Gwendolyn Brooks is a fabulous poet. Like profoundly good. Like name your children after her amazing. Mind-blowingly talented, heartbreakingly (and often heartwarmingly) insightful, and clear in her clarion call for a more humane and understanding world, Brooks’ voice is what our planet needs now.
My copy of Selected Poems is a paperback from 1963, so much of her powerful political work isn’t included in this volume, including her 1968 tour de force In the Mecca, though the final section “New Poems” hints at the voice that Brooks brought to her work up through her death in 2000.
Even in these relatively early poems Brooks’ range is inspiring. She knows her poetic standards, but it’s when she’s riffing on these that her verse takes on an even more interesting, complicated, and unexpected reality; a sonnet is nice, but there’s a boldness and beauty to a sixteen line poem has lulled her reader into expecting they knew what was coming, or a poem of a dozen lines that could be a sonnet if it wanted, but is just fine at twelve lines thank you very much.
Narrative, philosophical, intimate, and expansive, Brooks turns her verse to a multitude of purposes, inspirationally so.
Brooks takes readers into her characters’ lives in the poems from her first collection A Street In Bronzeville. Capturing the tension between expectations and desire in poems like “a song in the front yard” where her poetic narrator tells readers:
I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.”
Brooks takes us down that alley, into apartments, and into the lives of people living in post World War Two American. Her poems look too at the changes that war brought to individuals, changes that wouldn’t be reflected societally for years to come. In “gay chaps at the bar” she brings her poetic gaze to the white soldiers who were first “perplexed” and then ignored convention when they served with black soldiers, who “looked like men.”
Time and the temper to remember those
Congenital iniquities that cause
Disfavor of the darkness. Such as boxed
Their feelings properly, complete to tags—
A box for dark men and a box for Other—
Would often find the contents had been scrambled.
Or even switched. Who really gave two figs?”
Brooks is not trying to erase differences as much as she is trying to show similarities, and even as she does she honors characters and culture specific to the black experience.
In an amazing narrative poem “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith” she brings to life a zoot suiter who:
…wakes, unwinds, elaborately : a cat
Tawny, reluctant, royal. He is fat
And fine this morning. Definite. Reimbursed.”
Brooks’ description is exquisite, her eye for detail profound, and the picture that emerges is more than just complete of Satin-Legs Smith, it expands to encompass all of us. “People are so in need,” she writes, “in need of help. / People want so much they do not know.”
Sometimes those needs are literal, as for those she sees around her in a neighborhood of people marginalized by society:
From music and from wonder and from joy
But far familiar with the guiding awe
Other times that need is spiritual or societal, and Brooks embraces those concerns as adeptly.
In “Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath” Brooks turns her perspective to the Freedom Riders and her poetry to the iambic pentameter of classical poetry. With attention to language, Brooks’ narrative voice takes on the elevated timbre of Milton or Spenser, careful with words even as she is bold with ideas.
They do not see how deftly I endure.
Deep down the whirlwind of good rage I store
Commemorations in an utter thrall.
Although I need not eat them any more.”
The poem is filled with imagery both traditional and unconventional in its use, and ends with a couplet as honest as it is heroic.
To fail, to flourish, to wither or to win.
We lurch, distribute, we extend, begin.”
Brooks echoes the classics again as she makes epic the story of a woman living in poverty, “The Anniad” a play on The Aeneid, Brooks’ hero more human than anything from Virgil. The poem’s opening lines are reminiscent of traditional cadences, but carry a rich intimacy the ancients glossed over.
Think of sweet and chocolate,
Left to folly or to fate,
Whom the higher gods forgot,
Whom the lower gods berate;
Physical and underfed
Fancying on the featherbed
What was never and was not.”
Annie Allen is a very real character with a very real story and Brooks’ decision to tell it using this heroic (or quasi-heroic) style is in itself a challenge to readers to regard the events in a different way than they might if it were presented in a less formal or established style.
Not that she doesn’t do less formal as well. In poems like “Mrs. Small” or “The Bean-Eaters” she tightens her focus to the beads and tobacco crumbs of daily life, and the result is as moving as it is accessible.
…and then, in case you’d forgotten that she was the consummate professional, Brooks drops a sonnet to show her poetic chops and rock the world.
First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string
With feathery sorcery; muzzle the note
With hurting love; the music that they wrote
Bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing
Threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing
For the dear instrument to bear. Devote
The bow to silks and honey. Be remote
A while from malice and from murdering,
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.”
It’s a poem that invites rereadings and reading aloud. If I still taught English I’d make it a lesson in and of itself. Here, in this modest post celebrating poetry, I’ll simply suggest reading it again, thinking through how you’d deliver the lines if you were an actor and to whom you would want to speak aloud the poem.
When I first read the sonnet, and an (almost) classic Italian sonnet it is, I thought of the rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the verbal complexity of Donne, then I thought better of comparing Brooks to those old fellows; she is her own voice, powerful and uniquely so.
Proclamatory, and personal, Brooks has the ability to echo from the rooftops and then whisper truth in her reader’s ear. “To be in love,” she tells us, “Is to touch things with a lighter hand.”
In Selected Poems that light hand rests alongside a fist raised against challenges. Brooks is a poet of depth, and her poems are like Satin-Legs Smith’s ties, “narrow banners for some gathering war.”
Continuing this year of poetry next week with The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield.