“Live not for Battles Won.
Live not for The-End-of-the-Song.
Live in the along.”
Report from Part One
There is so much about Gwendolyn Brooks and her work that is remarkable and goes beyond the awards and acknowledgements, though these are many and prestigious and often firsts for her gender and race.
In 1968 Gwendolyn Brooks was named Poet Laureate of Illinois. In 1985, she was the first Black woman appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, known then as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. She received an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Frost Medal, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, the Shelley Memorial Award, and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets and the Guggenheim Foundation.
Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, but within a few weeks of her birth her family moved to Chicago, Illinois, her true roots and the source material for her poetry. She lived in Chicago until her death in December 2000. According to the family and friends who surrounded her at the end, she died as she lived with pencil in hand.
“But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say.
Though the pretty-coated birds had piped so lightly all the day.
And he had seen the lovers in the little side streets.
And she had heard the morning stories clogged with sweets.
It was quite a time for loving. It was midnight. It was May.
But in the crowding darknesss not a word did they say.”
Gwendolyn’s first poem was published in a children’s magazine when she was thirteen years old. By the time she was sixteen 75 poems were published. Her first collection, A Street In Bronzville, was published in 1945. She never completed college because she saw herself as a poet and not a scholar. Maybe this is one reason why her poetry is so unselfconscious and down-to-earth. There’s no posturing. It’s real and readable. She experimented with many poetic forms and is known for her innovations to the sonnet. She seems to have invented a few forms of her own. Though her subject matter is serious and always compassionate and practical, often compellingly spiritual, she can – and often is – funny, even Suessian on occasion.
In writing of a particular time, place and people – as a journalist poet (a phrase she coined) – she not only chronicled the soul and lives of a people, she captured the essence of the eternals – the follies, the challenges, the good, the loving and the enduring – in the human condition, in the human soul … “To be in love,” she wrote, “is to touch things with a lighter hand.”
Exhaust the little moment. Soon it dies.
And be it gash or gold it will not come
Again in this identical disguise.
Was she a student of Eastern mystics or Meister Eckhart? I rather doubt it. What we have here is a good woman writing from the perspective of her own sacred space, her refined intelligence and her acute observation and imagination. She certainly also writes out of the deep love she has for her people, the exploration of the complexities of being Black in America, and her rootedness and familiarity with the South Side of Chicago. I unreservedly recommend Gwendolyn Brooks for the sheer pleasure of her poetry, for some more understanding of the Black experience in America if you are not Black, for a connection with your roots if you are Black, for your understanding of your own soul and for your education as a poet. If you haven’t met her yet, do so as soon as you can. A good place to start is with The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks from the American Poetry Project. It has a fine introduction by Elizabeth Alexander.
John, Who Is Poor
Give him a berry, boys, when you may
And, girls, some mint when you can
And do not ask when his hunger will end
Nor yet when it began
(From Bronzeville Boys and Girls, 1956)
We Real Cool
“We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
― Gwendolyn Brooks
Gwendolyn Brooks, Journalist Poet, reads We Real Cool (If you are viewing this post from an email, you’ll likely have to link through to the site to see it.)
“She was learning to love moments. To love moments for themselves.”
© 2016, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved; poems, Gwendolyn Brooks estate; photograph of “Winnie” stone is in the public domain