Material that Walks and Sings: On Gwendolyn Brooks and Goodness

“If you wanted a poem,” wrote Gwendolyn Brooks in Report from Part One, recalling one of the kitchenettes where she and her husband lived early in their marriage, “you only had to look out of a window. There was material always, walking or running, fighting or screaming or singing.” Brooks almost always wanted a poem. Growing up, she wrote at least one a day. At first, she looked in books, which were closer companions than her peers, writing poems that featured remote Romantic landscapes and the conventional pieties of an American schooling—work hard; forgive and forget…. As she got older and more popular, though, she started looking more often and imaginatively at the people in her neighborhoods, and her writing began to thrive in the richness of that view. But Brooks never stopped being good, even as she became great. And goodness for Brooks turned out to be remarkably capacious and unusually mobile, a disposition she enlarged and revised across a lifetime of poems and a variety of styles.

Brooks’ first three books of poems—the ones that made her name and hold almost all of the poems that make their way into textbooks today—are anthologies of individuals: people, her poems insist, who should be understood and honored for who they are. But Brooks didn’t say she found individuals. She found “material,” something that matters because it can be made into something else. And her individuals were that, too, which is part of what makes her poems so worthwhile. They could be both at once: the “material,” she says, that walks and runs, fights and screams and sings.

Take Cousin Vit, the uncontainable departed star of a sonnet from Annie Allen, Brooks’ Pulitzer-winning second book. Like many of Brooks’ early characters, Cousin Vit is an outsider—outside of conventional morality, maybe outside of conventional economies, too. Those characters always read like complicated mirrors for Brooks, who was, growing up, an outsider of a different sort—precociously good: the sort of kid other kids instinctively see as a bit of a threat, a little too eagerly at home inside expected behaviors, more closely aligned with adults’ ideas of propriety than most adults ever are. (And that alienation cruelly compounded by others’ colorist readings of her darker skin.)

a song in the front yard” articulates something of her fascination with the kinds of outsiders who maybe also seemed a little like insiders to her—people less constrained by the hunger to be unimpeachably good, and so more favored, at least in childhood, by their peers. And, like so many of Brooks’ poems, it makes a point—it has what schoolteachers frequently teach students to refer to as a—as the—“message.” “A girl,” says the speaker, shaking off her mother’s warning, “gets sick of a rose.” Even the good girl gets tired of missing out.

“the rites for Cousin Vit” also makes a case. The poem’s concluding lines read:

Even now she does the snake-hips with a hiss,
Slops the bad wine across her shantung, talks
Of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework, walks
In parks or alleys, comes haply on the verge
Of happiness, haply hysterics. Is.

The closing rhyme is almost-comically delightful, ever-so-slightly slant, the unlikely torqueing of “to be” into an active verb whose activity then shuts the poem down, an abrupt braking of the long sentence made up almost entirely of verb phrases. Echoing the poem’s opening sentences—“Carried her unprotesting out the door. / Kicked back the casket-stand,” both of which, like the subsequent “Must emerge,” also leave the subject out—the sentence is over as soon as it starts. All that weight and energy land on one isolated syllable that nonetheless reaches back over the preceding period, predicating the “Even now she” that initiated all those earlier, active verbs. It’s masterful, and you can feel that mastery against your pulse.

It’s also easy to abstract—that last word, the whole of the poem that pours into it. From her first book to her last, in poems of painful restraint and unrestrained celebration, of almost overwhelming opulence and nearly impenetrable invention, in traditional forms and mostly-free verse, long and short, unrhymed and rhymed, Brooks wrote poems that invite paraphrase. You can frequently get her poems down to a single statement without contradicting them, though that’s not to say you should. Not only would you have to discard the immense pleasure they provide along the way, those statements would cease to persuade, becoming little more than sophisticated versions of the pieties she depended on in many of her childhood poems. But you can, and you might, and the poems apparently intend for you to get that point, however much it depends on the poem for its life.

“Is,” in its triumphant finality, turns Cousin Vit into a case—not only that she exists, but that her existence matters: more, even, than her death. The omitted subject in that final one-word sentence opens a space, as does the permanence of “be”ing (the equivalent of “ser” rather than “estar,” as the absence of any complement insists). It collects the poem’s particulars and exceeds them. In making Vit, as the poem’s second line says, too large to be held by casket or death, in celebrating again the ways in which she remains “too much,” the poem does contain her. It concludes her story. And it turns her not only into the idea that she can’t be summarized or done away with, but also into a representation of others who led and lead similarly unrestrained lives, however constrained their circumstance.

That’s not a flaw. It’s a contradiction that lives at gut level, where that rhyme works, where it’s possible to feel the deliberate strangeness of “material” singing. And it defends Vit—as well as the real people she stands for—against those who would do away with her because she doesn’t fit into their ideas of value or goodness, even as it fits her into a different idea.

*

Here, courtesy of George E. Kent’s A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, is a poem Brooks wrote when she was thirteen:

Eventide

When the sun sinks behind the mountains,
And the sky is besprinkled with color,
And the neighboring brook is peacefully still,
With a gentle, silent ripple now and then;
When the flowers send forth sweet odors,
And the grass is commonly green,
When the air is tranquilly sweet,
And children flock to their mothers’ sides,

Then worry flees and comfort presides
For all know it is welcoming evening.

And, here, once again from Kent, is the first stanza of “The Hinderer,” a poem about racism that she wrote at seventeen:

Oh, who shall force the brave and brilliant down?
There’s no descent for him who treads the stars.
What else shall he care for mortal hate or frown?
He shall not care. His bright soul knows no bars.

Other than their obvious and exceptional skill, what’s remarkable about these poems, and so many of the poems that Brooks wrote in her long and dutiful apprenticeship, is how familiar they are, how comfortable, how likely they were to please. (And please they did; the latter is one of 75 poems that, according to Kent, ran in The Chicago Defender, one of the more influential national newspapers of the time.)

At times, as in “The Hinderer,” one can hear the echo of The Theme Paper, that hoary standard of American education since faded into senescence, with its civic aspirations and emphasis on character, narrowly defined. It’s a poem about racism, but it intends no threat to the racist order of things. It is advice on overcoming racism by being indifferent to it, by being too good, too elevated, for it to matter.

*

After the Pulitzer Prize and subsequent successes, as she began working with a group of radical young black poets drawn initially from a local gang—Brooks deliberately turned her attention to black audiences and a collective black consciousness and began to work as a largely public poet. In one sense, it was a return to her earlier work as a teenage contributor to The Chicago Defender, writing poems meant for a large audience and interested in civic themes. But the public she imagined now was larger—no longer just those who would read a poem in a respected national newspaper—as was her sense of what they needed to hear, and in what terms. She meant now to write in ways both more direct and less accommodating. The new poems reached out for an audience that didn’t read poems and refused the civic and civil compromises, the accommodations of a white power structure and a white imagination, that she now saw as insults to blackness—and to blacks.

Standing on the other side of that shift, Brooks wrote harshly of her earlier self, “It frightens me to realize that, if I had died before the age of fifty, I would have died a ‘Negro’ fraction.” But however much she changed in style and substance, she never became unrecognizable as the poet who wrote poems like “the rites for Cousin Vit.” Here she is, for example, in the opening lines of “To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals,” which came out in 1991 as part of the book Primer for Blacks:

………………………….Sisters!
………………………….I love you.
Because you love you.
Because you are erect.
Because you are also bent,
In season, stern, kind.
Crisp, soft—in season.
And you withhold.
And you Step out.
And you go back.
Your eyes, loud-soft, with crying and smiles,
are older than a million years.
And they are young.
You reach, in season.
You subside, in season.
And All
below the rich righttime of your hair.

It’s easy enough to detect the familiar hand finding its way through this different mode: introducing complexity and richness into something more purposefully direct; finding contradictions that could inform the poem’s unwavering claim; returning to the heavily stressed alliteration that she so often used to reroute the energies of her poems; and inventing words that might hold some new symbolic potential, almost like Yeats trying to create a new system that would put down ancient roots. And still making a point—making a point more immediately, in fact, the poem’s intentions for its audience, a welcoming of its audience, unmistakable from the title on. As she wrote in the early 70s, in Report from Part One, the first volume of her loose-limbed, two-part memoir, looking forward to the time of writing such poems:

My aim in my next future, is to write poems that will somehow successfully “call” (see Imamu Baraka’s “SOS”) all black people: black people in taverns, black people in alleys, black people in gutters, schools, offices, factories, prisons, the consulate; I wish to reach black people in pulpits, black people in mines, on farms, on thrones….

*

“The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith,” a late addition to Brooks’ first book, creates, contra Smith and somewhat closer to herself, an additional character via direct address. After four, short, narrative stanzas, the fifth introduces you to “you.” “Now, at his bath, would you deny him lavender / Or take away the power of his pine?” There’s a giddy pleasure—assuming you are not “you”—in feeling the trap tense, pushed open almost to the point of springing shut. In stepping aside, saying I’m not you, to watch. The terms are already set, not only by the use of “deny” and “take away” but also by the preceding stanzas, which offer Smith up for observation from the outside, in language that is unambiguously not Smith’s but also an echo of him, as elaborate as his wardrobe, as in the first two lines: “Inamoratas, with an approbation, / Bestowed his title. Blessed his inclinations.” Or, a few short stanzas later:

He sheds, with his pajamas, shabby days.
And his desertedness, his intricate fear, the
Postponed resentments and the prim precautions.

It is, once again, a poem with a point—that your dismissal of him, of anyone like him, is absurd; that he is in fact an artist himself, making something extraordinary of a brutal life (a brutality that is, though the poem doesn’t bother to say it, the result of centuries of decisions by people like “you”). And the presence of the “you” allows Brooks to make that point explicit while also making it into a dramatic act, a piercing that opens a space for Smith’s own complex “is”ness, his achievement, which is consistently on message and delightfully bounteous, as is Brooks’ language, far more so than in all but a few poems in A Street in Bronzeville.

At one moment, she seems to give up on “you,” to give up, even, on the particular example of Smith, as if the urgency of it all, the hopelessness of “you” ever getting the point, ever giving enough of a shit, is too much, or too little—too remote. It is a direct and broad statement, and also a plea: “People are so in need,” she writes, reaching for something large enough for what she feels, “in need of help. / People want so much that they do not know.” It’s achingly imprecise: “so,” and “so.” It almost stumbles through its own revisions. It sounds almost hopeless, almost overwhelmed by the implications of compassion in a cruel world.

There’s a limit to this, though. The poem counsels understanding more than it suggests esteem. It defends Smith from judgment more than it celebrates his choices. It relishes his happiness, yes—especially in the poem’s gorgeous last two stanzas, set off from the rest. But you never get the sense that Brooks loves his style. She merely (magnificently) justifies it. Satin Legs Smith is not an emblem of the black consciousness she would later celebrate and scorn herself for having being blind to in the first half-century of her life. Nor is he, within the consciousness the poem projects, altogether admirable, not to the same extent, at least, as Cousin Vit. He is, his life is, necessary. It is an achievement. It is enough—where only excess is enough. Brooks goes back to Smith, standing in front of the mirror. He “loves himself,” she says, and the verb feels active—it is a thing he does, not just something he feels. And then:

Here is all his sculpture and his art
And all his architectural design.
Perhaps you would prefer to this a fine
Value of marble, complicated stone.
Would have him think with horror of baroque,
Rococo. You forget and you forget.

That second plaintive phrase (“You forget and you forget”) echoes an earlier and more explicit statement: “But you forget, or did you ever know, / His heritage of cabbage and pigtails, / Old intimacy with alleys, garbage pails, / Down in the deep (but always beautiful) South….” This new lament is more directed but still imprecise, still repeating, though this time the despair is apparently too great for the repetition to revise. It comes in first as a mention of the things Smith almost-successfully ignores:

………………………….…men estranged
From music and from wonder and from joy
But far familiar with the guiding awe
Of foodlessness.

Soon enough, Brooks is listing the music that isn’t present on the streets: Saint-Saëns, Grieg, Tschaikovsky, Brahms. It comes at a time in the poem when “you” have become largely irrelevant. Those musicians are the closest the poem gets, at that moment, to emblems of “you.” They represent the kinds of beauty “you” might imagine he’s fallen short of. But Brooks’ has largely abandoned the second person pronoun (it will finally reappear right before the end of the poem, first as the familiar character and then as someone else, someone who moves in Smith’s world), and her position isn’t altogether clear. She notes a “restless glee” in the music that rolls out in these streets, but the classical composers are described with phrases, like “wayward eloquence” and “the shapely tender drift,” that offer greater degrees of differentiation and suggest an impassioned study of their work. And what she writes next keeps the echo of their elevation ringing:

But could he love them? Since a man must bring
To music what his mother spanked him for
When he was two: bits of forgotten hate,
Devotion: whether or not his mattress hurts:
The little dream his father humored: the thing
His sister did for money: what he ate
For breakfast—and for dinner twenty years
Ago last autumn: all his skipped desserts.

And then the next stanza, in which Brooks looks through him, seeing not the version of him that he “loves,” but, perhaps, the one that she does—or, if not that, the one that she imagines “you” need to see:

The pasts of his ancestors lean against
Him. Crowd him. Fog out his identity.
Hundreds of hungers mingle with his own,
Hundreds of voices advise so dexterously
He quite considers his reactions his,
Judges he walks most powerfully alone,
That everything is—simply what it is.

It’s a beautiful stanza. It breaks my heart. And maybe it suggests that there is more of “you” in me than I want to admit, because it helps me learn to love Smith. It helps me to see his achievement, his value, in a way I might not if I merely saw the image he “quite considers” to be his. And Brooks, I suspect, needs that, too. His pointed individuality (constructed, like all displays of difference, at least in part from others’ creations—the manufactured suits, the fashion of the time) is an unwittingly collective voice, made up of the voices he resists because they threaten to overwhelm his identity, his hard-won worth. He is, Brooks suggests, emblematic, if not of the consciousness she hadn’t yet imagined, then of both the ongoing harms of a history that is itself ongoing and of a meaningful way of living with that history in the poem’s present tense. And if he is not to be celebrated in the way that the sisters who kept their naturals will be, he is nonetheless exemplary. He is material. He, like Cousin Vit, makes a point—one, it’s worth noting, he would probably refuse.

*

Like “The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith, the opening poem in “RIOT,” (the first book—a chapbook—she published with a black press), intends to refute white dismissals of aspects of black life. It too rides an energy that seems at once nervous and confident. Is clear and complex. Imagines a white perspective it easily overwhelms. And is, though in a very different way, abundant and unambiguous in its answer.

John Cabot, the main and almost only character in the first section of “RIOT,” reads as a more extreme version of “The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith”’s “you.” And just as his judgments are more overtly racist, his punishment is far more grim: he gets killed. “A riot,” says Martin Luther King, Jr. in the poem’s epigraph, “is the language of the unheard.” And Cabot’s death is therefore something said—and said in refutation of his condescension—alongside the destruction that, in the second section, makes people ask in plainly racist terms “But WHY do These People offend themselves.”

The first section of “Riot” also recalls “Satin Legs” in its catalog of beloved possessions. Cabot, the opening stanza explains, “almost forgot” (and so it also resembles all that Smith “hears and does not hear,” “sees and does not see”):

………………………….his Jaguar and Lake Bluff;
almost forgot Grandtully (which is The
Best Thing That Ever Happened To Scotch); almost
forgot the sculpture at the Richard Gray
and Distelheim; the kidney pie at Maxim’s,
the Grenadine de Boeuf at Maison Henri.

Because the Negroes were coming down the street.

I would like to say that I am not John Cabot, but I’m not sure that’s quite right, because I feel compelled here to place a limit on Brooks’ meaning. As others have noted, including James D. Sullivan, in his excellent article “Killing John Cabot and Publishing Black: Gwendolyn Brooks’s ‘Riot’” (which also notes “Riot”’s reflections of “The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith”), Cabot is doubly fictional. Not a single white person died in the Chicago riots that followed King’s assassination. (Nine African Americans, though, did.) Brooks’ poem does not, I hurry to explain, celebrate or satirize an actual (white) death. And so I must acknowledge that my pleasure, from “The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith,” in the tension in the trap, is more hesitant here. I need to admit that when the trap springs shut I do not feel pleasure at all. I feel uneasy. I feel vulnerable, exposed. The price of my having this poem, which was not meant for me, which was meant for a black audience (I am white), is facing that.

More than the rioters, Cabot is the poem’s material. He is there to be wrong, and to be ridiculous, and to be destroyed. He is there to imagine himself lordly even as he goes down, calling out in the poem’s last lines, “Lord! / Forgive these nigguhs that know not what they do.” And he is there to miss the point of the rioters, to fail to see their anger and their individuality, their knowing, to overlook both the causes of their poverty and the ways in which they are more than their difference from his expectations and from him. He defines them in terms of what they are not. And that failure to see is what the poem shows:

Because the Poor were sweaty and unpretty
(not like Two Dainty Negroes in Winnetka)
and they were coming toward him in rough ranks.
In seas. In windsweep. They were black and loud.
And not detainable. And not discreet.

“on It drove,” writes Brooks:

and breathed on him: and touched him. In that breath
the fume of pig foot, chitterling and cheap chili,
malign, mocked John.

“It,” she calls them, in Cabot’s perspective. Meaning “the blackness,” referring to them, in her own perspective, in the same sentence, as “a thrilling announcement.” The poem has no need to make the rioters distinctive. They are material, too, there to thrill and announce and be misunderstood. If, in the poem’s epigraph, “a riot is the language of the unheard,” it speaks most clearly here in Cabot’s incomprehending and condescending terms. For a direct vision of black characters, you first need to move through the chapbook’s second poem, “The Third Sermon on the Warpland,” where perspectives collide and rattle, composing in confusion one of the few Brooks poems that does not, at least until its final lines, offer anything approaching a paraphrasable statement about the world:

Lies are told and legends made.
Phoenix rises unafraid.

The Black Philosopher will remember:
“There they came to life and exulted,
the hurt mute.
Then it was over.

The dust, as they say, settled.”

Only after that settling does she arrive (can, I suspect, she arrive) at the book’s beautiful last poem, “An Aspect of Love, Alive in the Ice and Fire,” with its brittle grace and short declarations, and its assertion that “You are direct and self-accepting as a lion / in Afrikan velvet.” That poem begins:

In a package of minutes there is this We.
How beautiful.
Merry foreigners in our morning,
we laugh, we touch each other,
are responsible props and posts.

A physical light is in the room.

It would be an exaggeration to say that in killing off Cabot Brooks has killed off the awareness of a white audience in her poems. (It would be closer to the truth to say that she was killing off one idea of goodness—one that requires the approval of whites.) But it seems that she was at least aspiring in that way. In Report from Part One she wrote:

There is indeed a new black today. He is different from any the world has known. He’s a tall-walker. Almost firm. By many of his own brothers he is not understood. And he is understood by no white. Not the wise white; not the schooled white; not the kind white. Your least pre-requisite toward an understanding of the new black is an exceptional Doctorate which can be conferred only upon those with the proper properties of bitter birth and intrinsic sorrow. I know this is infuriating, especially to those professional Negro-understanders, some of them very kind, with special portfolio, special savvy. But I cannot say anything other, because nothing other is the truth.

Brooks does not confer the doctorate on herself, though. She concludes:

I—who have “gone the gamut” from an almost angry rejection of my dark skin by some of my brainwashed brothers and sisters to a surprised queenhood in the new black sun—am qualified to enter at least the kindergarten of new consciousness now. New consciousness and trudge-toward-progress.

I have hopes for myself.

If her vision for blackness entails a consciousness that is beyond the comprehension of whites, it is nonetheless forged in the oppression whites and whiteness twist into black experience, “bitter birth and intrinsic sorrow.” And her poems increasingly took as their subjects not the overlooked and injured outsiders like Cousin Vit or Satin Legs Smith but instead those who, like the sisters with their natural hair, were living heroically at the edge of this new world. In a poem addressed to the young, including her own children, she advised saying to those who resisted progress, “Even if you are not ready for the day / it cannot always be night.” Judging from the poems she went on to write, it seems that she meant more than just white people weren’t ready. The black people who failed to at least reach for an independence of mind and spirit, the “brainwashed,” as she calls them in the passage above, were also, increasingly, left outside her images of goodness, too—though she was more compelled to speak to them, to speak to all blacks.

Notably, Brooks’ poems became even clearer. She became a public poet, one determined to be heard by people who didn’t care about poetry. That included the people she saw out her window and wrote about once, the ones who had been her material and her cause, the ones “so in need, in need of help,” who “want so much that they do not know.” She now tried to serve them not through celebration or justification but by speaking to them and trying to show them the way, describing visions for living in that new day. Her awakening began with people much younger than her—people who had never made the same compromises with whiteness that she saw in her past—and she looked to them for the poems she wanted to write, as in the three-part poem “Young Heroes,” from her 1970 book Family Pictures.

The best of those is the second, “To Don at Salaam.” “Don” refers to Don L. Lee, subsequently Haki R. Madhubuti. (She titled a subsequent poem praising him “The Good Man.”) Brooks’ junior by 25 years, Madhubuti was nonetheless something of a mentor to Brooks (and she to him). (Astonishingly, at least to me, Report From Part One begins with a preface in which he frequently writes about her as a promising student who has so far fallen short of her potential.)

Like “An Aspect of Love,” “To Don at Salaam” is made up of relatively short sentences that resist grammatical complexity—and that derive some grace from the ease of that resistance and the unhurried invention she threads through it. “I like,” she repeats three times across the poem’s six stanzas, a gentle anaphora that accompanies a broader sense of being at home in the world where “Don” presides, leaning “back in your chair / so far you have to fall but do not.”

“Sometimes in life,” Brooks writes, once again opening out into generalization, but less anxiously now:

things seem to be moving
and they are not
and they are not
there.
You are there.

Don is the exemplar, but Brooks is the explainer. The final, one-line stanza asserts her authority through the act of authorizing him: “I like to see you living in the world.” If, as she writes, with the bold font pressing him forward, “Your voice is the listened-for music. / Your act is the consolidation,” it is still her voice that says so and gains force from the saying. What she says of Don she intends for her poem. It is an attempt to consolidate, to bring an audience together around an ideal. It means to be (and, I think, is) music worth waiting for, too.

“I like to see you living in the world” is just close enough to “Is” for their differences to matter. In her later books, Brooks determined to write different poems from the ones that first made her famous. But it’s worth recalling that those earlier poems were also attempts to pry open ideas of who could be good, and on what terms.

Report from Part Two, the second volume of her memoir, includes a poem called “Beulah at Church,” which she describes as “one of my poems for children, in an early book called ‘Bronzeville Boys and Girls.’” It describes, she says, “carefully,” “how I felt about church in those early church-going years.” The last stanza says, in its deliberately childlike voice:

I do not want to stay away.
I do not think I should.
Something there surprises me:
It feels good to be good.

Immediately after the poem, Brooks notes with mischievous pride but no apparent desire to erase the then-accuracy of “Beulah at Church,” “Of course, later I wrote ‘The Preacher: Ruminates Behind the Sermon’ [stet]. That poem has since been banned in a number of places.”

A little later in the same book, which came out in 1996, Brooks enters into a lengthy and lovely paean to her mother. It includes the following enumeration of the cardinal virtues her mother insisted on:

My mother ‘brought up’ my late brother Raymond and myself in the sunshine of certain rules. One: we must be clean of body; she scrubbed us vigorously until we children could satisfy her high standards of cleanliness. That was outside! As for cleanliness inside, long before it was fashionable to consider diet with strict seriousness she was so inclined. Our meals were healthful, inclusive, attractive, controlled. Two: we must be dutiful. Dutifulness has always been a major concept. “Always do the Right Thing.” Three: we must empathize with other people. She was fond of quoting her own mother, Luvenia Wims—“If you know yourself, you know other people.” Four: We must respect ourselves. Our bodies were monuments of purity and beauty and we were not to poison them with filth of any kind, with disrespect of any kind. Our minds were clean and shining crystal, into which we were to pour only what was clean and bright and good. Five: we must respect the honor of the Family—in the smaller sense our Family of Four plus our scattered relatives-in-the-large (although she would not have expressed it in this way), our Family of the Black millions all over the world. We must put no disgrace on Family. Six: we must WORK for what we use and enjoy. To steal—the merest match or marble or licorice stick—unthinkable! Other people’s property is sacredly theirs. (And, it follows, ours is sacredly ours.) Seven: we must be polite and helpful to other people. This meant each of us must meet all, friend, stranger, with a pleasant face; a nod, a salutation. This meant, until such behavior became perilous in Chicago, allowing the hungry unknown to sit at table; or giving a dollar here, a dollar there—often ill-afforded. Eight: as long as we were children and controllable, we must go to church and respect God and Godliness. Godliness was a combination of decency, kindliness, and the observance of Duty.

I quote this at length because Brooks, so much later and after so many changes, finds such palpable warmth in these virtues, even going so far as to translate one into her contemporary language of collective blackness. “These mother charms,” she then writes, “abetted by my father’s underwriting concern, protection, and reliable love—are the good to which I continue referral, and which I consider my continuing nutrition.”

Brooks was too abundant and extraordinary a poet to house her achievement under any one name. But in the lengthy roll call of her virtues, it is worth including a deep and enduring investment in (and revision of) virtue itself. Goodness was an idea that pulled on Brooks’ imagination—and that she pulled on in return—for all of her long and varied poetic life. And just as her life story shines with a frequent willingness to humble herself, making her own life into material for the making of a world worth living in, so too were her poems forever using the world as it was and could be—and the people shaped by both—to help others better imagine both of those versions of the world.

Jonathan Farmer

Jonathan Farmer

Jonathan Farmer is the editor in chief and poetry editor of At Length and Critic at Large for the Kenyon Review. He has written about poetry for publications that include Slate.com, Literary Hub, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Poetry Foundation. He teaches middle and high school English and lives in Durham, NC.
Jonathan Farmer

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Author: Jonathan Farmer

Jonathan Farmer is the editor in chief and poetry editor of At Length and Critic at Large for the Kenyon Review. He has written about poetry for publications that include Slate.com, Literary Hub, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Poetry Foundation. He teaches middle and high school English and lives in Durham, NC.