Gwendolyn Brooks 101
Editors's Note: The October 2006 issue of Poetry magazine featured Danielle Chapman’s extended consideration of the poems and life of Gwendolyn Brooks. We asked Chapman to select five Brooks poems from our online archive and to write a few lines on each.
As the story goes, Richard Wright begged Brooks not to publish this poem, saying that the world wasn’t ready to read about abortion. Brooks disregarded his advice and published it in her first book, A Street in Bronzeville. It is a poem of complex artistry: not merely a statement, but one of Brooks’s first truly original works. At once empathetic and lacerating in its irony, the poem presents the voice of a conflicted conscience as it attempts to rationalize the actions of the past.
the vacant lot
Though she’s thought of as a patron saint of Bronzeville, Brooks created portraits of her neighbors that were often satirical. Here in one word, “majesty,” she nails Mrs. Coley in all her bumptious, deluded self-regard. Brooks’s jabs usually have a tone of good humor about them, though; especially in her early years, we get the sense that she was amused, rather than disgusted, by most examples of ordinary human folly.
a song in the front yard
This is a great poem to teach. It has vivid, concrete images and a superbly controlled voice, and it manages to question an entire moral-societal order in language that is completely understandable to your average eighth-grader.
We Real Cool
Her most famous poem, it’s often brought up as an example of what an amazing reader Brooks was. Adopting the bebop rhythm that the poem uses to make its point about the fast life, emphasizing the “We” at the end of every line until the end, where the “We” vanishes, she stunned audiences with this one. It’s definitely an example of Brooks’s virtues as a craftswoman, yet I think (as she did) that the poem is way overrated. She was far too ambitious a poet to allow her reputation to rest on well-executed gimmicks.
The Lovers of the Poor
Written during the civil rights movement, this masterful poem marked a change in Brooks’s thinking and a fierce awakening to the racism that surrounded her. While it retains the control, irony, and brilliantly imagined details that were signatures of Brooks’s style, it employs these techniques to expose the injustices she’d endured throughout her life. It’s shocking to read this poem now (more than 40 years after it was written) and find that it still crackles with the electricity of justified rage.
Danielle Chapman is the author of the poetry collection Delinquent Palaces (Northwestern University Press, 2015). Her poetry has appeared in magazines and journals such as the Atlantic, Harvard Review, the Nation, and the New Yorker. She is a critic as well as a poet, and her reviews have appeared in Poetry magazine and...