Introduction: The Golden Shovel
The Golden Shovel is a poetic form readers might not — yet — be familiar with. It was devised recently by Terrance Hayes in homage to Gwendolyn Brooks, whose centenary year this is. The last words of each line in a Golden Shovel poem are, in order, words from a line or lines taken often, but not invariably, from a Brooks poem. The results of this technique can be quite different in subject, tone, and texture from the source poem, depending upon the ingenuity and imagination of the poet who undertakes to compose one. As Robert Lee Brewer has pointed out, such a poem is part cento, part erasure. But don’t let the word “erasure” mislead you. A poem in this form adds something even where it subtracts; the sum isn’t necessarily greater than the parts, but in keeping with the spirit of paying tribute, it is more than equal to them.
Hayes’s inaugural poem in the form gave the form its name, and takes its title — and much else — from Brooks’s cherished “We Real Cool.” In fact, the Hayes poem absorbed every single word from the Brooks poem, and it did so twice. “The Golden Shovel” is a tour de force, so practitioners of this new form have both Brooks and Hayes to live up to. In Brooks’s poem, you’ll recall, the pool players — “Seven at the Golden Shovel” — are larger than life, facing mortality and bigotry with defiant, memorable verve. These young men will “die soon,” perhaps; but in poetry, they are, like the poem itself and Brooks’s legacy, immortal.
The appeal of the form is straightforward, and induces people of all ages to give it a try: established and neophyte poets, school children, and people who’ve never tried to write poetry before. So attractive is this new form that hundreds of them have been carefully and entertainingly compiled by the poet-teachers Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar, and Patricia Smith for The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, which will be published this month by the University of Arkansas Press. Poetry, which is proud to have first published Brooks’s wonderful poem in 1959 and many others besides, is a fitting place to present the following sampling of Golden Shovel poems in her honor. As her acolyte Haki Madhubuti wrote in these pages, Brooks’s “greatest lesson to us all is that serving one’s community as an artist means much more than just creating art.” I hope you’ll agree that far more than serving as an exercise in poetic form, Golden Shovel poems are a fresh and vital way of embracing and documenting voices around us that must be heard and felt.
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...