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.