kitchenette building

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Gwendolyn Brooks, "kitchenette building" from Selected Poems, published by Harper & Row. Copyright © 1963 by Gwendolyn Brooks.  Reprinted by consent of Brooks Permissions.
Source: Selected Poems (Harper & Row, 1963)

Writing Ideas

1. Think about where you, or your friends and family, live. Who are you neighbors and what do you have in common with them? Try to write a poem that uses, like “kitchenette building,” the plural “we” to talk about a set of shared circumstances.

2. Brooks wrote at a time when African Americans were denied equal rights; for many of her generation, it seemed unlikely that they would achieve their dreams and ambitions. What dreams do you have for your future? What hardships may make achieving those dreams difficult? Write a poem that confronts the difficulties your dream may face—try to be as explicit as Brooks is, naming the “onion fumes,” “yesterday’s garbage” and cramped living conditions that keep her dream from singing its “aria.”

Discussion Questions

1. A “kitchenette” was an apartment divided up into a series of small rooms which were rented out, sometimes to entire families. How does Brooks create the feeling of many people living together? What details does she include to dramatize such close quarters?

2. What is the tone of the poem? Does Brooks seem to despair over the destiny of the dream or accept it with humor? Try to find particular moments in the poem that offer complicated or competing tones.

3. Brooks writes that “Dream’ makes a giddy sound”; what kinds of dreams do you think she is talking about? Compare this poem to Langston Hughes’s “Harlem”—are they similar or different? In what ways?

Teaching Tips

1. Before teaching this poem, read the lively and well-written commentary on Brooks’s work by Danielle Chapman and poem guide by Hannah Brooks-Motl.

2. Have students listen to Gwendolyn Brooks reading her poem aloud, using the audio podcast. Then have students read the poem out loud themselves several times until they begin to develop a sense of command over the speaker’s changing tones, winding syntax, and artful rhymes. They should continue working with the text until they make sense of the speaker’s words for themselves. Ask, if a speaker were saying these sentences aloud, how would her tone of voice change from one stanza to the next? Can you determine what features of these lines cause a speaker to slow down, speed up, etc? For example, what accounts for the difficulty of speaking the second and third stanzas out loud on the first go around? In other words, why does the author choose to make the syntax more difficult and how does she accomplish this? What is the effect of the rhyme in the last stanza? Why might these last rhymes be more perceptible to the ear than the earlier rhymes?

3. Have small groups of students examine the poet’s choice of agent in each line and sentence by asking, who is doing what? To do this, have them underline each verb and circle each accompanying agent. Then have students consider how the actions and attitudes of the people in the building compare with the actions of the other main agent in the poem, “a dream.” How are the actions similar; how are they different? After allowing students to examine Brooks’s choices, ask what commentary Brooks seems to be making about the impact of poverty on a person’s capacity to dream?

4. Have small groups of students prepare an impromptu performance of the poem. Have group members vary the use of individual, dual, and choral voices to emphasize key phrases. In addition, have other group members perform silent slide shows, depicting the actions of the dream and the personified “dream.”

More Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks