her painstaking, exquisite art, the example of one woman who has come through. (p. 94)
Maud Martha is a striking human experiment, as exquisitely written and as effective as any of Gwendolyn Brooks' poetry in verse. In thirty-four tiny fragments, vignettes, tiny moments in passage, the reader skims into the life of Maud Martha. First we meet a seven-year-old fat brown girl nobody loves enough; then a dreaming adolescent suffering through dates, living in her books and her satiny visions (the wrong hair, the wrong color, even for a Negro); then the young bride, in a minute kitchenette in a sad gray building in a cold white world, joined to her small-souled, dreamless Paul. He grows numb and unloving from his dreary, daily battle with The Man. He flirts with high-yellows. He hates the demanding pain of her childbearing. Finally, for this black Emma Bovary, there is left only a shrunken life of pretzels and beer, of hard-lipped encounters with the whites, a chapterful of queer neighbors, and glimpses of what might have been. (p. 152)
It is a powerful, beautiful dagger of a book, a womanly book, as generous as it can possibly be. It teaches more, more quickly, more lastingly, than a thousand pages of protest. It is one answer to Langston Hughes' question: "What happens to a dream deferred?" (p. 153)
David Littlejohn, in his Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes (copyright © 1966 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Viking, 1966.
[Gwendolyn Brooks'] poetry in Street in Bronzeville and Annie Allen was devoted to small, carefully cerebrated, terse portraits of the Black urban poor. The very existence of the characters she presents is both proof and cause for racial protest, but Miss Brooks handles all with a well-disciplined aesthetic detachment and "apoplectic ice." At this point, there is no rhetorical involvement with causes, racial or otherwise. Indeed, there is no need, for each character, so neatly and precisely presented, is a racial protest in itself and a symbol of some sharply etched human dilemma. This fitted in very well with the literary mood of the late 1940's. (p. 159)
By 1960 the dialogue of the 1940's about protest was as anachronistic as the ancient Platonic caveat that too much protest from men of literature might topple the state…. Black poets developed a rhetoric of protest and racial confrontation which was relevant for the times…. Gwendolyn Brooks' "Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath," for instance, ends with the racially self-confident assertion that the American Black man's long, bloody, and "continuing" Calvary gives him unique insights about man's inhumanity to man. Her Black Everyman … concludes that Black America will "Star, and esteem all that which is of woman / Human and hardly human." Indeed, the world will be revolutionized for love by Black America, for out of the Black man's struggle will come the renewal of "Democracy and Christianity." (p. 160)
Richard K. Barksdale, "Humanistic Protest in Recent Black Poetry," in Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Donald B. Gibson (copyright © 1973 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 157-64.
Miss Brooks's first volume of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville,… translated into vignettes cut like exquisite cameos the experience of life of Negroes domiciled in a large urban Northern ghetto. Her Bronzeville, that is, was obviously Chicago. The immediate occasion for her reception of the Pulitzer Prize was the publication of her Annie Allen, a connected sequence of poems tracing the progress to mature womanhood of a Negro girl, the counterpart, in striking ways, except for death in childbirth, of Emily of Our Town. Her … book of poems, In the Mecca (1970), is set in "a great gray hulk of brick, four stories high … ancient and enormous, filling half the block north of Thirty-fourth Street between State and Dearborn … the Mecca Building." The life of women, particularly Negro women, and the life of Negroes, particularly those who have grown up since World War I in the North, where America's big towns are, figure prominently in Miss Brooks's poetry. Moreover, it does seem true that she is a woman writing, although not in the manner of the damned mob of scribbling women who so distressed Hawthorne—nor because of any mysterious and occult woman's intuition which seems to guide her inner labors. (pp. 81-2)
Miss Brooks, whether she is talking of women or men—sometimes undoubtedly to generate compassion, but, at other times, it well may be, with her tongue in her cheek—constantly speaks as a woman. That she does this in the manner that she is able to sustain only adds a supplemental virtue to the many elemental virtues as an artist which stand her in good stead in her work. For Miss Brooks is one of those artists of whom it can truthfully be said that things like sex and race, important as they are, in the ultimate of ultimates, appear in her work only to be sublimated into insights and revelations of universal application. (p. 82)
Moreover, with Miss Brooks humor is always present or waiting in the wings, perhaps not so genially (and then, perhaps, as genially) as in Langston Hughes, the only other major Negro poet—save, sometimes, Sterling Brown and Tolson in Harlem Gallery—for whom humor has been a conspicuous attribute of poetry. But, however she compares as a humorist with other black poets, in Miss Brooks's poetry the humor cannot be missed. It exists, tempering, in Miss Brooks, the irony which abounds in every serious Negro writer's contemplation of the American scene….
Miss Brooks has assimilated, well and easily, her share of avant-garde techniques, and she uses them with no embarrassment or apparent animosity for them. Yet she seems to be a lover of old things, too. Her verse is often free. But often, too, it rhymes, in ways that poets have rhymed immemorially. And one will find that she resorts much to stanzas of the old kind, two lines or three lines or four lines, or more, in regular recurrence or a quickly discernible pattern, as poets once used to do. In Annie Allen, even, she has sonnets, at least one of them, "First Fight. Then Fiddle," with a constantly growing circle of admirers for its exceptional qualities as a poem. (p. 83)
Satin-Legs Smith [the protagonist of The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith] superficially is a creature of no consequence; and he is, indeed, the new Lumpenproletariat par excellence. His Sundays are the big days of his week. On Sundays he fills (an empty word) his leisure time with diversions which express the best his world, and his conceptions of magnificence, can offer him. And what he does, like what he is, would be comic, were it all not so tragic against the background of the lost promise of the twentieth century. Her Street in Bronzeville and her In the Mecca, in all seriousness, could be used as reference works in sociology. Her Annie Allen quietly demonstrates the wealth of her observation of normal, not abnormal, psychology…. Terseness, a judicious understatement combined with pregnant ellipses, often guides the reader into an adventure which permits a revelation of Miss Brooks's capacity for sensitive interpretations of the human comedy. She never writes on "big" subjects. One finds on her agenda no librettos for Liberia, no grand excursus into history like [Robert Hayden's] "Middle Passage." Annie Allen typifies her method, the study, as it were, of the flower in the crannied wall. In such a method her genius operates within its area of greatest strength, the close inspection of a limited domain, to reap from that inspection, perhaps paradoxically, but still powerfully, a view of life in which one may see a microscopic portion of the universe intensely and yet, through that microscopic portion, see all truth for the human condition wherever it exists. (pp. 84-5)
Blyden Jackson, in Black Poetry in America: Two Essays in Historical Interpretation, by Blyden Jackson and Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (copyright © 1974 by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University Press, 1974.