Gwendolyn Brooks is my favorite poet since she has shown the most versatility in her poetics and style. During the 1940’s to 1967, Brooks published three poetry collections and a novel. A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen and The Bean Eaters Brooks’ poetics were heavily structured and followed strict European methodology, ie: ballads, Shakespearian sonnets and rhythms. Her “Gay Chaps at the Bar” consists of twelve sonnets with inconsistent rhyme schemes. Still their style is orderly tight and firm as the language they are written in. Her free verse measures conservatively compared to modern experiments with diction and verse. Brooks chiseled lines for “the old marrieds” such as; “But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say,/ Though the pretty-coated birds had piped so lightly all the day.” The Pulitzer Prize winning Annie Allen series is the tightest of Brooks’ poetry. The tension between the verses and the heavy modernist imagery make it difficult reading, yet it is the most crafty of all her works.
Clogged and soft and sloppy eyes
Have lost the light that bites or terrifies.
The mainstay of Brooks’ work is her preoccupation with the black perspective. Although she writes in the language of Shakespeare, her subjects are WWII black soldiers, prostitutes, families and the average black men and women of her Bronzeville, Chicago neighborhood. 1953’s murder of a young black man, Emmett Till, the Brown vs the Topeka anti-school segregation decision, and their aftermaths brought the revolutionary spirit into Brooks’ poetry. The Bean Eaters featured the “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi/ Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” and “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock.” “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi/ Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” was the most creative ballad in the collection yet it silenced many of Brooks’ white business and social acquaintances with its publication.
These subjects took on new positions with the increase in black consciousness and black philosophical scholarship. Black artist became exceptionally important in 1960’s Civil Rights era. Black intellectuals realized that political and economic gained no sure- footing without a cultural re-evaluation. This was the Triple front approach to revolution of the black persona in America. The symbolism of white supremacy and black inferiority had become so ingrained in the black society that no amount of voting rights could undo the damage of years of involuntary African slavery. Pan Africanism became the solution for many radical black leaders across the globe.
Gwendolyn Brooks had always been an integrationist. But an integrationist with a stable sense of black self and community would eventually give way to the Pan Africanist community and ideology.
In 1967, Gwendolyn Brooks entered the halls of Fisk University to find blacks angry and no longer willing to settle for the fringes of a white society. They had declared themselves a culture equal to that of any other, and set out to prove it through their art and letters. Her years of teaching from 1963 to 1971 afforded her access to the African American world outside of the Bronzeville Black Belt. Brooks’ adaptation to the discard of European forms of writing and criticism freed her to experiment with the familiar rhythms of the African heart while keeping control of her language. Her poetry, with structure not altogether abandoned, expressed the freedom and clarity to bridge her crafty pen with the new Black Aesthetic of the Black Arts Movement. From this change came, Riot, a series of poems dedicated to the underlying currents of black society in this unruly state.
A clean riot is not one in which little rioters
long-stomped, long-straddled, BEANLESS
but knowing no Why
go steal in hell
a radio, sit to hear James Brown
and sun themselves in Sin
is going on
is going on.
Riot was later included in to disembark, a collection of poems directing the masses of angry blacks, away from the self-destructive impulse to destroy its own neighborhoods and people, towards unification and African identification. As a chronicler of the early years of black history, Brooks stayed true to her calling as racial poet despite her detour into political outcry.
Brooks’ post Civil Rights poetry has settled back into home and hearth, but mostly her concerns are for black children and their education. The most interesting of her 1987 Montgomery and other Poems is the selections from Children Coming Home,
According to my Teachers,
I am now African American.
They call me out of my name.
BLACK is an open umbrella.
I am Black and A Black forever.
I am one of The Blacks.
The journey from Chicago housewife and regional poet to world examiner and Pan Africanist is documented throughout her works. It had been a long journey from A Street in Bronzeville to Children Coming Home. Brooks’ is not only a poet but a historian of African American literature.