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Tue Jan 8, 2019

The Language and Lyricism of Gwendolyn Brooks

Brooks’ poetry captures "the pathos of petty destinies, the whimper of the wounded, the tiny incidents that plague the lives of the desperately poor, and the problems of common prejudice"

Richard Wright, The New York Times, 2000

Chicago’s first lady of poetry, Gwendolyn Brooks, gave a voice to the ordinary. A masterful artist in the medium of language, she documented everyday people in their everyday lives, treating each and every subject with respect, dignity, and precision. The precision arose from careful study of register, dialect, and poetic forms, all of which come together to create personal, vivid portraits of young students to salon-goers to pool players.

Brooks worked in a vast array of forms with a range of literary standings. From sonnets to blues rhythms, all her chosen forms accommodate distilled emotion and offer intimacy through simplicity. Just like their subjects, Gwendolyn Brooks’ short poems are more complex than they may appear – short forms force an amount of ambiguity which lends more interpretive space. One example of classical form is Brooks’ “A Sonnet-Ballad”.

 

Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?
They took my lover’s tallness off to war,
Left me lamenting. Now I cannot guess
What I can use an empty heart-cup for.
He won’t be coming back here any more.
Some day the war will end, but, oh, I knew
When he went walking grandly out that door
That my sweet love would have to be untrue.
Would have to be untrue. Would have to court
Coquettish death, whose impudent and strange
Possessive arms and beauty (of a sort)
Can make a hard man hesitate—and change.
And he will be the one to stammer, “Yes.”
Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?

 

The poem speaks from the perspective of a girl whose lover has left to fight in World War II. Brooks employs formal and antiquated language in describing the girl’s “lamenting” and references familiar sonnet themes of love and betrayal – but the subject matter is less familiar. The temptation to which the speaker worries her lover will succumb is not another woman, but death in battle. Brooks offers a unique take on the inner fears of women in war time through a familiar form.

Drawing material from what she saw out the window of her second story apartment, Brooks quietly documented “petty destinies” and “common prejudice”. In her second book Annie Allen, about a regular black girl living in Chicago’s South Side, the poem “The Anniad” alludes to a widely-recognized literary classic (Virgil’s Aeneid). By tying Annie Allen’s story to an ancient Greek epic, Brooks imposed a sense of importance onto an ordinary life. This is the central message of her manipulation of form and dialect: ordinary people are interesting, significant, and worthy of observation. Annie Allen won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

High and low forms

Throughout her career, Brooks made effective use of terza rima, rhyming couplets, and quatrains. “Beverly Hills, Chicago” meets a couple driving through an affluent neighbourhood. The poem’s unbounded quatrain form communicates with an understood elegance, picturing the beautiful streetscape while showing the poet’s awe of – and therefore, estrangement from – such charmed lives.

 

The dry brown coughing beneath their feet,
(Only for a while, for the handyman is on his way)
These people walk their golden gardens.
We say ourselves fortunate to be driving by today.

That we may look at them, in their gardens where
The summer ripeness rots. But not raggedly.
Even the leaves fall down in lovelier patterns here.
And the refuse, the refuse is a neat brilliancy.

 

The poem is a series of eight quatrains, each of which presents a distinct snapshot, impression, or thought, growing more apologetically envious as the poem goes on. We relate to the poet’s awe, discomfort, longing, as well as to the fragmented way they process the mystifying experience. We can imagine ourselves in the same car, our voices growing “a little gruff” as we drive on.

The boys who skip school to play pool at the golden shovel are better served by a more contemporary metre. Though still a recognizable form, the rhythm of “We Real Cool (1960) is more colloquial. Rather than following the sentence boundaries, each line ends with a punctuated ‘We’, beginning the next phrase. The poem has such an infectious swing to it that, by the end, the missing ‘we’ leaves a telling gap.

 

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

 

This poem is one of many instances where Gwendolyn Brooks demonstrates a mastery of musical metres to match her knowledge of classical forms. Throughout Manual Cinema’s No Blue Memories, a number of Brooks’ poems are fittingly set to music. This brand of musical poetry both reflected and resonated with the unpretentious neighbourhood where Brooks lived and wrote.

The way we talk

Another reflection of the everyday is found in those of Brooks’ poems categorized as ‘dialect poetry’ – of which “We Real Cool” is just one example. Though sometimes (incorrectly) used disparagingly, a dialect is actually any set of words and conventions that describes the specific way a language is spoken within a certain area or group. Everyone who speaks English speaks an English dialect, and some people like Gwendolyn Brooks, are fluent in many. In many poems from A Street in Bronzeville, Brooks employs African American Vernacular English (AAVE) – a dialect that is particularly stigmatized by virtue of the legacy of racism in America. Because AAVE was so dispreferred when Brooks was writing, poetry written in AAVE could be discounted as unintelligent or second-rate.

Nevertheless, Gwendolyn Brooks did not see this kind of writing as a limited medium. Just as classical and contemporary forms each have their place, different poems call for different registers and dialects. Leaving out the verb in each line of “We Real Cool” not only creates its musical rhythm, it gives the reader an immediate sense of who the pool players are, where they are from, what kind of groups they might belong to.  “At the Hairdressers” is another example of Brooks’ attention to dialect.

 

Gimme an upsweep, Minnie,
With humpteen baby curls.
‘Bout time I got some glamour.
I’ll show them girls.

Think they so fly a-struttin’
With they wool a-blowin’ ‘round.

Wait’ll they see my upsweep.
That’ll jop ‘em back on the ground.

Got Madam C.J. Walker’s first.
Got Poro Grower next.
Ain’t none of ‘em worked with me, Min.
But I ain’t vexed.

Long hair’s out of style anyhow, ain’t it?
Now it’s tie it up high with curls.
So gimme an upsweep, Minnie.
I’ll show them girls.

 

Through lines that drip with personality, we get a first person account of a young woman’s dreams and insecurities. She feels she has something to prove, and that the key to acceptance from more glamourous women is the perfect hairstyle. From the dialect alone, we assume the speaker is young and African-American. These details make her longing for a white hairstyle – none of which have yet worked with her natural hair – significant and heartbreaking. Brooks never directly comments on the entrenched struggles this woman optimistically faces, but documents the everyday injustice and leaves the reader to reflect. The use of AAVE is required to create this vivid portrait. This is how Gwendolyn Brooks reclaimed dialect poetry, treating it as a valid aesthetic in itself, never as a tool for reaching “less refined” audiences.

Formal freedom

Later in her career, Ms. Brooks developed a loyalty to the Black Arts Movement. She began to embrace free verse and her poems began to focus more on persuasion than impartial documentation. With this new “stripped lean, compressed style”, Brooks was suddenly speaking directly to the people who were previously the subject of her poems.

“Third Sermon on the Warpland” depicts a preacher giving a sermon in the middle of a riot with action bouncing between frantic riot scenes and pieces of the sermon. Frequent line breaks create fragmentation and chaos. Words frequently occupy their own line: “Fire” “This is / it”. Rhyme and metre are ever-changing – the few instances of familiarity through repetition necessary to collect our attention back to the starkness of reality.

 

However, what
is going on
is going on.

 

It is hard to imagine such a scene depicted through rhyming couplets. So of course, Ms. Brooks imagined just that. Embedded in the multi-sectional poem under the heading “A Poem to Peanut” are fourteen lines that feel suspiciously like a sonnet. Gwendolyn Brooks, even in her free verse period, never discarded traditional poetic forms only for the sake of it. Her poems preserve order and beauty where possible and, when a sonnet serves what needs to be said, a sonnet is used. This mirrors Brooks’ view of civil rights activism (and one of the poem’s themes): even when revolution is necessary, violence for violence’s sake is not.

With Brooks’ vast array of poetic form, it is perhaps not surprising that, in her tribute, a new form would be invented. In the Golden Shovel form, the final word of each line adds up to one of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems. The first poem of this format was titled “The Golden Shovel” and added up to “We Real Cool”.

Overall, whether using sonnets or free verse, the goal is communication. Gwendolyn Brooks’ manipulation of form evolved with changing political landscapes and literary trends, while remaining original and relevant to the subject at hand. “She insisted upon an elegance of speech, an elegance of writing — a heightened language that pierced through to people to engage the souls of readers” (Angela Jackson, NPR) – but a language heightened in is precision, ingenuity, and evocativeness, rather than in some predetermined measure of ‘correctness’. With a focus on observation and the honest depiction of regular humanity, Brooks shed light on the significance and universality of each ordinary life.

“I want to report; I want to record. I go inside myself, bring out what I feel, put it on paper, look at it, pull out all of the clichés. I will work hard in that way.”

Gwendolyn Brooks

No Blue Memories will be at the Chan Centre on Sunday February 24, 2019 at 7pm. Tickets available!

About the author

Taryn Plater is in her third year working as Marketing & Communications Assistant at the Chan Centre as part of the UBC Work Learn program. She is pursuing a double major in music and linguistics at UBC, as well as a Master of Management, and looks forward to playing a role in the future of the performing arts in Canada.

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