Gwendolyn Brooks: The Early Work and the Problem of “Reaching Everyone in the World”

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On October 12, 1990, I heard Gwendolyn Brooks read her poems at the Los Angeles poetry venue, Beyond Baroque, in Venice, California. Her presence and her voice had a powerful effect on me, and I wrote a poem about it almost immediately afterward. I thought well enough of the poem to send it to her, and was promptly rewarded with a warm thank you note from Chicago, signed simply, “Gwen.”

It was significant to me that Brooks’ reading took place here, on the Pacific coast within the geologic region known for its seismic and volcanic activity as the “Ring of Fire.” Also significant was the fact that the reading happened to occur on Columbus Day, the date that opened an era of revised cartography, as well as the inception of the brutal slave trade that brought Gwendolyn Brooks’ forebears to this continent.

On Hearing Gwendolyn Brooks

[Columbus Day, 1990]

Her voice contains a zoo of purrs and growls, Of croons and grunts and hisses, yawps and howls.

Or maybe, it’s the sound of human being A truth volcano, patient, hearing, seeing; Above all, elemental, like a speaking

Lava, abrasive, fluent, hotly creaking, That rolls relentless toward a blue-eyed ocean.

The darkened soil, swept up in locomotion, Enlarges narrow, pallid shores–its call, A black and boiling, comprehending drawl.

Thus she, by just a whisper, or perhaps A gasp, can smolder landscapes, widen maps.

In May 1950, at age 32, Brooks became the first black author to win a Pulitzer Prize. She received the news by telephone, while sitting with her little son in a dark house with no electricity, because she was too poor to pay the bill. She had already published one poetry collection with Harper & Row (A Street in Bronzeville), received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and been recognized as one of Mademoiselle magazine’s “Ten Young Women of the Year.”

Brooks had been writing and publishing poems since she was a child. In her teens, she attended Chicago’s integrated high schools and subsequently completed a two-year program at Wilson College. When asked during a 1967 interview with noted Illinois historian, Paul Angle, if, in light of her own experience, she believed “a person can be taught to write,” Brooks responded:

There are certain hard specifics that can be taught. Sonnet rules. Guards against free verse imperilings. Iambic pentameter. When I was twenty-three, I joined a poetry-writing group organized and led by Inez Cunningham Stark, of whom you may have heard. Dead now, she was a familiar art figure here [in Chicago] for decades. At the time, she was a reader for the magazine Poetry. She came to the Southside Community Art Center and taught us many things about modern poetry. That was an aspect of her effort that helped me the most. At that time, I was subscribing too obediently to the older poets (CWGB p.19).

Brooks began to alter and expand her approach to the “hard specifics” and cultivated a uniquely imaginative, complex, and controlled poetics. She achieved the success she wanted when, at age 27, she published two poems in the November, 1944, issue of Poetry, a goal she’d been working towards since she was fourteen.

Six years later, after winning the Pulitzer for her second book, Annie Allen, Brooks wrote in the journal, Phylon (Issue XI, 1950), “The Negro poet’s most urgent duty, at present, is to polish his technique, his way of presenting his truths and his beauties, that these may be more insinuating and, therefore, more overwhelming” (CWGB p. 38).

Praising Annie Allen, Phyllis McGinley wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “[Annie Allen] is a tender, talented, lyrical little book, uneven, young, and fresh as poetry itself…[with] sophistication of thought and phrase.” Stanley Kunitz wrote in Poetry, “The work of this young Chicago poet never fails to be warmly and generously human” (URIB p.75).

All of this brought down on Brooks a new wave of criticism during the late 1960s, when the Black Arts Movement got underway, and poets like LeRoi Jones and Don Lee were changing their names to Immamu Amiri Baraka and Mwalimu Haki R. Madhubuti. Her style was taken to task as “mandarin” and “indebted as much to T.S. Eliot as to Langston Hughes” (OGBRC p.213).

Of Brooks’ pre-Sixties work, Haki R. Madhubuti wrote, “She attracted those ‘negro’ blacks who didn’t believe that one is legitimate unless one is sanctioned by whites first” (OGBRC p.84). Of Annie Allen, Madhubuti wrote, “…important? Yes. Read by Blacks? No. Annie Allen more so than A Street in Bronzeville seems to have been written for whites” (URIB p.77). In a critical assessment of Annie Allen, Houston A. Baker wrote, “What one seems to have is ‘white’ style and ‘black’ content—two warring ideals in one dark body” (OGBRC p.213).

A few years later, in her autobiography, Report from Part One (published by Broadside in 1973), Brooks 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 prerequisite 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 (OGBRC p.81).

I suppose I qualify as one of the wise, schooled, kind whites Brooks mentions, but I’m far from infuriated by her remarks. I believe she’s right about the need for that “exceptional Doctorate” in “bitter birth and intrinsic sorrow” if one wishes to claim a true understanding of the black American experience. That said, do I really need Brooks’ so-called “white style” in order to appreciate and grasp Annie Allen’s clearly black content? I’m not sure. If “white style” means inclusion, perhaps I do need it. Brooks explained that, before 1967, she “liked the sound of the word ‘universal’” and “thought in terms of reaching everyone in the world” with her poetry. In the same 1986 interview with Kevin Bezner, Brooks noted that the young black poets she met in the Sixties showed her “that there was a lot that blacks had to say to each other,” but that some were writing “for blacks” instead of “to blacks,” which “really threw it all off kilter as far as I was concerned” (CWGB p.120).

When I mention a “revised cartography” and the power to “widen maps,” one poem in particular comes to mind. “Beverly Hills, Chicago,” which appears as numeral VIII in a subdivision of Annie Allen called “The Womanhood,” takes the renowned Los Angeles epicenter of wealth and celebrity and relocates it to Chicago.

Being from Los Angeles, I’m quite familiar with the literal Beverly Hills and its aura of unattainability. Some might argue that Brooks’ poem is more about economic disparity than racism, but the two go hand-in-hand historically.

In Brooks’ poem, when she allows us to join her in the interior closeness of her car and gaze from its windows with her, she also lets us inhabit her thoughts. As we tour the ordered serenity and pine-scented streets of one of Chicago’s affluent white neighborhoods, she begins to reflect, “We say ourselves fortunate to be driving by today. // That we may look at them…”

When asked about the poem by Kevin Bezner, Brooks related,

That comes out of my own life. My husband and I, being very poor, used to go out on Sundays, driving. We always had some little piece of car. We would drive out into the suburbs and look at those beautiful houses and say one day we would have a mansion also. We’d see the people there. We had some ridiculous idea that they were some kind of super population (CWGB p.118).

Brooks’ Beverly Hills is undoubtedly the North Shore of Chicago, an area known to Southside Chicagoans as “The Gold Coast.” Gold becomes a motif in the poem, as Brooks notes the way “These people walk their golden gardens” and “flow sweetly into their houses…touched by that everlasting gold.” She’s quick to add, “Not that anybody is saying that these people have no trouble. / Merely that it is trouble with a gold-flecked beautiful banner.”

I detect, approvingly, a seething constraint in Brooks’ tone. It reminds me of Mark Antony’s sarcastic insistence that “Brutus is an honourable man.” Brooks repeatedly refers to “these people” while assuring, “Nobody hates these people. / At least nobody driving by in this car. / It is only natural, however, that it should occur to us / How much more fortunate they are than we are.” And again, she’s quick to add, “Nobody is saying that these people do not ultimately cease to be. And / Sometimes their passings are even more painful than ours. / It is just that so often they live till their hair is white.” The telling image of how the stress of poverty shortens life is echoed in the epigraph, which comes from a poem by E.M.Price: “and the people live till they have white hair.”

In the final quatrain, as we exit the exorbitantly fortunate neighborhood of “Beverly Hills, Chicago,” Brooks abandons her sarcasm. The poem closes with muted bitterness and acceptance:

We do not want them to have less, But it is only natural that we should think we have not enough. We drive on, we drive on. When we speak to each other our voices are a little gruff.

Those who “drive on” understand that resentment must always be swallowed. It’s a way to survive. It’s also a life shortener. Resentment withheld is taken out on loved ones, in this case, with gruff voices. “We drive on, we drive on” has the sound of a call-and-response chant from the cotton fields or the chain gang. It could also be the chorus of an anthem for the urban daily grind, “the living all to be made again in the sweatingest physical manner.” Slavery is not altogether a condition of the past. In addition, “We drive on, we drive on” seems to look ahead to the protest songs and marches of Dr. King’s era and the Civil Rights movement that had not yet begun when this poem was written.

In structure, “Beverly Hills, Chicago,” consists of eight quatrains arranged with end-rhymes at the second and fourth lines of each stanza. As the quatrain included above illustrates, the lines are non-metrical and irregular in length, de-emphasizing the rhymes, but maintaining the consistency of the pattern. This is especially true in the third stanza, when the rhyme for “gold” is almost inaudible:

When they flow sweetly into their houses With softness and slowness touched by that everlasting gold, We know what they go to. To tea. But that does not mean They will throw some little black dots into some water and add ……….Sugar and the juice of the cheapest lemons that are sold

Objections by young black poets to Brooks’ “white style” may have been unintentionally nourished early on by well-meaning white critics who compared her poetry to Donne, Dickinson, Whitman, and even Ogden Nash. While a case can be made for certain aspects of Donne, Dickinson, and Whitman, the Nash comparison is mystifying, until one notices a similar technique in Nash of rhyming at the end of haphazardly measured lines. Nash, however, does it for humorous effect, as in “Lines Indited with All the Depravity of Poverty”:

One way to be very happy is to be very rich For then you can buy orchids by the quire and bacon by the ……….flitch. And yet at the same time People don’t mind if you only tip them a dime, Because it’s very funny But somehow if you’re rich enough you can get away with ……….spending water like money

I’m one of those who watch for rhymes, and another poem in Annie Allen whose rhyming caught my interest is “I love those little booths at Benvenuti’s.” It is placed immediately preceding “Beverly Hills, Chicago,” as numeral VII in Annie Allen’s “The Womanhood,” and it seems to me the two poems should be read as a pair.

“I love those little booths…” takes us to Bronzeville, Chicago’s Southside neighborhood at the opposite end of the city from the “Gold Coast.” Benvenuti’s is a Bronzeville café where white “tourists” from the northern suburbs come, expecting to be entertained and amused by the antics of the “colored” locals:

They get to Benvenuti’s. There are booths To hide in while observing tropical truths About this—dusky folk, so clamorous! So colorfully incorrect, So amorous, So flatly brave! Boothed-in, one can detect, Dissect. One knows and scarcely knows what to expect.

The white visitors’ expectations are not met. They wait and wait, selecting all manner of “colorful” tunes on the nickelodeon, hoping to stir the locals into some sort of wildness, only to find that “The colored people will not ‘clown.’” The citizens of Bronzeville turn out to be maddeningly normal, thwarting the whites’ curiosity:

The colored people arrive, sit firmly down, Eat their Express Spaghetti, their T-bone steak, Handling their steel and crockery with no clatter, Laugh punily, rise, go firmly out the door.

The first stanza sets me up for a poem of showy rhymes and wordplay, then drops all pattern and form, falls into free verse, and leaves me with a prim quatrain of blank verse. It’s as if Brooks has slyly led me on by promising a poem of raucously entertaining rhymes, which she stubbornly does not deliver. Hah! Am I like the white folks at Benvenuti’s, I wonder, expecting a show? It strikes me as worth considering.

When Kevin Bezner pointed out a scene in Native Son, Richard Wright’s novel about Southside Chicago, in which “the white girl and her Communist friend make Bigger Thomas take them to a small, black café to see how black people live” (CWGB p.117), Brooks commented:

That used to be a very popular sport for whites, to go to black cafés and watch the natives perform. In preparation to write this poem, my husband and I went to Benvenuti’s, which is no longer in existence, but used to be notorious. It was very quiet that evening and the whites didn’t get a show at all. They didn’t get one from my husband and myself. With my poem, I wrote down exactly what I was looking at (CWGB p.118).

Later on, Brooks was criticized for her distant, journalistic tone in this and many of her early poems. She often defined poetry as “life distilled” (URIB p.84) and used to think of herself as a reporter, taking notes from both sides of her corner window in Chicago’s Southside. That was the period in her career mentioned above, when Brooks “liked the sound of the word ‘universal’” and “thought in terms of reaching everyone in the world.” B.J. Bolden noted that, when the poems of Annie Allen were written, “Brooks faced the 1940’s dictate to write as though integration were a viable option, and that by attaining the technical skill and craftsmanship of noted white writers, she would be welcomed into the literary mainstream of America” (URIB p.110).

That “1940’s dictate” proved to be an illusion that revealed itself over time. In her interview with Paul Angle, Brooks read aloud from Karl Shapiro’s 1965 Foreword to Melvin Tolson’s Harlem Gallery: “One of the rules of the poetic establishment is that Negroes are not admitted to the polite company of the anthology. Poetry as we know it remains the most lily-white of the arts” (CWGB p.17). The poetry establishment turned out to be the literary version of “Beverly Hills, Chicago.”

In November of 1967, Brooks attended Fisk University’s Black Writers Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, and came to a decision that transformed her work. In the years that followed, she stated repeatedly and consistently what she explained to Eugenia Collier in 1973: “I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of sonnets, and I’ll probably never write another one, because I don’t feel this is a sonnet time. It seems to be a free verse time, because this is a raw, ragged, uneven time—with rhymes, if there are rhymes, incidental and random” (CWGB p. 68).

Brooks was a child of the North, and, even though the poverty and racial injustices of Chicago were severe (and still are in far too many parts of our country), they were a far cry from the rampant bigotry, hatred, and atrocity endured by black Americans in the Deep South. When a new generation of black poets emerged during the Civil Rights era, they understandably wanted nothing to do with the traditions of a society that had oppressed and victimized their people for centuries. As a formalist, myself, I wish it had not become necessary for Brooks to abandon her background in versification, but I get it. The Bard of Bronzeville had to establish, adjust, and re-establish a career that straddled turbulent and evolving cultural and political times. In the end, I believe she wrote for humanity.

In a 1969 essay, “Gwendolyn Brooks: An Appreciation from the White Suburbs,” Dan Jaffe wrote:

The history of American literature it has been said is the history of a search for a definition of American. It seems to me that the question of race, as it is called, is at the center of that larger question. Gwen Brooks leads us to a sense of the ghetto and the black man. She leads us also to a sense of the American dilemma, one hopes towards some resolution. She has fashioned a style, developed a virtuosity, that makes it possible for her to grab big chunks of American reality, moments of its hopefulness, portions of its resentments, and give them cohesiveness and shape (OGBRC p.58).

Today’s healthy doses of diversity continue to engage us in “the American dilemma,” enriching the “narrow, pallid shores” of yesterday’s literary establishment. I can’t say for sure, but I doubt if today’s black activist writers would object to sonnet writing or receiving critical attention from a white establishment magazine like The New Yorker, which recently ran an article about the Jamaican poet, Kei Miller. The review quoted a fortuitously apropos passage from Miller’s poem series, “The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion,” in which a character named Rastaman tells a cartographer, “…draw me a map of what you see then I will draw you a map of what you don’t see / and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose? / Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?” These rhetorical questions come in handy now, as I invoke the awesome “truth volcano” who visited our part of the Pacific Rim nearly three decades ago, showing us, with her “patient, hearing, seeing,” formidably American voice, a map of time and place, whose larger truths include Annie Allen’s “Beverly Hills, Chicago” and those rotten little booths at Benvenuti’s.

I love those little booths at Benvenuti’s

They get to Benvenuti’s. There are booths To hide in while observing tropical truths About this—dusky folk, so clamorous! So colorfully incorrect, So amorous, So flatly brave! Boothed-in, one can detect, Dissect.

One knows and scarcely knows what to expect.

What antics, knives, what lurching dirt; what ditty— Dirty, rich, carmine, hot, not bottled up, Straining in sexual soprano, cut And praying in the bass, partial, unpretty.

They sit, sup, (Whose friends, if not themselves, arrange To rent in Venice “a very large cabana, Small palace,” and eat ostly what is strange.) They sit, they settle; presently are met By the light heat, the lazy upward whine And lazy croaky downward drawl of “Tanya.” And their interiors sweat. They lean back in the half-light, stab their stares At: walls, panels of imitation oak With would-be marbly look; linoleum squares Of dusty rose and brown with little white splashes, White curls; a vendor tidily encased; Young yellow waiter, lolling and amused; Some paper napkins in a water glass; Table, initialed, rubbed, as a desk in school.

They stare, they tire, they feel refused, Feel overwhelmed by subtle treasons! Nobody here will take the part of jester.

The absolute stutters, and the rationale Stoops off in astonishment. But not gaily And not with their consent.

They play “They All Say I’m The Biggest Fool” And “Voo Me On The Vot Nay” and “New Lester Leaps In” and “For Sentimental Reasons.”

But how shall they tell people they have been Out Bronzeville way? For all the nickels in Have not bought savagery or defined a “folk.”

The colored people will not “clown.”

The colored people arrive, sit firmly down, Eat their Express Spaghetti, their T-bone steak, Handling their steel and crockery with no clatter, Laugh punily, rise, go firmly out of the door.


Works consulted

Bolden, B.J. Urban Rage in Bronzeville. Social Commentary in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, 1945-1960. Chicago: Third World Press, 1999.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Selected Poems. Harper & Row, 1963.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Report from Part Two. Chicago: Third World Press, 1996.

Gayles, Gloria Wade, ed. Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.

Monsour, Leslie. The Alarming Beauty of the Sky. Red Hen Press, 2006.

Wright, Stephen Caldwell, ed. On Gwendolyn Brooks. Reliant Contemplation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2001.