“Selected Poems” covers the best of Gwendolyn Brooks‘ poetry from her first book in 1944 up to 1963. It is vibrant, amusing, angry, always insightful – sometimes formal, sometimes experimental, always rich, always quotable. To me (with British sensibilities) this is some of the greatest American poetry of the 20th century, on a par with Frost and cummings.
Born in 1917, Brooks’ poetry dealt with the real world – the black experience in Chicago and throughout the US, with a strong feminine sensibility. The opening poem “kitchenette building” of her first book (A Street in Bronzeville, published 1945) sets the tone:
We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”
But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms
Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?
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.
Dreams and reality were both important in her upbringing. Her father had given up on medical school and become a janitor in order to get married and raise a family. Her mother was a school teacher and concert pianist. Reading and recitation were high priorities in the family, and Brooks started writing poetry very early. Four of her poems were published in a local paper when she was 11, and her mother encouraged her, saying ”You are going to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.” Material was all around her, and she dealt with it unflinchingly. The second poem in the book was called, with deliberate irony, “the mother”. It begins:
Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
Children in several poems are trying to find their place in the world. “a song in the front yard” begins:
I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
Brooks uses form very fluently, choosing form for the mood of the poem: from near nursery rhyme:
Maud went to college.
Sadie stayed at home.
Sadie scraped life
With a fine-toothed comb.
to pages of iambic pentameter with frequent rhyme for “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith”:
Inamoratas, with an approbation,
Bestowed his title. Blessed his inclination.
And this first volume ends with a dozen sonnets, all with slant (or near) rhyme. It was wartime, but the issues of race were in the military as elsewhere. One of the sonnet titles barely needs its poem: “the white troops had their orders but the Negroes looked like men”.
“A Street in Bronzeville” brought her two years of Guggenheim Fellowships and other awards. Her second book, “Annie Allen” made her the first black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize in any category. Next came a novel, then a volume of poetry for children, and then in 1960 her third book of adult poetry, “The Bean Eaters”:
They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full
of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco
crumbs, vases and fringes.
Civil rights. Mississippi. Arkansas. That all became part of her poetry, moving on from Chicago. The lynching of Emmett Till. The integration of a high school by the Little Rock Nine. All in her poems:
And true, they are hurling spittle, rock,
Garbage and fruit in Little Rock.
And I saw coiling storm a-writhe
On bright madonnas. And a scythe
Of men harassing brownish girls.
(The bows and barrettes in the curls
And braids declined away from joy.)
I saw a bleeding brownish boy…
The lariat lynch-wish I deplored.
The loveliest lynchee was our Lord.
This review can’t even mention all the truly memorable poems in the book, but it covers enough to show Brooks’ range of styles and interests. She became increasingly active in black issues, and she continued to write and to rack up awards and prizes, up until her death in 2000. But this “Selected Poems” only goes up to 1963 because she left her original publisher, Harper & Row, in order to work with a black start-up publisher in Detroit. Not a problem. This “Selected Poems” alone places Gwendolyn Brooks in the very forefront of American poetry.