Prose from Poetry Magazine

Introduction: June 2017

Gwendolyn Brooks speaks to us more vividly than ever.
Black and white illustration of Gwendolyn Brooks.

Gwendolyn Brooks began sending poems to this magazine when she was in high school. “I see myself at fourteen,” she later wrote, “when I first began to pound at the gates of the magazine Poetry! It was a fourteen-year siege.” The gates at last opened and two poems of hers appeared in our November 1944 issue, beginning a long relationship. Of the poems she went on to publish in our pages, doubtless the most famous is “We Real Cool,” a section of “The Bean Eaters” sequence. But it’s poignant to look back at her response to that earliest acceptance; she sent the editors her “autobiography”:

Birth — Topeka, Kansas, June 7, 1917
Residence — 623 E. 63rd Street
Occupation — Housewife
Married Name — Mrs. Henry Blakely
Books — No books published or scheduled to be published ...    

Her biographical notes would change drastically — expanding to include her historic Pulitzer Prize, the position of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, and the post of Poet Laureate of Illinois — but Miss Brooks, as she came to be known, remained devoted to Poetry; she even asked for a six-year subscription in 1999, only a year before her death.

Most important, though, was another change — not just a change in her own life or work, but the more general one she accurately predicted in a 1979 interview:

I believe that events will dictate what turns black poetry takes next. A lot of black poetry is being written now that seems to be interior poetry, poetry that goes deeper into the interior to explore, but I believe that the writing concern will be coming back outdoors just as soon as some things become blatantly obvious. A lot of stuff is happening now that I believe will involve us all, and the poets, their writing, will reflect what they’re experiencing, just as it did in the late 60s.

It is a testimony to the enduring value of both her poetry and her example — as well as, sadly, to the troubled nature of our own time (“A lot of stuff is happening now ... ”) — that she speaks to us more vividly than ever. Her life and work, as this issue devoted to her demonstrates, are renewed over and over again with fresh depth and 
insight in the unfolding work of her admirers as well as in the hearts of her readers, the numbers of which will always grow. “If you just let your imagination go,” she foresaw, “you’ll see that we’re in for some very lively poetry.”

Perhaps no other anniversary in the history of this magazine beyond its own centennial is as important to us as Brooks’s own 
one-hundredth birthday. For this reason I would like to thank that most faithful steward of her legacy, Quraysh Ali Lansana, who gathered most of what appears in this special issue. He has done so while also editing two important anthologies containing work devoted to her — Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks (with Sandra Jackson-Opoku) and The Whiskey of Our Discontent: Gwendolyn Brooks as Conscience and Change Agent (with Georgia A. Popoff) — and has served as artistic director of Our Miss Brooks: A Centennial Celebration, taking place throughout the year in her adopted hometown, Chicago. We also thank Nora Brooks Blakely, Cynthia Walls, the Gwendolyn Brooks Estate, Anna Chen, Dennis Sears, and the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for their assistance and support.

Originally Published: May 30th, 2017

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

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