Gwendolyn Brooks

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 145

How does Gwendolyn Brooks present the poor in her works?

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What is Brooks’s attitude toward the young men in “We Real Cool”?

Children appear prominently in Brooks’s poetry. How would you characterize her treatment of them?

How does Brooks treat racial differences?

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What formal devices—such as rhyme, meter, figures of speech—can be discerned in Brooks’s works, including Maud Martha?

Discuss how Bronzeville becomes for Brooks a sort of microcosm, like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex.

How does Mrs. Burns-Cooper offend the narrator in chapter 30 of Maud Martha?

Chapter 25 of Maud Martha ends with the sentence “She kept on staring into Sonia Johnson’s irises.” Explain.

Brooks is superb at catching people’s personalities with a few striking phrases, as in chapter 23 of Maud Martha. Identify examples of this skill in both the poetry and the prose.

Other literary forms

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In addition to the poetry on which her literary reputation rests, Gwendolyn Brooks published a novel, Maud Martha (1953); a book of autobiographical prose, Report from Part One (1972); and volumes of children’s verse. An episodic novel, Maud Martha makes some use of autobiographical materials and shares many of the major concerns of Brooks’s poetry, particularly concerning the attempts of the person to maintain integrity in the face of crushing environmental pressures. Report from Part One recounts the personal, political, and aesthetic influences that culminated in Brooks’s movement to a black nationalist stance in the late 1960’s. She also wrote introductions to, and edited anthologies of, the works of younger black writers. These introductions frequently provide insight into her own work. Several recordings of Brooks reading her own work are available.

Achievements

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Working comfortably in relation to diverse poetic traditions, Gwendolyn Brooks has been widely honored. Early in her career, she received numerous mainstream literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1950 for Annie Allen. She became poet laureate of Illinois in 1969 and has received more than fifty honorary doctorates. Equally significant, numerous writers associated with the Black Arts movement recognized her as an inspirational figure linking the older and younger generations of black poets. Brooks’s ability to appeal both to poetic establishments and to a sizable popular audience, especially among young blacks, stems from her pluralistic voice, which echoes a wide range of precursors while remaining unmistakably black. Her exploration of the United States in general and Chicago in particular links her with Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. Her exploration of the interior landscape of humanity in general and women in particular places her in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. At once the technical heir of Langston Hughes in her use of the rhythms of black street life and of Robert Frost in her exploration of traditional forms such as the sonnet, Brooks nevertheless maintains her integrity of vision and voice.

This integrity assumes special significance in the context of African American writing of the 1950’s and 1960’s. A period of “universalism” in black literature, the 1950’s brought prominence to such poets as Brooks, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and Robert Hayden. During this period of intellectual and aesthetic integration, Brooks never abandoned her social and racial heritage to strive for the transcendent (and deracinated) universalism associated by some African American critics with T. S. Eliot. Responding to William Carlos Williams’s call in Paterson (1946-1958) to “make a start out of particulars and make them general,” Brooks demonstrated unambiguously that an African American writer need not be limited in relevance by concentrating on the black experience.

The 1960’s, conversely, encouraged separatism and militancy in African American writing. Even while accepting the Black Arts movement’s call for a poetry designed to speak directly to the political condition of the black community, Brooks continued to insist on precision of form and language. Although Jones changed his name to Amiri Baraka and radically altered his poetic voice, Brooks accommodated her new insights to her previously established style. An exemplar of integrity and flexibility, she both challenges and learns from younger black poets such asHaki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), Sonia Sanchez, Carolyn Rodgers, and Etheridge Knight. Like Hughes, she addresses the black community without condescension or pretense. Like Frost, she wrote technically stunning “universal” poetry combining clear surfaces and elusive depths.

Brooks, a recipient of more than fifty honorary doctorates, was also appointed to the Presidential Commission on the National Agenda for the 1980’s; she was the first black woman elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She was named consultant in poetry (poet laureate) to the Library of Congress for 1985-1986. Her honors include the Shelley Memorial Award (1976) and the Frost Medal (1989), both awarded by the Poetry Society of America; the Langston Hughes Award (1979); the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry from Sewanee Review (1992); and the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation (1994). She also received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1999.

Bibliography

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Bloom, Harold, ed. Gwendolyn Brooks. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000. From the series Modern Critical Views. Includes an introduction by Bloom.

Bolden, B. J. Urban Rage in Bronzeville: Social Commentary in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, 1945-1960. Chicago: Third World Press, 1999. A critical analysis focused on the impact of Brooks’s early poetry. Bolden examines A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, and The Bean Eaters in clear historical, racial, political, cultural, and aesthetic terms.

“Gwendolyn’s Words: A Gift to Us.” Essence 31, no. 11 (March, 2001): A18. Begins with an account of Brooks’s early life and documents the sequence of her compositions. Also covers her professional relationship with Haki R. Madhubuti, who helped publish her works.

Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. This biography, completed in 1982 just before Kent’s death, is based on interviews with Brooks and her friends and family. Integrates discussions of the poetry with a chronicle of her life. Especially valuable is an extensive recounting of the events and speeches at the 1967 Fisk conference, which changed the direction of her poetry. D. L. Melhem’s afterword provides an update to 1988.

Melhem, D. L. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987. Beginning with a biographical chapter, Melhem employs a generally laudatory tone as he subsequently looks closely at the earlier poetry collections. He surveys the later works within a single chapter and also examines Maud Martha and Bronzeville Boys and Girls. Melhem’s treatment gives attention to both structures and themes. The bibliography of her works is organized by publisher, in order to show her commitment to small black-run presses after the late 1960’s.

Miller, R. Baxter, ed. Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986. To this collection Harry B. Shaw contributes “Perceptions of Men in the Early Works of Gwendolyn Brooks,” which looks at A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, Maud Martha, and The Bean Eaters for their largely positive depictions of urban African American men. “Define the Whirlwind: Gwendolyn Brooks’s Epic Sign for a Generation,” by R. Baxter Miller, focuses on Brooks’s epic achievement “In the Mecca.” Each of these essays has notes, and the book is indexed.

Mootry, Maria K., and Gary Smith, eds. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Looks at Brooks’s sense of place, her aesthetic, and the militancy that emerged in her “second period.” The middle section comprises essays on individual collections, while the book’s final two essays examine Maud Martha. The selected bibliography lists Brooks’s works and surveys critical sources in great detail, including book reviews and dissertations.

Washington, Mary Helen. “An Appreciation: A Writer Who Defined Black Power for Herself.” Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2000, p. E1. Discusses the young Brooks who attended the 1967 Fisk University Writers’ Conference, encountered young black militants led by Amiri Baraka, and was converted. She branded her earlier writing “white writing” and resolved to change.

Wright, Stephen Caldwell, ed. On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. This resource judiciously selects and assembles the most important writings to date about the works of Gwendolyn Brooks in the form of reviews and essays. Three-part organization helpfully separates the reviews from the essays and the later essays from the rest.

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Critical Essays