Brooks, Gwendolyn 1917–
Brooks is an American poet, novelist, and writer of juvenile fiction. She is capable of handling both the technical demands of the sonnet form and of creating verse whose simple and direct diction recalls the work of Langston Hughes and Robert Frost. Critics have noted a change in the subject of Brooks's poetry, inspired by the racial conflicts of the late 1960s. Her work until this time had generally focused on universal concepts, the poetic consciousness seeking and delineating the human condition and avoiding any overt statement about the plight of blacks in America. In the late sixties, however, Brooks began to explore the condition of black Americans and to recognize their rage and despair as her own. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1950. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 5, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 6.)
Miss Brooks writes tense, complex, rhythmic verse that contains the metaphysical complexities of John Donne and the word magic of Appollinaire, Eliot, and Pound…. [Her style], however, is often used to explicate the condition of the black American trapped behind a veil that separates him from the white world. What one seems to have is "white" style and "black" content—two warring ideals in one dark body. (p. 43)
The real duality appears when we realize that Gwendolyn Brooks—though praised and awarded [by the world of white arts and letters]—does not appear on the syllabi of most American literature courses, and her name seldom appears in the annual scholarly bibliographies of the academic world. It would seem she is a black writer after all, not an American writer. Yet when one listens to the voice of today's black-revolutionary consciousness, one often hears that Miss Brooks's early poetry fits the white, middle-class patterns Imamu Baraka has seen as characteristic of "Negro literature."
When one turns to her canon, one finds she has abided the questions of both camps…. She has the Parnassian inspiration and the earth-mother characteristics noted by [Etheridge Knight]; her strength has come from a dedication to truth. The truth that concerns her does not amount to a facile realism or a heavy naturalism, though "realism" is the word that comes to mind when one reads a number of poems in A Street in Bronzeville (1945).
Poems, or segments, such as "kitchenette building," "a song in the front yard," and "the vacant lot," all support the view that the writer was intent on a realistic, even a naturalistic, portrayal of the life of lower-echelon urban dwellers…. If she had insisted on a strict realism and nothing more, she could perhaps be written off as a limited poet. But she is no mere chronicler of the condition of the black American poor. Even her most vividly descriptive verses contain an element that removes them from the realm of a cramped realism. All of her characters have both ratiocinative and imaginative capabilities; they have the ability to reason, dream, muse, and remember. This ability distinguishes them from the naturalistic literary victim caught in an environmental maze. From the realm of "raw and unadorned life" [for example], Satin-Legs Smith creates his own world of bright colors, splendid attire, and soft loves in the midst of a cheap hotel's odor and decay…. Gwendolyn Brooks's characters, in short, are infinitely human because at the core of their existence is the imaginative intellect.
Given the vision of such characters, it is impossible to agree with David Littlejohn, who wishes to view them as simplistic mouthpieces for the poet's sensibility [see CLC , Vol. 5]; moreover, it is not surprising that the...
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characters' concerns transcend the ghetto life of many black Americans. They reflect the joy of childhood, the burdens and contentment of motherhood, the distortions of the war-torn psyche, the horror of blood-guiltiness, and the pains of the anti-hero confronted with a heroic ideal. Miss Brooks's protagonists, personae, and speakers, in short, capture all of life's complexities and particularly the complexity of an industrialized age characterized by swift change, depersonalization, and war. (pp. 44-6)
[Her work] joins the mainstream of twentieth-century poetry in its treatment of the terrors of war…. (p. 47)
War, however, is not the only theme that allies Gwendolyn Brooks with the mainstream…. In "Strong Men, Riding Horses," we have a Prufrockian portrait of the antihero…. In "Mrs. Small," one has a picture of the "Mr. Zeros" (or Willie Lomans) of a complex century, and in "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon," we have an evocation of the blood-guiltiness of the white psyche in an age of dying colonialism. Miss Brooks presents these themes with skill because she has the ability to endow each figure with a unique, individualizing vision of the world.
If they were considered in isolation, however, the characters and concerns of the verse would not mark the poet as an outstanding writer. Great poetry demands word magic, a sense of the infinite possibilities of language. In this technical realm Miss Brooks is superb. Her ability to dislocate and mold language into complex patterns of meaning can be observed in her earliest poems and in her latest volumes—In The Mecca (1968), Riot (1969), and Family Pictures (1970). The first lines of "The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith" are illustrative:
INAMORATAS, with an approbation, Bestowed his title. Blessed his inclination, He wakes, unwinds, elaborately: a cat Tawny, reluctant, royal. He is fat And fine this morning. Definite. Reimbursed.
The handling of polysyllabics is not in the least strained, and the movement is so graceful that one scarcely notices the rhymed couplets. Time and again this word magic is at work, and the poet's varying rhyme schemes lend a subtle resonance that is not found in the same abundance in the works of other acknowledged American writers. It is important to qualify this judgment, however, for while Miss Brooks employs polysyllabics and forces words into striking combinations, she preserves colloquial rhythms. Repeatedly one is confronted by a realistic voice—not unlike that in Robert Frost's poetry—that carries one along the dim corridors of the human psyche or down the rancid halls of a decaying tenement. Miss Brooks's colloquial narrative voice, however, is more prone to complex juxtapositions than Frost's…. She fuses the most elaborate words into contexts that allow them to speak naturally or to sing beautifully her meaning.
Miss Brooks is not indebted to Frost alone for technical influences; she also acknowledges her admiration for Langston Hughes. Though a number of her themes and techniques set her work in the twentieth-century mainstream, there are those that place it firmly in the black American literary tradition. One of her most effective techniques is a sharp, black, comic irony that is closely akin to the scorn Hughes directed at the ways of white folks throughout his life. When added to her other skills, this irony proves formidable. (pp. 47-9)
The poet's chiding, however, is not always in the derisive mode. She often turns an irony of loving kindness on black Americans. "We Real Cool" would fit easily into the canon of Hughes or Sterling Brown…. The irony is patent [here], but the poet's sympathy and admiration for the folk are no less obvious…. Miss Brooks's A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, "The Bean Eaters," and "Bronzeville Woman in a Red Hat" likewise reveal the employment of kindly laughter to veil the tears of a desperate situation. (pp. 49-50)
Finally, there are the poems of protest. A segregated military establishment comes under attack in both "The Negro Hero" and "the white troops had their orders but the Negroes looked like men."… And in poems like "Riders to the Blood-red Wrath" and "The Second Sermon on the Warpland," Miss Brooks expresses the philosophy of militant resistance that has characterized the black American literary tradition from the day a black slave first sang of Pharaoh's army. The poet, in short, has spoken forcefully against the indignities suffered by black Americans in a racialistic society. Having undertaken a somewhat thorough revaluation of her role as a black poet in an era of transition, she has stated and proved her loyalty to the task of creating a new consciousness in her culture…. She has mediated the dichotomy that left Paul Laurence Dunbar … a torn and agonized man. Of course, she had the example of Dunbar, the Harlem Renaissance writers, and others to build upon, but at times even superior talents have been incapable of employing the accomplishments of the past for their own ends. Unlike the turn-of-the-century poet and a number of Renaissance writers, Miss Brooks has often excelled the surrounding white framework, and she has been able to see clearly beyond it to the strengths and beauties of her own unique cultural tradition.
Gwendolyn Brooks represents a singular achievement. Beset by a double consciousness, she has kept herself from being torn asunder by crafting poems that equal the best in the black and white American literary traditions. Her characters are believable, her themes manifold, and her technique superb. The critic (whether black or white) who comes to her work seeking only support for his ideology will be disappointed for, as Etheridge Knight pointed out, she has ever spoken the truth. And truth, one likes to feel, always lies beyond the boundaries of any one ideology. Perhaps Miss Brooks's most significant achievement is her endorsement of this point of view. From her hand and fertile imagination have come volumes that transcend the dogma on either side of the American veil. (pp. 50-1)
Houston A. Baker, Jr., "The Achievement of Gwendolyn Brooks," in CLA Journal (copyright, 1972 by the College Language Association), Vol. XVI, No. 1, September, 1972 (and reprinted in his Singers of Daybreak: Studies in Black American Literature, Howard University Press, 1974, pp. 43-51).
Prior to 1967, Miss Brooks' poetry was widely heralded for its lyricism and technical virtuosity. But, when a critic of the stature of J. Saunders Redding favorably compared Annie Allen to a work by Cellini …, he was actually saying many things: First, that she had successfully become a luxury, to be savored by an élite whose training and money afforded them the leisure to peruse her; and second, that she had, with equal success, imposed one of the finest sensibilities of the twentieth century upon a group of values and ideas which, more often than not, were predicated upon white superiority and Black inferiority.
In the case of Miss Brooks' work, it is not simply the internalization of the idea that white is beautiful and Black ugly…. Rather, it is the imposition of an essentially Christian system of values upon the actions of her characters. What has always been most devastating for Blacks about the aspect of Christianity with which they were indoctrinated was its emphasis upon the ideas of forgiveness and salvation through love…. [Anger], rage, the desire to kill, even when one is being killed, are, in the Christian frame of reference, "bad." A "good" person does not even think such things. Yet, in reality, it is these very forces, when channelled, which enable men to throw off oppression.
It is this Christianized sensibility, then, which, in the past, determined Miss Brooks' understanding of action and motivation of the people she described, and which, ultimately, affected the meaning of her poems. Although sympathetic, compassionate, even forgiving, towards her subjects, she never probes too deeply into the "why" of things. Thus, when critics celebrated her "universality" and her ability to "write from the heart," their accolades must be held suspect: One can sympathize with the lowly, muzzled by their own lowliness; one is terrified by rage seeking an outlet.
Since the publication of In the Mecca (1968), Miss Brooks has increasingly turned her eye to the nationalist impulse in Black life. Subsequent volumes Riot (1969), and Family Pictures (1970), are chronicles of the movement of Blacks towards a new assertiveness as a result of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the Sixties. Miss Brooks' latest volume of poems, Beckonings …, is both part of, yet different from, the newer group. It forms a continuum in that her subject remains the nationalist movement. However, where the earlier two books reflected the vitality and optimism of the Sixties, these poems are saturated with disillusionment and questioning, caused by the dissension of the Seventies. (pp. 52, 87)
[Something of a private tiredness is suggested] in "Horses Graze," whose major theme is a longing for harmony as it seems to exist in the natural world. (This is perhaps the least successful poem in the volume. In drawing imagery and rhythms from the idealized world of children, the poet discredits her own, very adult longing for simplicity and order.)
Underlying all of the poems in Beckoning is a deeply feminine sensibility whose need for stability, order, and beauty—for those emotional forces which give continuity to life—is being sorely tested by the chaos and strife it finds around it. However, the fact that Miss Brooks has joined the battle for the duration is beyond question, for one hears, beneath the questionings and disillusionment, hints of a different music, as though she were forging, from a place to which she alone is privy, the rhythms of a new song, of a new and imminent laughter. (p. 88)
Saundra Towns, "Books Noted: 'Beckonings'," in Black World (reprinted by permission of Black World Magazine; copyright, 1975 by Johnson Publishing Company, Inc.), Vol. XXV, No. 2, December, 1975, pp. 51-2, 87-8.
Beckonings exemplifies Brooks' movement toward her new style, which is characterized by a struggle between her normal tendency to make each word bear its full measure of weight and suggestion and an insistence upon directness and simplicity of diction. Actually, despite her reputation for complexity, there are already many poems across the body of her work which are simple and direct. A Street in Bronzeville contains a large number of simple poems, some of which become favorites with readers. I would suppose the main difficulties for the uninitiated readers in some earlier poems would be the presence of irony and understatement.
Beckonings reduces the element of irony and often goes into direct statement. The poem in memory of her brother Raymond Brooks maintains directness, but in its second verse deliberately slows us into thoughtfulness, although no unusual words occur.
He knew how to put paint to paper— made the paper speak and sing. But he was chiefly a painter of days and the daily, with a talent for life color, life pattern; a talent for jeweling use and the unusual, a talent for practical style.
A difference in style can be seen by comparing the above poem with the poem memorializing her father, which has direct, restrained statements, but insists upon more subtlety.
"The Boy Died in My Alley," a poem about conscience and the value of life, uses similar principles for simplicity, moving from lines which may be read rapidly to those which remain simple but slow you down for thought: "I never saw his face at all. I never saw his future fall." "Five Men Against the Theme …" and "Sammy Chester …" use older techniques in a new way; that is, the unusual junction of words, the coinages, the sudden contrasts, and repetitions, remain within the bounds of a simplicity which is accessible to the pause for thought. There are other poems which make such combinations, and still others which move close to direct statement. "A Black Wedding Song" is a good example of this group.
The poems are evidence that the newer techniques will not sacrifice the complex rhythms of existence in their attempts to reach a wider audience. (pp. 110-11)
George E. Kent, "The 1975 Black Literary Scene: Significant Developments," in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture (copyright, 1976, by Atlanta University; reprinted by permission of PHYLON), Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, First Quarter (March, 1976), pp. 100-15.∗
More than twenty-five years ago, in 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks listed three "impressive advantages" possessed by black poets: subjects that are "moving, authoritative and humane"; "great drive"; and "inspiriting emotion, like tied hysteria." She voiced her fear, however, that precisely because of these advantages, the poets might yield to the temptation to substitute them, with "no embellishment, no interpretation, no subtlety," for art…. [But, says Brooks]:
… no real artist is going to be content with offering raw materials. The Negro poet's most urgent duty, at present, is to polish his technique, his way of presenting his truths and his beauties, that these may be more insinuating, and, therefore, more overwhelming.
Never content herself with "offering raw materials," Brooks has, for almost half a century, followed her own dictum by producing poetry marked both by power and by polished technique.
One example is "The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock," first published in The Bean Eaters (1960)…. The occasion for the poem, the integration of Little Rock's Central High School in the fall of 1957, certainly contained "raw materials" in abundance; skillfully Brooks turned these elements into artistry.
Immediately striking is Brooks's use of contrasting images. In the first stanza of the poem, for example, the activities of the people of Little Rock are dichotomized: people bear babes, enabling the continuation of life itself, while tending to the trivialities of everyday living…. (p. 32)
The center of the poem, thematically and literally (lines 27-36 of sixty lines), is the seventh stanza, the most abstract and the most complex division of the work. Before and after this section, most of the images are concrete, while in these middle lines there is not one concrete picture. The intentional ambiguities here intensify the contrast-identity pattern of the earlier sections….
In these richly evocative lines … cluster concepts of heraldry and pageantry, romance, honor, purity, and rightness—called up by oblique references to the Confederacy and its emblems.
Stanza eight emphasizes the willingness of the people in Little Rock to suffer boredom, bother, and fuzziness with grace, politeness, and affection—simply because life must not be rejected. Hence the reporter, perplexed, cannot write down the story he and his editor had expected him to find in Little Rock, a story of evil whites and saintly blacks. The story he does find he dares not submit: "They are like people everywhere." There is no denying the violence and the racism in Little Rock; he has seen people behaving with cruelty—"hurling spittle, rock, / Garbage and fruit." Even in the description of these ugly activities, however, the images suggest both contrast and identification. The hate is expressed in images of ugly movement … but this violence appears on faces characteristically calm, serene, the faces of "bright madonnas." (p. 33)
The controlling pattern of contrast and identification is integrated with the structure and the rhythm of the poem. Although the arrangement of lines in stanzas is, on first reading, apparently random, closer attention reveals that the work falls into three broad divisions which are in many ways different from one another and yet are subtly alike. The first eighteen lines constitute the first section. These lines, subdivided into five short stanzas, are unified by the meter and by rhyme. The meter is iambic tetrameter [and is generally] regular…. (pp. 33-4)
The second division, lines 19-41, provides a contrast. This section is not metrical: line length ranges from three syllables to eighteen, with no pattern of accents. Nor is a rhyme scheme discernible here.
Then the last nineteen lines (42-60) recall the form of the first section while echoing the middle division in some ways. Iambic feet once again dominate—but here with a greater degree of muting, of intentional softening, provided by occasional additions and substitutions….
Hence, although the three sections are not identical—and the middle one is quite different—they are skillfully woven together by repetition of meter and rhyme. And all of these elements—imagery, sound, structure, meter, rhyme—operate together to complement, to intensify, the idea that while there are enormous differences between Southern blacks and whites, both share a basic humanness.
A newspaper columnist, writing in 1974, commented that the South "suffers from two mythologies. One is self-created—the idea of a vanished golden age of cavaliers and belles, elegance in the mansions and happy young (and black) folks rollin' on the little cabin floor…. The second is the mythology of movies and TV—the South of bigots, sadists and redneck sheriffs …". Brooks's fictional reporter seems to have gone to Little Rock expecting the latter mythology; he encounters Southerners who try to believe in the former. What he discovers, however, is a truth that is neither—merely that the South is inhabited by people.
Certain admirers of Gwendolyn Brooks may argue that the theme of this poem is not typical of her work since 1967. They could cite her increasing militancy, her trip to Africa, her association with the Broadside Press, and her statement that today's black "is understood by no white. Not the wise white; not the Schooled white; not the Kind white" as evidence that she no longer believes in the essential commonality of black and white. All of this may be true. Equally true, however, is the poet's achievement of artistry, tightly structured, polished, powerful. In "The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock" Brooks has not taken the easy way out, the easy way of "offering raw materials." (p. 34)
Sue S. Park, "A Study of Tension: Gwendolyn Brooks's 'The "Chicago Defender" Sends a Man to Little Rock'," in Black American Literature Forum (© Indiana State University), Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1977, pp. 32-4.
Gwendolyn Brooks once said in an interview that she wrote poetry because she liked "working with language, as others like working with paints and clay, or notes."… Her skill in shaping and modulating her words is apparent in one of the finest twentieth-century sonnets, "Piano After War," in which diction, imagery, and the sonnet form are used with consummate craft and artistry.
The octave of the poem depicts in selected detail a piano recital which, for the narrator, revives "Old hungers," that is, memories of similar occasions before the war of the title. The opening lines focus telescopically on the fingers…. The fingers are clever in their ability to "beg glory from the willing keys"; and they are clever, almost as a sorcerer's hands are clever, in their power to cause "Old hungers" to "break their coffins, rise to eat and thank." Both senses contribute to the feeling of a "snug," that is, comfortable, warm, and secure evening. They also help to create the atmosphere of enchantment which almost hypnotizes the narrator so that her hungers merely "eat and thank," are temporarily satisfied, rather than "eat and think," the deliberately unfulfilled expectation aroused by the sonnet rhyme scheme.
The second quatrain continues the suggestion of warmth, comfort, and enchantment. But at the same time that the charming music creates an atmosphere of warmth and comfort and brings back a forgotten past, it suggests to the reader something antithetical to that atmosphere; for as the music suffuses, by a revealing syllepsis, both the room and the narrator "like the golden rose / That sometimes after sunset warms the west," we realize that this mood must be as fleeting as that "rose" color which is born only because of the death of the sun and therefore must soon yield to cold and darkness.
The hint of death in this simile and in the connotation of the words "sunset" and "west" recalls a similar hint in the first quatrain ("coffins"); and the purpose of these suggestions is evident when we see the importance of death in the last six lines. (p. 2)
Here the earlier suggestions of death are hardened into the reality of the "bitter dead men" whose cry echoes in the narrator's mind and supplants the joy and even the sound of the penetrating music. These are the men who have died in the war, who never rise from their coffins to "attend a gentle maker of musical joy."
The final couplet again demonstrates a mastery of the sonnet form. It sums up perfectly the movement of the poem, and it is not at all divorced from the first twelve lines. The metaphoric warmth of the octave had "thawed" the vision made cold by sights of war…. And the comfort and false security represented by the "softness" of the final line is disrupted by the hard realities of the bitter cry, in conjunction with which the enchanting, but illusory, musical joy cannot exist.
The craft and artistry of this poem are evident not only in the handling of the sonnet form, the diction, and the imagery, but also in the use of slant rhyme throughout. We have already seen one case where the unfulfilled expectation of the exact rhyme is significant. This is also true in the final couplet where the proximity of the imperfectly rhyming "ice" and "face" is jarring and reflects the hardness that has returned. Indeed, throughout the sonnet the fact that there is something wrong with the music of the rhyme reflects the flaw in the music heard by the narrator, a music which symbolizes the narrator's innocence and which, because of the harsh experience of war and death, can never again represent the reality of the narrator's world. (pp. 2-3)
Alan C. Lupack, "Brooks' 'Piano After War'," in The Explicator (copyright © 1978 by Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 36, No. 4, Summer, 1978, pp. 2-3.