Brooks, Gwendolyn (Vol. 5)

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Brooks, Gwendolyn 1917–

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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...

(The entire section contains 2147 words.)

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Brooks, Gwendolyn (Vol. 4)