Follow Harriet on Twitter

About Harriet


Happy Birthday, Gwendolyn Brooks!

By Katie Hartsock

Remember that poetry is life distilled.
—Gwendolyn Brooks

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.

Comments (8)

  • On June 17, 2009 at 12:44 am michael robbins wrote:

    Fookin ell Katie what er you doin here?

  • On June 17, 2009 at 7:32 am Michael wrote:

    Just got Brooks’ selected poems from the library.

    it starts with kitchenette I think.

    I bought “BLACKS” (or was it just BLACK), a few years ago, but I had to sell it when I started moving.

  • On June 17, 2009 at 11:10 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    Marilyn Hacker on Brooks.

  • On June 18, 2009 at 8:09 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Thanks for this commemmoration of the birth of a truly great poet!

  • On June 19, 2009 at 12:29 am Colin Ward wrote:

    I sometimes wonder if readers appreciate how innovative Gwendolyn Brooks really was. “We Real Cool” may have been the first curgina (i.e. verse–rhyming perfect bacchic monometer, as she performs it–with free verse linebreaks).

    We real cool.
    We skip school.

    This was almost four decades before A. Michael Juster’s “Plea”. The poem has other fascinating technical aspects but I’ll stop before I bore people [more than usual].

    Thanks for the birthday alert, Katie!


  • On June 19, 2009 at 3:39 am adam strauss wrote:

    I agree; Brooks is amazing in all ways, and definitely technically: for example, I love the way she wrote sonnets which are both Shakespearean and Petrarchan, which echoe, for example, Herbert’s “Prayer 1” which, too, fuses the 2 variants; I love how her “hybrid” rhyme schemes, to me at least, seem like an amazing formal quality analgous to the point that black bodies may all too easily be essentialized into the most absurd confines, and she both works within confines and also messes with them, makes more room for being.

  • On June 19, 2009 at 10:03 am thomas brady wrote:

    I love Gwendolyn Brooks. She’s a terrific poet and ‘We Real Cool’ was the first poem which really grabbed me as a young person, and today I’m sure it’s a beacon which attracts the young to poetry.

    Thanks for the post, Katie.

    It’s a pity how boring the 20th century makes our poets seem, even a great one like Brooks. For instance, a glance at Brooks’ Wiki entry, reveals the dullness of the institutional and the pedantic (note the ‘urged her to read modern poetry’ and ‘she received encouragement’ and ‘recipient of a number of awards’)

    “A few years later she met James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, who urged her to read modern poetry–especially the work of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and e. e. cummings–and who emphasized the need to write as much and as frequently as she possibly could.

    In 1938 she married Henry Blakely and moved to a kitchenette apartment on Chicago’s South Side. Between the birth of her first child, Henry, Jr., in 1940 and the birth of Nora in 1951, she became associated with the group of writers involved in Harriet Monroe’s still-extant Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. From this group she received further encouragement, and by 1943 she had won the Midwestern Writers Conference Poetry Award.

    In 1945 her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (published by Harper and Row), brought her instant critical acclaim. She was selected one of Mademoiselle magazine’s “Ten Young Women of the Year,” she won her first Guggenheim Fellowship, and she became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her second book of poems, Annie Allen (1949), won Poetry magazine’s Eunice Tietjens Prize. In 1950 Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize. From that time to the present, she has seen the recipient of a number of awards, fellowships, and honorary degrees usually designated as Doctor of Humane Letters.

    President John Kennedy invited her to read at a Library of Congress poetry festival in 1962. In 1985, she was appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Just as receiving a Pulitzer Prize for poetry marked a milestone in her career, so also did her selection by the National Endowment for the Humanities as the 1994 Jefferson Lecturer, the highest award in the humanities given by the federal government.

    Her first teaching job was a poetry workshop at Columbia College (Chicago) in 1963. She went on to teach creative writing at a number of institutions including Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, Clay College of New York, and the University of Wisconsin.

    A turning point in her career came in 1967 when she attended the Fisk University Second Black Writers’ Conference and decided to become more involved in the Black Arts movement. She became one of the most visible articulators of “the black aesthetic.” Her “awakening” led to a shift away from a major publishing house to smaller black ones.”

    Now contrast this to a random Wiki selection of a random 19th century poet:

    “In the days before he died, he was almost shot on two separate occasions.[citation needed] A British consul defended the shooter from the first of these two incidents, keeping him from all legal consequence. Two other Englishmen were with him on the boat. One was a retired Navy officer, Edward Ellerker Williams; the other was a boatboy, Charles Vivien. [11] The boat was found ten miles (16 km) offshore, and it was suggested that one side of the boat had been rammed and staved in by a much stronger vessel. However, the liferaft was unused and still attached to the boat. The bodies were found completely clothed, including boots.

    In his ‘Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron’, Trelawny noted that the shirt that Williams’s body was clad in was ‘partly drawn over the head, as if the wearer had been in the act of taking it off […] and [he was missing] one boot, indicating also that he had attempted to strip.’

    Trelawny also relates a supposed deathbed confession by an Italian fisherman who claimed to have rammed Shelley’s boat in order to rob him, a plan confounded by the rapid sinking of the vessel. The day after Shelley’s death, the Tory newspaper The Courier gloated: “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is a God or not.”[12]

    Shelley’s body washed ashore and later, in keeping with quarantine regulations, was cremated on the beach near Viareggio. A reclining statue of Shelley’s body washed up onto the shore, created by sculptor Edward Onslow Ford at the behest of Shelley’s daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Shelley, is the centerpiece of the Shelley Memorial at University College, Oxford.

    An 1889 painting by Louis Edouard Fournier, The Funeral of Shelley (also known as The Cremation of Shelley), contains inaccuracies. In pre-Victorian times it was English custom that women not attend funerals for health reasons. Mary Shelley did not attend but was featured in the painting, kneeling at the left-hand side.

    Leigh Hunt stayed in the carriage during the ceremony but is also pictured. Also, Trelawney, in his account of the recovery of Shelley’s body, records that “the face and hands, and parts of the body not protected by the dress, were fleshless,” and by the time that the party returned to the beach for the cremation, the body was even further decomposed.

    In his graphic account of the cremation, he writes of Byron being unable to face the scene, and withdrawing to the beach.

    Shelley’s heart was snatched from the funeral pyre by Edward Trelawny; Mary Shelley kept it for the rest of her life, and it was interred next to her grave at St. Peter’s Church in Bournemouth. Shelley’s ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome under an ancient pyramid in the city walls with the Latin inscription, Cor Cordium (“Heart of Hearts”), and a few lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

    The grave site is the second in the cemetery. Some weeks after Shelley had been put to rest, Trelawny had come to Rome, had not liked his friend’s position among a number of other graves, and had purchased what seemed to him a better plot near the old wall. The ashes were exhumed and moved to their present location. Trelawny had purchased the adjacent plot, and over sixty years later his remains were placed there.”

    Thanks again, Katie.


  • On July 1, 2009 at 11:21 am Katie wrote:

    Thanks to everyone for the great comments! By the way, for our Chicago poets, today, July 1st, at 5:00 PM, is the deadline to submit poems to the 16th annual Guild Complex’s Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Awards, the winner of which receives $500! Complete details at http://www.guildcomplex.org/?q=node/108

    Brooks personally endowed this contest–Ellen Wadey of the Guild Complex tells a great story of how Brooks used to take her pocketbook out of her purse and write the winner a check, right there on the spot. I would have had a hard time parting with the check!

Tags: , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, June 16th, 2009 by Katie Hartsock.