Form and Content
The first section of Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems is devoted to an investigation of the world that the poet has chosen to represent: “A Street in Bronzeville.” The street is dominated by women, as the presence of such figures as the mother, a hunchback girl, and Sadie and Maud indicates. The first poem in the sequence, “Kitchenette Building,” is a central one because it asks what the fate of a dream would be in this world. Would it penetrate the “onion fumes” of garbage and “fried potatoes”? The speaker wonders if it might be possible, but at the end of the poem she recognizes that ordinary needs such as “lukewarm water” would keep any dream from taking hold. This is a world of limitations in which any higher aspirations must be put aside for immediate needs. The immediate needs that drive out the dream are chosen by both male and female, since these needs involve “feeding a wife” and “satisfying a man.”
The next section includes two very different poems on the men of this society. The first, “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith,” is an ironic portrait of a dandy and ladies’ man. His careful dressing and scenting of his body are more elaborate than those of any woman. His treatment of women is, however, arbitrary; he admits of no “compromise.” Everything must be done according to his desires; there is no commitment to any woman, since he has a different prostitute each week.
In contrast, “Negro Hero,” based on Dorrie Miller, a black sailor in World War II, portrays a man who fights for equality in order to save “a part of their democracy.” He had to “kick their law into their teeth in order to save them.” The actions are not conventionally heroic but come from a desire to make the stated claims of the country be taken seriously and put into practice.
“Gay Chaps at the Bar” is a sequence of twelve sonnets on the war experiences of a number of black Americans. They demonstrated their courage during the war and in fighting prejudice they experienced in the military. Like the negro hero, they had to remind their oppressors of their own ideals and laws.
The central section of the volume, “Annie Allen,” is an extended portrait of a representative black American woman. It is divided into four sections. The two most important poems in the first section, “Notes from the Girlhood and the Childhood,” are “The Ballad of Late Annie” and “Don’t Be Afraid of No.” In the first poem, Annie makes clear her independent position: “Be I to fetch and carry?/ Get a broom to whish the doors/ Or get a man to marry?” Such conventional choices would diminish her as a person.
The next section, “The Anniad,” is a mock-heroic celebration of Annie. She is a dreamer whose life will not be complete without a man. When the man does come into her life, however, he goes off to war, and he finds a mistress upon his return. At the end of the poem, she has only her memories to sustain herself. There is an “Appendix to The Anniad.” Its three poems define her as later seeking some solace in her loss and, in the last poem, asking her mother “where is happiness.”
The next group is a series of short poems, “The Womanhood.” It contains fifteen separate poems that deal with social issues and motherhood. The following section, “The Bean Eaters,” contains a variety of short poems. It includes an elegy for the poet’s father, David Anderson Brooks, and two poems on the Emmett Till murder. The title poem and “We Real Cool” are very different but are, perhaps, Brooks’s most anthologized poems.
The last section in the book, “New Poems,” is primarily devoted to short portraits. The most interesting of these are the poems on Langston Hughes and Robert Frost. The other poems, “A Catch of Sly Fish,” deal with typical characters in the Bronzeville world.
Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems was published in 1963, a number of years before women’s literature and feminist criticism became...
(The entire section is 1,337 words.)