Category Archives: poets

Review: “Selected Poems” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

“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,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering…
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.

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Formal Launch: Potcake Chapbook 4 – Families and Other Fiascoes

The fourth Potcake Chapbook is now launched into the wide world, with its contributors coming from England, Wales, Greece, the Netherlands, Canada, and coast to coast in the US.

04 Families and Other FiascoesPoets new to this series are, in order of appearance, Maryann Corbett, Vera Ignatowitsch, Kathryn Jacobs, Anthony Lombardy, Susan de Sola, Jane Blanchard and Michael R. Burch.  A glance at their profiles in Sampson Low’s Potcake Poets page will show you they include editors at Able Muse, Better Than Starbucks, The Hypertexts and The Road Not Taken, as well as various prizewinners.

Returning contributors are A.E. Stallings, Ed Conti, Tom Vaughan, Ann Drysdale, Gail White and Chris O’Carroll, who of course can boast their own editing and prizewinning. And returning as well is the artwork of Alban Low.

It’s hard to do justice to families in a mere chapbook. Not only are there dozens of possible family relationships (and the number is actively increasing thanks to both social changes and biotech developments), but each of those relationships can close or distant, sweet or bitter, simple or complex, present or merely remembered. It requires science fiction to describe an individual entirely without a family.

This chapbook touches on a great deal, but by no means all, of what “family” means. Send a copy to someone who appreciates the bittersweetness that accompanies family love, up and down the generations.

Poem: “Careless Youths”

Carefree Youths

Like fishing boats sailing a landless sea,
an edgeless game-board for an endless game,
hauling their random catch from wide-spread nets,
hunting without the hunter’s hunt and aim,
but sailing, drifting, without cares or frets,
so carefree youths under the bowl of sky
will chance their drifting lives on random lips.
And then the Kraken rises, sinking ships.

“Carefree Youths” was published a couple of days ago in Bewildering Stories. It is in iambic pentameter with irregular rhyme. After the meandering start to the poem (about the youths’ meandering lifestyle), the last line is a hard punchline (reflecting the brutal ending of that lifestyle). There are no sequential rhymes until the last two lines, which thereby become the clear ending of the poem. The form of the poem accentuates the poem’s meaning. That is what form should do.

Final rhyming couplets were used extensively by Shakespeare in various ways. In his sonnets they provide a very strong ending after four quatrains, and is a reason for preferring the Shakespearean sonnet’s ABAB CDCD EFEF GG over the Petrarchan sonnet’s more mannered but less forceful ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. Many of his final couplets are well known – such as:

If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Shakespeare did the same sort of thing throughout his plays, in which a scene or a soliloquy will be in blank verse but often terminate in a rhyme. Some of the best-known examples being:

the play ‘s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. (Hamlet)

Fair is foul and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air. (Macbeth)

Good night! Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say goodnight till it be morrow. (Romeo and Juliet)

The rhymed sentence helps sum up the scene, and signals that the scene is ending and that a new scene is about to begin – particularly useful since in Shakespeare’s time there were no stage curtains and no real sets to speak of.

Ah, formal verse! So many uses!

Review: “A Joy Proposed” by T.H. White

‘A Joy Proposed’ is a nice, somewhat strange, assembly of 57 often derivative poems from across the life of T.H. White. Many of the pieces were written in Ireland where White lived as a Conscientious Objector throughout the Second World War. His love of the countryside and his previous experiences as a schoolmaster (including at Stowe, a boarding school in rural Buckinghamshire with 600 acres of grounds) shine through in the constant juxtaposition of poems about game birds, dogs and landscapes alongside anger and bitterness about innocent lives lost to war.

The style varies from extreme simplicity, as in ‘A Choirboy Singing’:

Know not, but sigh.
Think not, but die.
Hope not, but high
Ache against ill.

to outpourings evocative of Whitman or Hopkins, as in ‘A Dray Horse’:

Meek Hercules – passion of arched power bowed in titanic affection,
Docile though vanquishing, stout-limber in vastness, plunging and spurning thy road –
Tauten thy traces, triumph past me, take thy shattering direction
Through misty Glasgow, dragging in a tremendous beer-waggon thy cobble-thundering load.

His pessimism, or perhaps mere sadness, at the human condition comes through again and again in the sense of the young lives he has been educating that will now be thrown away:

When I look at your comely head
And the long fingers delicately live
And the bright life born to be dead
And the happy blood to be shed
(…)
I die within me. And I curse
The witless fate of man without all cure.
Music I curse, and verse,
And beauty worse,
And every thing that helps us to endure.

… but mitigated always by his love of Nature, both hunting (as in kestrels and dogs he owned) and hunted (as in game birds he shot).

White is primarily known for his ‘Once and Future King‘ retelling of the Arthurian legends, and those novels soon went to stage and screen as the musical ‘Camelot’ and the Disney animation ‘The Sword in the Stone’. If it wasn’t for those novels, his other novels would probably be forgotten today and his poetry would be unknown. It isn’t great poetry, and yet I have read it and reread it. He was a writer and with it he was lonely, alcoholic, bitter, witty, learned, compassionate, and alive to the natural world. All of that comes through in these verses, with his self-awareness of who he was and what he was achieving. As he wrote in ‘Lines Cut on the Cottage Window’:

A bitter heart lay here and yet
It was not bitter to the bone.
It made what Time does not unmake
All hopeful, and alone.

Review: “Strange Victory” by Sara Teasdale

“Strange Victory” is a thin, competent but uninteresting collection of short poems by Sara Teasdale, produced shortly before her suicide.

Moon, worn thin to the width of a quill,
In the dawn clouds flying,
How good to go, light into light, and still
Giving light, dying.

However, as this is neither her best selling “Rivers to the Sea” nor her Pulitzer Prizewinning “Love Songs”, perhaps one of those volumes would provide a better assessment of her worth as a poet.

Not recommended.

Poetry Resources: Lighten Up Online

Lighten Up Online appears four times a year, in the third month of each quarter. Lighten Up balloonFounded over ten years ago by Martin Parker, it is now edited by Jerome Betts – both of them being accomplished formal poets, of course. They and the magazine are very English (reflected, to the bemusement of Americans, in some of the spelling, rhymes, slang and references) but contributors come from around the globe. Their front page states:

“We believe that light verse is very far from being the poor relation of ‘proper’ poetry. On this site you will find work by light verse specialists as well as by some of the many ‘proper’ poets who enjoy it and write it and agree that light verse deserves a wider audience than it is normally given.” 

The technical standards are very high, and wordplay including puns is always welcome. Here is just such a piece by the editor himself in the current issue:

Stiff Upper Lip

When uncle slipped, near roadside tippings,
As light snow hid the ice beneath,
And fell face down in sharp-edged chippings,
Did foul words further blast the heath?
Ah no, despite the pain’s cruel nippings
He just said ‘Ouch!’, through gritted teeth.

Lighten Up Online is always open to submissions, but of course anyone sending work to it should read a couple of issues first to get a sense of what the magazine is all about. A lot of very short pieces are published, and every issue ends with the results of the previous issue’s competition and the announcement of the new one.

An extremely enjoyable read, and a good way to find new poets you might like.

Poetry Resources: “Best Remembered Poems”

578776Perfectly competent, and with interesting trivia and useful background notes by Martin Gardner, this selection of “Best Remembered Poems” is pedestrian almost by definition: these are the ones that are best remembered by Americans, so there will be very little that is new and exciting–and honestly, a lot of the poems best remembered from high school English lessons on the 19th and early 20th century… are downright boring.

But if you’re looking for a book that contains most poems that most non-poets vaguely remember… that contains both ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and ‘Casey at the Bat’… then this is the one for you!