What's better, love or respect? Most poets would probably prefer a combination of the two—that is, worship—by friends, family, the public, and all people in all generations to come. Yet when we consider some of the most respected poets in recent memory—Eliot, Larkin, Lowell, Plath—we come across people who seem to have squandered whatever affection came their way in their lifetimes. Maybe it takes a ruthless, calculating egoist to transform pain into product. Or maybe all the attention that the neophyte clamors for feels suffocating to the full-grown artist. After all, love is a reciprocal relation: the poet who garners it must love those who love her back, and that requires the sort of compromise that can be lethal to art. So what do we do with a poet who was generous to her community, faithful to her family, and loved by everyone; who, only six years after her death, has libraries, schools, parks, institutes, conferences, scholarships, and prizes too numerous to list named after her; who is called "Mama" by the young writers whom she supported? How do we account for, and do justice to, her talent?
The answer of anthologists thus far, which the Library of America has endorsed with this vividly-colored, classy, but tiny volume of Gwendolyn Brooks's poems, introduced and edited by Elizabeth Alexander, has been to respectfully—but not very enthusiastically—canonize her. This might not seem like such a shabby fate if Brooks hadn't dreamed of taking her place among the Greats since she was a preteen; if this book didn't succeed Blacks, the starkly-titled, barely-edited tome of Brooks's complete works put out by Third World Press in 1987; and if it didn't come at a time when Robert Lowell (born in 1917, the same year as she) has just been charioted into immortality with a twelve-hundred-page doorstop of collected poems from fsg and a ticker-tape parade of critical articles. Reading through The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, one finds poems that are often as formally impressive as Lowell's, while usually more directly relevant to the issues of the time, and generally more nutritive to one's humanity. They are not, however, nearly as personally revealing, which may account for why they haven't gotten the serious attention they deserve.
Despite coming of age with the Confessionals, and despite the politics she espoused later in life (which helped to set the stage for today's identity poetry), Brooks's own body of work is staunchly impersonal. This is her primary aesthetic tenet, and it is, I think, what has kept much of her work from being understood—partly because it places her under the influence of Eliot (whose prejudices have made him anathema to many of Brooks's fans), and partly because it forces us to reckon with her as a serious, and therefore problematic, artist rather than revelling in a love-fest or giving her the token nod that political correctness bestows on "historical black writers."
It's not so hard to imagine the witch's brew that Eliot's ruined cities, his haunted melodies drifting down from windows, and his nerve-damaged, impotent Europhiles might have stirred up in the imagination of a lonely, bookish Chicago South Sider like Brooks. A shy girl, without the "brass" or "sass" of others in the neighborhood, she preferred holing up in her room and practicing pentameter to going to dance parties. She kept meticulous notebooks in which she laid out incredibly determined writing goals and composed verses that showed an obsessive formal sense. In Eliot, Brooks would have found the pure, selfish stuff of poetry, the thoughts and music of the interior life removed from other people, suspended from one's obligations to family, friends, community.
In "kitchenette building" Brooks responds to Eliot's prophetic melancholia with both envy and reproach. The poem seems to practically lift its opening lines—"We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,/Grayed in and gray"—from The Waste Land, but these ruminations are quickly crowded out by the clamor of everyday life on the South Side:
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.
Brooks felt the world with a consuming emotional intensity and, like most poets, she resented the world of practical concerns, which she shows to be exacerbated by poverty. Eliot's robust pathos and unapologetic despair probably felt particularly seductive to a young woman who had always been told by her mother, the strict but loving Keziah, that she would grow up to be "the lady Paul Lawrence Dunbar," and who likely already felt the heavy mantle of Responsibility To The Race coming down on her shoulders. Yet there's a note of proud and playful sanity in the rhymed ending of "kitchenette building," which acknowledges the silliness of getting too carried away with one's poeticism. One senses that Eliot's trances irritated Brooks even as they enamored her, ripening the antagonism.
And she was antagonistic. Stubbornness, one might say, was the defining feature of her temperament, and it was no ordinary stubbornness, but a staunch Baptist brand inherited from her mother. While she possessed stylistic nerve, which can be seen in the flourishes of tone and diction, the neologisms, the inversions—the "dim dears," "livingest chits," and "chocolate companions had she"—that add flair to the poems, Brooks wasn't really willing to take on all that much. Her poetic foundation was narrower—and more home-grown—than Eliot's. In addition to Dunbar and Langston Hughes, the two iconic black writers of the time, she'd absorbed the popular poetry of folk music and the Blues: the hard-stopped, end-rhymed rhythms of hymns and the darkly humorous melodrama of ballads, meant to be bawled or belted rather than sung. It was an insistently American poetry: poetry of passion and bad luck, sustained poverty, and the common-sense religion and gallows humor that remedy it.
As a foundation for her own work, this meant that Brooks could handle suffering and sin (particularly that of an American shade) in a way that the neurasthenic Eliot couldn't: though she saw her characters' faults clearly, she was able to laugh at them, even to delight in them, whereas Eliot could only respond to human imperfection with despair. Brooks's was not a spiritual but a practical morality: it concerned itself with people rather than theory or heightened states of consciousness. While this meant that she didn't often attain the prophetic brilliance of Eliot's best poems, it also meant that she was able to portray the vibrancy and comedy of life, qualities which she surely found lacking in much of his work.
It's a particular Eliot—the lolling, amused Eliot who feasts on swollen images and revels in all that is vividly corrupt, the Eliot of "The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock," "Portrait of a Lady," and parts of The Waste Land—that Brooks responded to most. In "The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith" she invents the ultimate anti-Prufrock. The poem takes us through a day in the life of a flagrant peacock of a hustler, a man who dresses in "wonder-suits in yellow and in wine,/Sarcastic green and zebra-striped cobalt....Ballooning pants that taper off to ends/Scheduled to choke precisely." Though in places the mock-allusions to Eliot can feel heavy ("Let us proceed. Let us inspect, together....the innards of this closet"), this meditation shows Brooks taking the sort of license that no pious imitator would dare:
His lady alters as to leg and eye,
Thickness and height, such minor points as these,
From Sunday to Sunday. But no matter what
Her name or body positively she's
In Queen Lace stockings with ambitious heels
That strain to kiss the calves, and vivid shoes
Frontless and backless, Chinese fingernails,
Earrings, three layers of lipstick, intense hat
Dripping with the most voluble of veils.
Her affable extremes are like sweet bombs
About him, whom no middle grace or good
The impersonal, conversational purity that Brooks attained in lines like these is unmatched by anyone in her generation; the only poet who does this as well is Eliot. And in some ways she surpasses him, for, in her pure delight in Satin Legs, she enables the character to come alive and exist independently of her own interests, her pathos, herself. This was something that Eliot—for all his talk of escaping his personality—could never completely do.
Some people will complain that it's useless to compare these two poets without analyzing the imbalance of power, literary and otherwise, that existed between them. Yet nothing that has come after Brooks in the way of criticism—and Multicultural theory in particular—seems adequate to describe the confidence and acuity with which she renders the lives of her black characters, from the "old oaken waiter" in "I Love Those Little Booths at Benevenuti's" who amusedly endures a group of silly white patrons who come to the South Side to observe "tropical truths/About this—dusky folk, so clamourous!" to the lady in "at the hairdresser's" (not included in the LOA book) who says:
Gimme an upsweep, Minnie,
With humpteen baby curls.
Bout time I got some glamour.
I'll show them girls.
Brooks felt no need to explain, justify, or translate her characters' attitudes. This blitheness was criticized from opposite viewpoints: white critics often condescended to the poems' "charming depiction of Negro life" or criticized them for being "too specialized" and therefore "not universal." Meanwhile, some black critics found Brooks too passive in light of the injustices that surrounded her. But time has proven that the poems are no double-decker bus tour of the ghetto: if her Bronzevillians were just specimens in a curiosity shop, they would have shriveled up by now, but they still arrest us with their individual demands to be seen and heard.
Annie Allen (1949) christened Brooks as "the first Negro to win the Pulitzer," a title which would haunt her the rest of her life. It also doomed her, at the dawn of Confessionalism, to be called a Modernist. This conclusion was based mostly on the centerpiece poem "The Anniad," which, as Henry Taylor has observed, is a "technical tour de force: 301 lines in forty-three seven-line stanzas, employing thirty different rhyme schemes, a compelling meter (trochaic tetrameter catalectic) and a diction that is elaborate, dense, and compressed." The poem is a grand dirge of doomed love, alternately swooning with feeling and gnarling itself into encoded language-bits. The naïve Annie goes through many moods of ecstasy and devastation, and the poem, despite several incomprehensible moments, eventually propels itself toward a beautifully sober ending, which strips Annie of all romantic notions and leaves her alone, "Kissing in her kitchenette/the minuets of memory."
It's a stunning display, and it shows how much Brooks had internalized the Modernist dictums of allusion and compression. Yet Brooks admitted that this poem was autobiographical, and indeed it (as well as "The Childhood and the Girlhood," which precedes it) is full of self-enamored trifles. Strangely, it's here, where we feel Brooks straining hardest for Modernist credentials, that she is at her most unpleasantly personal. To her credit, she responded more genuinely to the singular influence of Eliot than to the Modernist movement as a whole.
While "The Anniad" is the most obvious manifestation of Brooks's ambition, in many ways it is less mature and less distinctive (both in style and in subject matter) than her earlier work. You get the sense that the world-wise (and wise-assed) teenager who had inwardly rebuked Eliot's excesses had been overcome by lust for those same excesses. But "The Anniad" was more of an expiation of Brooks's Modernist pretensions than a declaration of them. By this time Brooks had two small children at home, and the kitchenette felt smaller than ever: under such pressure it wouldn't be long before the old practical morality kicked in.
"People with no children can be hard/Attain a mail of ice and insolence," she writes in a breakthrough of directness in "The Children of the Poor," the sonnet series at the end of Annie Allen. "And shall I prime my children, pray, to pray?" she asks, taking no pains to disguise her skepticism. In another poem she gives aggressive advice for dealing with prejudice: "First fight. Then fiddle." Like her early sonnet sequence, "Gay Chaps in the Bar," these sonnets become too abstract in parts, yet one has to admire the vanquishing clarity, the fierce pragmatism, that grounds them all. Most important, maybe, is the way they set the stage for Cousin Vit, the irrepressible subject of the last sonnet in this series, who breaks through all the Modernist grey matter like a specter who's heard it's time for Mardi Gras:
Carried her unprotesting out the door.
Kicked back the casket-stand. But it can't hold her,
That stuff and satin aiming to enfold her,
The lid's contrition nor the bolts before.
Oh oh. Too much. Too much. Even now, surmise,
She rises in the sunshine. There she goes,
Back to the bars she knew and the repose
In love rooms and the things in people's eyes.
Too vital and too squeaking. Must emerge.
Even now she does the snake-hips with a hiss,
Slops the bad wine across her shantung, talks
Of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework, walks
In parks or alleys, comes haply on the verge
Of happiness, haply hysterics. Is.
Once again we have Brooks's imagination at its purest, with its wryly comic details and its effortless blend of conversational clarity and sonic precision—evoking Eliot, even as she joyously scandalizes him.
There's a certain point at which Eliot stops being an influence one can respond to and dematerializes into a vapor one breathes. I'm in awe of the brilliantly complex, disembodied voice of his late poems, yet I'm often vexed by the feeling that they aren't entirely real, or even entirely human. Apparently his deliberate eradication of personality had worked; he'd hollowed out his own particular quirks and pains and made room for the breath of God. "The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates," Eliot wrote. Perhaps, but what about the artist whose sufferings are inflicted rather than savored? What about the violence that can't be compartmentalized, that assaults you every time you look out the window?
By middle age Brooks was not only a wife and mother but a pillar of the community—one which was in deep pain and immediate strife. If Eliot's exalted melancholy had seemed attractive to her as an adolescent, by now it was utterly impractical, even decadent. The Bean Eaters, which many white critics of the time called "too social," is full of defiant, bitter poems portraying despicably arrogant, racist white people. Often the rage results in flat characters who commit their misdeeds in the grim monotone of pulp fiction. However, in these poems more than in any others, Brooks gets at the corrosive evil of racism and the particular suffering that it creates. The stand-out here is "the Lovers of the Poor," a lambasting depiction of "the Ladies from the Ladies' Betterment League," whom we follow into a South Side housing project where their half-hearted hopes of doing good collapse under their horror at the scene:
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.
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.
These ladies may be stereotypes, yet the speaker imagines their prejudice with the sort of faceted specificity that can only come from deep and varied personal experience (indeed Brooks had encountered such women from many angles: as a maid on the North Side, as an eager student of poetry, and later as the "pet" of Chicago literary society). It doesn't matter whether a "universal" truth about rich, white women is revealed here; what the poem conveys in its irreducible lines is the impossibility—perhaps even the amorality—of an impersonal aesthetic in circumstances as offensive as those in which Brooks found herself in America in 1960. The despair of racial injustice has eaten into the language of this poem, which scathes the reader with its electrifying combination of intelligence and sarcasm.
In 1967 Brooks attended the Black Writers' Conference at Fisk University in Nashville, an event which marked the ascendance of the Black Arts movement. While Brooks felt herself "coldly respected" by the young, hip crowd, it was clear that Amiri Baraka—and his incendiary politics—were the main attraction, and the way forward.From then on, much of what Brooks wrote would be influenced by her revelation at Fisk, her ensuing embrace of a more radical black consciousness, and—not least—an artistic rivalry with Baraka and his followers. Her ironic view of the world and her formal leanings would be deep-sixed as she attempted a full overhaul of her style, which she now self-consciously felt to be "too white."
There's a smattering of work from this period that starkly and powerfully symbolizes the violence that Brooks was wreaking on her own poetry in order to make it match her newfound purposes. "The Second Sermon on the Warpland" blends revolutionary conviction with prophetic intensity into lines of pure apocalyptic fury, hissing on the page like the yanked-out fuses of a hard-wired poetic temperament:
cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face
all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace.
There are also many occasional poems, such as her tributes to Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, that offer startling snapshots of American history. However there is much shlocky debris scattered around the scorching insights of Brooks's late work as well, often within the same poems.
The most striking difference from the early work is not the politics, but how simultaneously personal and public Brooks's work became. She was writing poems that were meant to be heard, felt, and loved immediately. Often it feels as if the self—that vain, pandering child-star that lives inside every poet, whom Brooks admirably repressed for most of her career—has risen up with a vengeance, demanding to be heard and adored. Too often these poems are padded with the applause-ready line; too often they wallow in sentimentality; too often they sound like Keziah's daughter—a woman who'd once called herself "impossibly prim"—basking in the admiration of cats cooler than she. To hear a poet as temperamentally prone to rigor and precision as Brooks adopting the hip languor used by Haki Madhubuti and Sonia Sanchez screams mid-life crisis.
In human terms, Brooks's sudden abandon, her ability to love her community and to fight for it, feels like a triumph. No one should begrudge her the affection and popularity she enjoyed late in life, and no one should dismiss the effect of her activism on real-life events. Yet there was a trade-off: Brooks abandoned her discipline in order to be beloved and successful; as a result, very little of that love or success found its way into her own distinctive idiom. One can't help but rue the portraits of fiery clarity that Brooks might have created if she'd expressed her newly radicalized beliefs in the clear, conversational form that she'd spent her whole life mastering.
Alexander leaves out the long late poem "In the Mecca," supposedly for the sake of length, though she has written in her book The Black Interior that she was disturbed by the poem's bleak view of the poet as an ineffectual agent for social change. "In the Mecca" is missed here, as it shows that Brooks's ambition to write great poetry was still intact in 1968, even if it was thwarted by her newfound desire to be immediately relevant. What's more befuddling is that "In the Mecca" has been left out to make room for selections from Beckonings (1975), The Near-Johannesburg Boy (1986), Children Coming Home (1991), and In Montgomery and Other Poems (2003). These cutesy, maudlin poems, about which Brooks herself felt deeply ambivalent, often read more like postcards from Grandma than the last dispatches of a great poet as she approached death.
The inclusion of Brooks's latest poems here is emblematic of the double bind that her work finds itself in now that she has died. On one hand, she's so loved in her community that editors can't perform the critical culling of her work that is necessary for the longevity of any poet's reputation. (Blacks, for instance, included her novel Maud Martha, which provides an unflattering backdrop to the poems.) On the other hand, this single tribute by the LOA—coming in the midst of the critical silence that has followed her death—is a reminder that Brooks is in the process of being shelved away, if not forgotten. By granting her "fair representation" but no fanfare and no debate, the literary establishment is quietly consigning her to the realm of "minor poetry."
A book like The Essential Poems of Gwendolyn Brooks can't make the statement that needs to be made: Gwendolyn Brooks is as important to twentieth-century American poetry as Robert Lowell. While Lowell met the times—and rebelled against Eliot—with the spectacle of his mad, egomaniacal charm, Brooks hunkered down and used Eliot's tradition of impersonality to portray the troubles and the joys of survival in black America. Her best poems offer a curative, not only to the narcissistic gloom that we've inherited from the Confessionals, but to Eliot's overaestheticized visions of social life. That Brooks's purposes were so different from Eliot's only strengthens the connection. It shows the vitality of true poetic inspiration, how it can cut across time, temperament, race, and even the motives of its own practitioners.
Danielle Chapman is the author of the poetry collection Delinquent Palaces (Northwestern University Press, 2015). Her poetry has appeared in magazines and journals such as the Atlantic, Harvard Review, the Nation, and the New Yorker. She is a critic as well as a poet, and her reviews have appeared in Poetry magazine and...