• Peter Templeton

Take 5 - Gwendolyn Brooks

On June 7th, 1917 – two months almost to the day after the US entered World War I – Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas. As a young child, Brooks relocated with her family to Chicago. She would live there until her death in the year 2000 at the age of 83.

Brooks was an author, teacher, and as a poet, the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize. In the turbulent world of the late 1960s, Brooks chose to leave major publishers for Black publishers trying to break their way into the literary market, such as Broadside Press.

Today, we take five with a look at some of her poems.





An Aspect of Love, Alive in the Ice and Fire

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.

Because the world is at the window

we cannot wonder very long.

You rise. Although

genial, you are in yourself again.

I observe

your direct and respectable stride.

You are direct and self-accepting as a lion

in Afrikan velvet. You are level, lean,

remote.

There is a moment in Camaraderie

when interruption is not to be understood.

I cannot bear an interruption.

This is the shining joy;

the time of not-to-end.

On the street we smile.

We go

in different directions

down the imperturbable street.

This is the final section of a poem in three parts, called ‘Riot’, that Brooks wrote in the wake of rioting that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. Earlier sections of the poem refer to a feeling of unease at black people acting in a way that is neither ‘detainable’ nor ‘discreet’. Brooks leaves little doubt of the poet’s perspective thanks to the inclusion of a particular King quote – ‘a riot is the language of the unheard.’

This final section is less overtly political than what came before. Instead, it uses allusions to the opera La Bohème and the poetry of Robert Frost to produce a quite different feeling. In this picture of lovers who must soon leave their cocoon for a world that is on fire, are fire and ice as much about creation as destruction here? Since La Bohème ends with the death of the heroine, are we supposed to infer that this heroine will meet a similar fate now they have moved to ‘the imperturbable street’?

The Ballad of Rudolph Reed

Rudolph Reed was oaken.

His wife was oaken too.

And his two good girls and his good little man

Oakened as they grew.

“I am not hungry for berries.

I am not hungry for bread.

But hungry hungry for a house

Where at night a man in bed

”May never hear the plaster

Stir as if in pain.

May never hear the roaches

Falling like fat rain.

“Where never wife and children need

Go blinking through the gloom.

Where every room of many rooms

Will be full of room.

”Oh my home may have its east or west

Or north or south behind it.

All I know is I shall know it,

And fight for it when I find it.“

It was in a street of bitter white

That he made his application.

For Rudolph Reed was oakener

Than others in the nation.

The agent’s steep and steady stare

Corroded to a grin.

Why, you black old, tough old hell of a man,

Move your family in!

Nary a grin grinned Rudolph Reed,

Nary a curse cursed he,

But moved in his House. With his dark little wife,

And his dark little children three.

A neighbor would look, with a yawning eye

That squeezed into a slit.

But the Rudolph Reeds and the children three

Were too joyous to notice it.

For were they not firm in a home of their own

With windows everywhere

And a beautiful banistered stair

And a front yard for flowers and a back yard for grass?

The first night, a rock, big as two fists.

The second, a rock big as three.

But nary a curse cursed Rudolph Reed.

(Though oaken as man could be.)

The third night, a silvery ring of glass.

Patience ached to endure.

But he looked, and lo! small Mabel’s blood

Was staining her gaze so pure.

Then up did rise our Rudolph Reed

And pressed the hand of his wife,

And went to the door with a thirty-four

And a beastly butcher knife.

He ran like a mad thing into the night.

And the words in his mouth were stinking.

By the time he had hurt his first white man

He was no longer thinking.

By the time he had hurt his fourth white man

Rudolph Reed was dead.

His neighbors gathered and kicked his corpse.

”Nigger—" his neighbors said.

Small Mabel whimpered all night long,

For calling herself the cause.

Her oak-eyed mother did no thing

But change the bloody gauze.

This is clearly another of Brooks’ poems inspired by issues of violence and race. In this case, the poem represents the difficulty of trying to improve one’s lot in life for black Americans. The consequences are often violent when one tries to break out of proscribed limits.

Here, Rudolph Reed moves his family to a white neighbourhood to escape the poor standard of black housing. His motivations are those of a provider. It is the damage to a member of his family that ultimately sees Reed retaliate – which is all the excuse that is needed to kill him. His family are now left with even less protection. The regular patterns of both rhythm and rhyme reinforce the subject matter by presenting a jarring contrast.

‘The Rites for Cousin Vit’

Carried her unprotesting out the door.

Kicked back the casket-stand. But it can't hold her,

That stuff and satin aiming to enfold her,

The lid's contrition nor the bolts before.

Oh oh. Too much. Too much. Even now, surmise,

She rises in the sunshine. There she goes,

Back to the bars she knew and the repose

In love-rooms and the things in people's eyes.

Too vital and too squeaking. Must emerge.

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.

Changing pace, here we have a poem that takes the form of an elegy. Cousin Vit, it seems, is a woman so full of life that not even death can hold her. At least in the poet’s imagination, she rises, despite the lid and the bolts of the coffin, and heads back to the bars.

The poem tells us that even now – in death – she performs dances that sound scandalous and talks of matters that seem like they might shock some more polite company. We see her slopping wine across her dress. Most compelling of all is the simple device of having the poem end with the singular present of the verb to be. Memories might be all that remain, but Cousin Vit still is.

‘We Real Cool’

The Pool Players.

Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We

Left school. We

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

This is probably the most famous of the poems we’re looking at today, and possibly the most famous that Brooks herself ever wrote. In 1988, Brooks herself said (in an interview with Rebekah Presson) that it was her most popular poem. Its legacy would continue. In 2004, the feminist critic bell hooks borrowed the title of this poem for her book about black men and masculinity.

The poem offers us a vision of a kind of masculinity that is defiant but in a less than productive way. The voice, evocative of particular slang, tells us that this refers to a type of black masculinity. It is one that we can infer, from the references to pool halls, lurking late and gin, has an outlook that tends towards the flashy and the hedonistic.

There is, however, that air of prophecy in the last line. Ultimately, these men will disproportionately die before their time. We are left to wonder whether this lifestyle is a temporary escape from that reality, or if, by dropping out of school and acting tough, there is something potentially self-destructive in their apolitical hedonism.

Perhaps, though, it is still simpler. The repeated placement of the word ‘we’ at the end of lines forces our attention to the subject. We might, at the end of the day, see all of these choices – whatever their consequences – in another light. In a world that would wish these men were invisible, it is nothing less than the human desire to be seen.

‘A Song in the Front Yard’

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.

They do some wonderful things.

They have some wonderful fun.

My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine

How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.

My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae

Will grow up to be a bad woman.

That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late

(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).

But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.

And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,

And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace

And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

We finish today by moving from a poem that looks at men, to one that looks at women. ‘A Song in the Front Yard’ concentrates on femininity and the idea of respectability. The front yard of the title refers to what we show the outer world. In contrast, the back yard refers to the satisfaction of desires and impulses frowned upon by polite society. Brooks herself said that this poem was written because her mother was cautious about her children. In her youth, Brooks subsequently longed for the freedom that she could see in more impoverished children. She has also said that it was ‘the lightest kind of a little poem’. Still, critics have found greater depth in the poem than this suggests. This mostly comes in the psychological depths that lie in the idea of the weeds, or the sexual connotations of the girl being ‘sick of a rose’ and wanting to strut down the street with a face full of make-up. Brooks was presented with the National Medal of Arts in 1995 and awarded the Order of Lincoln by the State of Illinois in 1997. She died in December 2000.


Peter Templeton is Honorary Fellow of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University.

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