Brooks’s Slow Path to Recognition
However the canon of African American poetry is to be construed—from Phillis Wheatley to Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countée Cullen to Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka to Michael S. Harper, Robert Hayden to Haki R. Madhubuti—there can be no way of diminishing, or sidelining, the wholly singular achievement of Gwendolyn Brooks. Quite simply, she ranked as a prime American imagination from the publication of her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945). Black by birthright, consciously or not “womanist” (in Alice Walker’s term), she showed the ability to range from a modernist experimentalism (Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and Countée Cullen being key influences) to a “down-home” intimacy of idiom drawn from blues, spirituals, jazz, and rap, and, from the start, the example of Langston Hughes. Even so, and despite the Pulitzer Prize that deservedly came her way in 1950 for Annie Allen (1949), she remains seriously undervalued, a writer whose virtuosity only began to receive anything like its due during the last years of her life.
Kansas-born but reared and educated in the Chicago of Hyde Park and the South Side, she attended in turn Hyde Park High School, the all-black Wendell Phillips High School, and Englewood High School, before graduating from Wilson Junior College in 1935. The “Bronzeville,” or black Chicago, of her poems thus draws upon a lived familiarity. Brooks was also a deeply committed family woman, and the strength of her relationship with her parents, David and Keziah Brooks, would readily carry over to her brother Raymond, to her husband and fellow poet, Henry Blakely, and to her two children, Henry, Jr., and Nora. To Brooks “family” meant more, namely black “family” or “community” oneness. That attitude showed in her poetry from the start, whether in “the old marrieds,” from the 1940’s, with its lovely cadence of “But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say;” or in “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” from the 1960’s, with its imagistic, affecting “She kisses her killed boy./ And she is sorry./ Chaos in windy grays/ through a red prairie;” or in “Paul Robeson,” from the 1980’s, with its insistence “that we are each other’s/ harvest:/ we are each other’s/ business:/ we are each other’s/ magnitude and bond.” In each of these poems, as in most of her poetry, the colloquialism is subtle, a complex, highly wrought simplicity.
Moreover, she never gave way to polemics; the particularity of her poetry’s voice and imagery guarded against any inclination simply to lecture or harangue. In her teasingly reflexive “The Egg Boiler,” as if to set a marker, she wrote of her “egg-boiler,” “You come upon it as an artist should,/ With rich-eyed passion, and with straining heart.” Similarly, in “The Chicago Picasso,” she urges “We must . . . style ourselves for Art.” In “To Don at Salaam,” she writes approvingly of her great friend and fellow poet Don L. Lee (Haki R. Madhubuti), “Your voice is the listened-for music./ Your act is the consolidation.”
For all her insistence upon the private crafting of poetry, she did not shun the American institutional domain or fail to bring her “Bronzeville” into a more public hearing. She was a Guggenheim Fellow (1946); an invitee at the Library of Congress Poetry Festival (1962); an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 1964 at Columbia College, Chicago; a participant in Fisk University’s Second Black Writers’ Conference (1967), from which she dated her “awakening” into the Black Arts movement and the thinking of the Black Aesthetic; Poet Laureate of Illinois (1969); recipient of To Gwen with Love (1971), a dedicatory volume written mainly by Chicago’s Organization of Black American Culture; and poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (1985). In all these, her own insistence on her work as a form of ceremonial, an outgoing gift of the personal, was paramount.
As synoptic a...
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