“Velvety Velour” and Other Sonnet Textures
What shall I give my children? who are poor,
Who are adjudged the leastwise of the land,
Who are my sweetest lepers, who demand
No velvet and no velvety velour;
But who have begged me for a brisk contour,
Crying that they are quasi, contraband
Because unfinished, graven by a hand
Less than angelic, admirable or sure.
— Gwendolyn Brooks
“Poetry is not a luxury,” Audre Lorde famously wrote. It is certainly no luxury for the “children of the poor” described in Gwendolyn Brooks’s sonnet sequence that opens “The Womanhood” in Annie Allen. First, the sonnet form itself is an exercise in parsimony. In contrast to heroic couplets or other poetic forms featuring the potential of infinitely extendable lines, the sonnet is restricted to just fourteen of them. For the Brooks of Annie Allen, such limitation creates a circumscribed poetic theater in which to critique racial discrimination and economic inequality in the first half of twentieth-century America.
This critique, however, is far from simple: Brooks’s sequence shows what the sonnet form can accomplish in its more oblique guises. Within what Joyce Ann Joyce calls her “mastery of indirection,” Brooks shows the many registers obliquity can inhabit — and that, in the right hands, obliquity can be the voice of urgency. Writing of Brooks’s early work, Henry Taylor also notes “the Dickinsonian way in which sophistication sometimes becomes a shield, from behind which almost invisible darts fly often and accurately.” Though this metaphor implies a subterfuge in the work that I don’t necessarily see, Taylor’s coupling of darts and sophistication is very well-suited to Brooks’s project.
For Brooks, at this time, the sonnet provided a serious platform from which to dramatize black experience, often by creating characters or personae. She had already done this in “Gay Chaps at the Bar,” the sonnet sequence from A Street in Bronzeville, which featured black veterans of WWII. But in “The Womanhood,” the sonnet’s contraction is deeply connected to mothering. “I have contracted,” Brooks had written in “the mother” (from Bronzeville), thereby suggesting both the contractions of labor and the legal contract of the birth certificate. In “the children of the poor” sonnets, however, contraction is formal rather than thematic: it resides in the sonnet form itself, much as Paul Fussell described the Petrarchan sonnet structure as mimetic of “contraction and release in the muscular system.” As we’ll see, Brooks took exactly what she needed from the Petrarchan rhyming template. But she also combines the sonnet’s formal contraction with linguistic luxuriousness and tautology — thereby creating a sinuous, multi-layered protest against the inequities that her speakers suffer.
In 1948, William Carlos Williams called the sonnet a form that “does not admit of the slightest structural change in its composition.” Both Bronzeville and Annie Allen — the latter published one year after Williams’s statement — showed how misguided this opinion was in both fact and spirit. For the virtuoso Brooks, the sonnet not only changes, but becomes an agent of greater cultural change; she shows it to be neither a stodgily British form, as it was for Williams, nor a narrowly patriarchal one. But by choosing the sonnet form at this moment in her collection, she also chooses circuitous, sometimes periphrastic poetic argument rather than a documentarian or even narrative approach to motherhood, race, and poverty. In other words, despite the swift pathos of the opening question, “What shall I give my children?” the voice of these sonnets is prolix, capacious, and erudite, featuring multifaceted and grandly detoured clauses.
In no way, however, does complexity minimize the immediacy with which Brooks dramatizes the pain and disenfranchisement caused by racial discrimination in forties America. In these poems, Brooks balances ratiocination with tenderness and regret; she tempers legalese with the language of child’s play. In the sonnet I quoted above, for example, the mother says her children have asked her for “no velvet and no velvety velour.” On the one hand, this line illustrates Brooks’s own term “leastwise,” or the children’s internalization of how little they are valued by the dominant white culture: not only do they not require the elegance and expense of authentically velvet clothing, but they don’t even ask for “velvety velour,” or the less-expensive fabric that would look like velvet and suffice in its stead.
The line’s brilliance is also manifold. While the repeated “no” emphasizes the children’s negation in the eyes of a racist culture, an unmistakable verbal pleasure unfolds if you actually speak the phrase “No velvet and no velvety velour.” What it conveys is serious and even heartbreaking, but how can the line itself not make you smile?
For me, the phrase is like frosting on a red velvet cake — sweets for the sweet (-est lepers), if you will. “Velvet” combines with the almost kid-like “velvety” to concoct a verbal treat. Even as she negates the two fabrics’ gradations of luxury, Brooks makes sure that we conspicuously consume their alliterative verbal material — showcasing the rare and wonderful v, no less — much as “the mother,” in the previous poem I referenced, suffers both from a “gobbling mother-eye” and the inability to feed her aborted babies.
Verbal excess both surges and is tempered throughout the sequence. Brooks’s first sonnet describes children “whose unridiculous / lost softness softly makes a trap for us,” creating a los sound that pulls across the enjambment, only to reveal itself assonant with the “softness” that then transforms to the adverb “softly.” This is a veritable succulence of sound — in a poem about financially strapped, depleted parents. And appropriately, their children emit not just a whimper or a whine, but a double-barreled “whimper-whine.”
These intentionally tautological phrases allow Brooks to depict a poor mother’s relationship both to her children and to the material items she cannot give them (and to the ratification or racially intelligible “contour” that she also cannot provide in the eyes of white America). But they also signify formally. For me, these moments signal Brooks’s enormous agility and even relaxation within the strictness of the sonnet form — her willingness to let diction bask and wink within poems that are fundamentally serious. Her idiosyncratic ease serves an almost plangent urgency.
These phrases also suggest an irresistible excess and gentleness associated with motherhood even in its direst conditions. Surely Brooks’s own experience as a mother was not identical to her speakers’ in this sequence. But her son Henry Blakely III was born in 1940, and her own parenting may play a role in these sonnets’ linguistic and musical luxuriousness. As we’ve seen, her seeming-tautologies allow childlike echolalia to ruffle the “graven” textures of time-honored sonnet forms. To mix metaphors a bit: she creates little fault lines, or rills, in what has been seen since Shakespeare as a sculptural or marmoreal tradition.
In this particular sonnet, Brooks’s use of rhyme schemes from two classical sonnet forms, the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean, also provides an element of surplus. The sonnet embeds the Petrarchan octet’s envelope rhymes before exploiting the repeated resonance of the Shakespearean form’s closing couplet. Here Brooks is in the company of Donne, Milton, and others who mobilized similar strategies to reconstruct for the sonnet’s hoary foot “sandals more interwoven and complete,” in Keats’s terms; as Stephen Burt and David Mikics note, a poet cannot write a sonnet without participating in a long line of literary tradition. But it is the very saturation of this tradition, even in the mid-twentieth century, that attracts the Brooks who writes “No velvet and no velvety velour.” While excess will never derail these poems, she also whets our appetites for it.
She later comments on these strategies. In the fourth sonnet of “the children of the poor,” Brooks juxtaposes violin playing and “bloody” rebellion, promoting the internal rhyme between “armor” and “harmony.” Here the mother instructs her children to “Devote / The bow to silks and honey,” rather than to “salt.” Silks and honey — again, extra-soft fabric and syrupy sweetness — perform a rhetorical function as metaphors for public performance.
This fourth sonnet creates both an alliterative juxtaposition and a small chronology. “First fight. Then fiddle” counsels a strict separation between militarism and the music to be played after war. While ostensibly independent, these activities are also defined by what each one is not, Brooks suggests; single-minded soldiers must “be deaf to music and to beauty blind.” And yet, “the music that they wrote / Bewitch, bewilder” suggests that a violinist must work sinuously, and strenuously, against the structural (and assuredly white) “they” who had the privilege of authoring mainstream music — even including “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” written by Lorenz Hart of Rodgers and Hart, and first performed in 1940.
It is here that the sonnet structure builds a bridge between the hyperbolic honey of pure music and the blood of war or protest, even as its letter insists on their separateness. In this way, it builds an allegory of poetic engagement. Not only does Brooks return thematically to “gay chaps at the bar” and its depiction of black war veterans, but she also considers black poetry more historically: looking back to the Harlem Renaissance and its accommodations of white patrons, and proleptically forward to the Black Arts Movement that would profoundly affect her own racial consciousness. This sonnet suggests the power of poetry by allegorizing it as “music” and protest as “arms,” but it does so with the “veiled civility” that Angela Jackson sees (in perhaps Du Boisian fashion) throughout Brooks’s early work.
On a more local level, like “gay chaps at the bar,” this sonnet suggests that a person often has more than one identity. A musician becomes a soldier at the moment he takes up arms. A woman is a mother and black. Perhaps this is part of the “bewitchment” Brooks describes — and yet such role-playing can be an ordinary aspect of daily life. In Brooks’s hands, the sonnet form highlights such entwinements and circulations of the speaking self, especially in the complex syntax encouraged by its interlaced rhyme schemes.
The biographical Brooks also plays a complicated role with respect to her own sonnets, a role that is clarified by the free verse poem immediately following the “children of the poor” sequence (“Life for my child is simple, and is good”). As the next movement in the larger symphony of “The Womanhood,” the poem is a considerable switch: first, in its straightforward syntax and end-stopped lines; but also, even more startlingly, in its description of a curious and happy child for whom “reaching is his rule”; who, unlike the children of the poor, “begs” for nothing — because, unlike them, he feels “joy of undeep and unabiding things.”
If anything, this poem seems in line with Brooks’s delight in raising her own children. “At Christmas compare him to the Christmas tree,” she wrote of Henry III in Report from Part One — a line that would be at home in “Life for my child is simple, and is good,” whose syntactic and linguistic directness foils the sonnets’ high pitch of drama and hypotaxis. This very contrast becomes an inter-poem version of contraction and release within “The Womanhood,” as well as a nod to the elaborate persona-scaffolding in Brooks’s sonnet sequence. As Louise Glück wrote of John Berryman, personae may probe emotional truths, and these truths are yet more complex for black poets in the mid-twentieth century. One thing is certain, though: Brooks refuses to collapse the experience of black motherhood into one monolithic way of speaking. Through her mastery of disparate poetic forms, including but not limited to the sonnet, she shows such experience to be — again, in her word — “legion.” This richness of formal variety, as well as her genius of juxtaposition, spotlights difference among and within black women — even in 1949, before “difference” was a touchstone. Such variety may be the greatest wealth of all.
Christina Pugh is the author of four full-length books of poems: Perception (Four Way Books, 2017); Grains of the Voice (Northwestern University Press, 2013); Restoration (TriQuarterly Books, 2008); and Rotary (Word Press, 2004); and the chapbook Gardening at Dusk (Wells College Press, 2002). Her poems have appeared in journals such as...