Introduction

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Brooks, Gwendolyn 1917–

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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.)

Houston A. Baker, Jr.

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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 characters' concerns transcend the ghetto life of many black Americans. They reflect the joy of childhood, the burdens and contentment of motherhood,...

(The entire section contains 4202 words.)

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