Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Brian Gilmore
Dear Editor,

While I enjoyed Danielle Chapman's review of The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks ["Sweet Bombs," October 2006] I was struck by her narrow analysis of the poetry Brooks wrote during the sixties and thereafter. It was insulting to read yet another slanted analysis of an African-American poet writing in, or attempting to create with other black writers, her own aesthetic. Chapman's review is particularly vexing because it relies exclusively on the Western literary tradition to judge Brooks's late work. Chapman writes that Brooks's "formal leanings" were "deep sixed" and that Brooks wreaked "violence" on her own style to "match" the "newfound purposes" of the political sixties. Such a summary sounds disturbing to this reader, who adored Brooks's celebrated formal writing but also her decision to embrace African-American traditions and styles in her later work.

Not surprisingly, Chapman's positions have been advanced against nearly all black poets who decided to embrace the cultural nuances of black America and reject Western literature. To dismiss Brooks's efforts just because she decided that segments of the Black Arts aesthetic were useful to her new work suggests a bias that Western poetic tradition is "the" tradition. But Western poetry is "a" tradition, not "the" tradition. If Chapman was inclined to dig deeper, she would understand that the Black Arts Movement was not just about politics but was specifically about the rejection of the Western formalism that represented, at least to the writers of the period, a denial of self. The movement was, as many a writer from the period has noted, about the creation of new forms, new language (even new words), and an art that was singularly noteworthy not only for its politics but for its acceptance of black cultural traditions infused into the poetry. Haki Madhubuti, whom Chapman mentions as one of the culprits who led Brooks astray, wrote poetry not necessarily in a "hip languor" but with the jazz riffs of John Coltrane incorporated into the text. Jayne Cortez, another fabulous poet from the period, wrote in the jazz tradition as well. This meant that the poetry, and its form, included call and response, improvisation, repetition (the Blues), and an inherent ode to the tradition of poetry as an oral art. These ideals are African-American down to their core, and Brooks wrote many notable poems to join in this important historical moment for black poets. As the unofficial matriarch of black poetry at the time, it would have been unthinkable for her to do anything else.

Takoma Park, Maryland

Originally Published: December 19, 2006

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