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Happy Birthday, Gwendolyn Brooks!
Remember that poetry is life distilled.
June 7, 2009, would have been Gwendolyn Brooks’s 92nd birthday; to join us in celebrating one of America’s greatest poets, check out the Hall Library stop on the Chicago Poetry Tour, which features archival recordings of Brooks reading from and speaking about the span of her work. The program ranges from the intimate neighborhood portraits included in her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville, such as “kitchenette building” and “the rites for Cousin Vit,” to the political turn her poetry took in the ’60s as she became involved with the black arts movement:
And we did such exciting things. And we went into the park and recited our poetry and we went to city jail. And the most exciting thing we did was just to walk into a tavern, and someone like Haki Madhubuti, once known as Don L. Lee, would say, “Look folks, we’re gonna lay some poetry on you!” . . . And they would turn from their drinks, temporarily, and listen to poetry, which they hadn’t come to the tavern to hear, of course.
The Poetry Foundation website offers a critical biography of Brooks, as well as contemporary articles, including Danielle Chapman’s “Sweet Bombs,” a review of the recently issued collection The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks.
For a broader look at Brooks’s effect on Chicago poetry, listen to “Confronting the Warpland,” an original one-hour radio documentary produced by the Poetry Foundation. The show presents African American poets who have found influence and inspiration living in the city, and features Brooks, Tyehimba Jess, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Haki Madhubuti, Sterling Plumpp, and Margaret Walker in interviews, readings, and archival recordings.
Finally, Brooks is showcased in the Essential American Poets archive, selected by Donald Hall during his poet laureateship in 2006. Recorded at the Library of Congress in 1961, Brooks, in her early 30s, reads several poems not available on the Chicago Poetry Tour, including “the mother,” “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery,” and “A Sunset of the City,” which ends,
Tin intimations of a quiet core to be my
Desert and my dear relief
Come: there shall be such islanding from grief,
And small communion with the master shore.
Twang they. And I incline this ear to tin,
Consult a dual dilemma. Whether to dry
In humming pallor or to leap and die.
Somebody muffed it? Somebody wanted to joke.