Gwendolyn Brooks: Essential American Poets

September 16, 2008

This is The Poetry Foundation’s Essential American Poets Podcast. Essential American Poets is an online audio-poetry collection. The poets included in the collection were selected in 2006 by Donald Hall when he was Poet Laureate. Donald Hall has said that the entryway to a poem is the beauty of it’s sound, and there’s nothing like hearing the poet’s voice. Recordings of the poets he selected reading their work are available online at and In this edition of the podcast, we’ll hear poems by Gwendolyn Brooks. Gwendolyn Brooks was born in 1917 and grew up in Chicago’s south side, where many of her poems are set. She began publishing poetry in the 1940s, earning literary acclaim with her first book, A Street in Bronsville. In 1950, Brooks became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Brooks’ poetry reflects the lives and social world in which she lived. Her poems are often intimate portraits of city people struggling against poverty and racism. She wrote everything from free verse to ballads and sonnets. In the 1960s, Brooks’ poetry became more political, as she connected with a younger generation of black poets and the black arts movement. She was a teacher throughout her career, and published prose and non-fiction work as well as poetry. She died in the year 2000 at the age of 83. The following four poems are from a reading Gwendolyn Brooks gave at the Library of Congress on January 19th, 1961.


Gwendolyn Brooks: The Mother


Abortions will not let you forget.

You remember the children you got that you did not get,   

The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,   

The singers and workers that never handled the air.   

You will never neglect or beat

Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.

You will never wind up the sucking-thumb

Or scuttle off ghosts that come.

You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,   

Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.


I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children.

I have contracted. I have eased

My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.

I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized

Your luck

And your lives from your unfinished reach,

If I stole your births and your names,

Your straight baby tears and your games,

Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches, and your deaths,

If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,

Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.   

Though why should I whine,

Whine that the crime was other than mine?—

Since anyhow you are dead.

Or rather, or instead,

You were never made.

But that too, I am afraid,

Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?   

You were born, you had body, you died.

It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.


Believe me, I loved you all.

Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you



Gwendolyn Brooks: of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery


He was born in Alabama.

He was bred in Illinois.

He was nothing but a

Plain black boy.


Swing low swing low sweet sweet chariot.

Nothing but a plain black boy.


Drive him past the Pool Hall.

Drive him past the Show.

Blind within his casket,

But maybe he will know.


Down through Forty-seventh Street:

Underneath the L,

And Northwest Corner, Prairie,

That he loved so well.


Don’t forget the Dance Halls—

Warwick and Savoy,

Where he picked his women, where

He drank his liquid joy.


Born in Alabama.

Bred in Illinois.

He was nothing but a

Plain black boy.


Swing low swing low sweet sweet chariot.

Nothing but a plain black boy.


Gwendolyn Brooks: The Lovers of the Poor


arrive. The Ladies from the Ladies’ Betterment League

Arrive in the afternoon, the late light slanting   

In diluted gold bars across the boulevard brag

Of proud, seamed faces with mercy and murder hinting   

Here, there, interrupting, all deep and debonair,

The pink paint on the innocence of fear;   

Walk in a gingerly manner up the hall.

Cutting with knives served by their softest care,   

Served by their love, so barbarously fair.

Whose mothers taught: You’d better not be cruel!   

You had better not throw stones upon the wrens!   

Herein they kiss and coddle and assault   

Anew and dearly in the innocence   

With which they baffle nature. Who are full,   

Sleek, tender-clad, fit, fiftyish, a-glow, all   

Sweetly abortive, hinting at fat fruit,   

Judge it high time that fiftyish fingers felt   

Beneath the lovelier planes of enterprise.   

To resurrect. To moisten with milky chill.   

To be a random hitching-post or plush.

To be, for wet eyes, random and handy hem.

                        Their guild is giving money to the poor.

The worthy poor. The very very worthy

And beautiful poor. Perhaps just not too swarthy?

perhaps just not too dirty nor too dim   

Nor—passionate. In truth, what they could wish

Is—something less than derelict or dull.

Not staunch enough to stab, though, gaze for gaze!

God shield them sharply from the beggar-bold!   

The noxious needy ones whose battle’s bald   

Nonetheless for being voiceless, hits one down.

                        But it’s all so bad! and entirely too much for them.

The stench; the urine, cabbage, and dead beans,

Dead porridges of assorted dusty grains,

The old smoke, heavy diapers, and, they’re told,

Something called chitterlings. The darkness. Drawn

Darkness, or dirty light. The soil that stirs.   

The soil that looks the soil of centuries.

And for that matter the general oldness. Old   

Wood. Old marble. Old tile. Old old old.

Not homekind Oldness! Not Lake Forest, Glencoe.

Nothing is sturdy, nothing is majestic,

There is no quiet drama, no rubbed glaze, no   

Unkillable infirmity of such

A tasteful turn as lately they have left,   

Glencoe, Lake Forest, and to which their cars   

Must presently restore them. When they’re done

With dullards and distortions of this fistic

Patience of the poor and put-upon.

                        They’ve never seen such a make-do-ness as   

Newspaper rugs before! In this, this “flat,”   

Their hostess is gathering up the oozed, the rich   

Rugs of the morning (tattered! the bespattered. . . .)   

Readies to spread clean rugs for afternoon.   

Here is a scene for you. The Ladies look,   

In horror, behind a substantial citizeness   

Whose trains clank out across her swollen heart.   

Who, arms akimbo, almost fills a door.

All tumbling children, quilts dragged to the floor   

And tortured thereover, potato peelings, soft-

Eyed kitten, hunched-up, haggard, to-be-hurt.

                        Their League is allotting largesse to the Lost.   

But to put their clean, their pretty money, to put   

Their money collected from delicate rose-fingers   

Tipped with their hundred flawless rose-nails seems . . .

                        They own Spode, Lowestoft, candelabra,   

Mantels, and hostess gowns, and sunburst clocks,   

Turtle soup, Chippendale, red satin “hangings,”   

Aubussons and Hattie Carnegie. They Winter   

In Palm Beach; cross the Water in June; attend,   

When suitable, the nice Art Institute;

Buy the right books in the best bindings; saunter   

On Michigan, Easter mornings, in sun or wind.   

Oh Squalor! This sick four-story hulk, this fibre   

With fissures everywhere! Why, what are bringings   

Of loathe-love largesse? What shall peril hungers   

So old old, what shall flatter the desolate?   

Tin can, blocked fire escape and chitterling

And swaggering seeking youth and the puzzled wreckage   

Of the middle passage, and urine and stale shames   

And, again, the porridges of the underslung

And children children children. Heavens! That

Was a rat, surely, off there, in the shadows? Long

And long-tailed? Gray? The Ladies from the Ladies’   

Betterment League agree it will be better

To achieve the outer air that rights and steadies,

To hie to a house that does not holler, to ring

Bells elsetime, better presently to cater

To no more Possibilities, to get

Away. Perhaps the money can be posted.

Perhaps they two may choose another Slum!

Some serious sooty half-unhappy home!—

Where loathe-love likelier may be invested.

                        Keeping their scented bodies in the center   

Of the hall as they walk down the hysterical hall,   

They allow their lovely skirts to graze no wall,

Are off at what they manage of a canter,

And, resuming all the clues of what they were,

Try to avoid inhaling the laden air.


Gwendolyn Brooks: A Sunset of the City


Already I am no longer looked at with lechery or love.

My daughters and sons have put me away with marbles and dolls,

Are gone from the house.

My husband and lovers are pleasant or somewhat polite   

And night is night.


It is a real chill out,

The genuine thing.

I am not deceived, I do not think it is still summer   

Because sun stays and birds continue to sing.


It is summer-gone that I see, it is summer-gone.   

The sweet flowers indrying and dying down,

The grasses forgetting their blaze and consenting to brown.


It is a real chill out. The fall crisp comes.   

I am aware there is winter to heed.   

There is no warm house

That is fitted with my need.

I am cold in this cold house this house

Whose washed echoes are tremulous down lost halls.

I am a woman, and dusty, standing among new affairs.   

I am a woman who hurries through her prayers.


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.


That was Gwendolyn Brooks reading her poetry at the Library of Congress in 1961. You’ve been listening to the Essential American Poets Podcast, produced by The Poetry Foundation in collaboration with To learn more about Gwendolyn Brooks and other essential American poets, and to hear more poetry, go to

Archival recordings of former poet laureate Brooks, with an introduction to her life and work. Recorded January 19, 1961, Recording Laboratory, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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