Everything changed in the 1960s, but the seeds of change were planted long before. One of those seeds was the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, an explosion of African-American culture centered in New York and embracing literature, music, theater, painting, and more. Associated with the renaissance were names like Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, W.E. B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes. It was an amazing period in African-American cultural history, and an amazing period for African-American poets and poems. One of the beneficiaries of the period was poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
Almost 40 years after the renaissance, Brooks (1917-2000) wrote this poem about Langston Hughes:
Langston Hughes (1963)
is merry glory.
Yet grips his right of twisting free.
Has a long reach,
In the eye of the vulture
In the compression—
In mud and blood and sudden death—
In the breath
Of the holocaust he
Is helmsman, hatchet, headlight.
One restless in the exotic time! and ever,
Till the air is cured of its fever.
Born in Topeka, Kansas, Brooks spent virtually her entire life in Chicago. Her parents, a janitor and a schoolteacher, enouraged her desire for reading and writing. She published her first poem at 13, and her first poetry collection at 28. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950; she was 33 and the first African-American to win any Pulitzer Prize. Later she became the first African-American woman to become consultant to the Library of Congress (which we now call Poet Laureate).
She published numerous books of poetry, including "Selected Poems" (1963). It includes poems from previous collections, a few new poems, two essays about her, and an interview with her by Studs Terkel. It’s a classic introduction to Brooks and her poetry.
The poems are simple, sometimes deceptively so. Many of them are rhyming poems. All of them reflect the love of people, the people she grew up with and knew, many of whom are what even then would have been called the urban poor. She captures their dignity and their faith, and their fundamental humanity.
The Bean Eaters (1960)
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.
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.
Brooks’ poetry changed in the 1960s, reflecting civil rights struggles and the violence often inflicted upon those fighting for it. But it never lost something basic in her poems – the realization that history is not something confined to the past. History is also the present; what happened 100 years ago, 50 years and 20 years ago is in a very real sense still happening today, and still shaping who we are. We don’t really escape the past.
This doesn’t have only negative implications. The good things from the past – the grandmother who loved us, the elderly aunt who would invite us to visit for a week, the uncle who pressed good novels on us to read, those “bean eaters” we knew – continue to shape us as well. We may not be able to go home again, as author Thomas Wolfe said, but home and the past are always with us.
That’s the real lesson of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry.
on July 30, 2014
It is a pleasure to have read a book and been inspired by a true master.
Gwendolyn Brooks delivers a collection of outstanding poetry of the deepest level that had even this humble poet amazed, confused, bedazzled, in search of a dictionary and overall enamoured by the breadth of magnificent words and stories that are shared by the remarkable writer.
The future of poetry feels more secure when I happily muse about the masses of writers that Gwendolyn Brooks has inspired and still will inspire.
Various editions of "Selected Poems" by the late Gwendolyn Brooks are floating around, most of which only have differences in layout or binding. All have the core poems that defined Brooks as one of America's poets with a social conscience.
In the spirit of Carl Sandburg and Langston Hughes, and occasionally, Robert Frost, her poetry meets the reader head-on. However, to Brooks' credit, and what makes her a great poet, is she sees the big picture, just her greatly skilled colleagues listed above.
Brooks was black. She neither hid it, nor would be ashamed that I said so. Many of her poems revolved around the issues impacting African Americans, both the responsibility they have, as well as an acknowledgment of the difficulties they endure because of racism and cultural differences.
Her poems will survive (and are worth reading today) because they were not shackled to the political milieu of the day. What she wrote in the 1940s, when racism was bolder and more detrimental than today, matters.
She was current, yet eternal. Even though "The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till" refers to a young man murdered decades ago, the reader without that context will still appreciate its common-spoken depth (her indents are diminished in my copy below because of the software to post this):
after the murder,
after the burial
Emmett's mother is a pretty-faced thing;
the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
through a red prairie.
Award-winning, and well-celebrated toward the end of her life, Brooks complete collection of poems is a valuable lesson in compassion, speaking with strong poetic voice, and honesty. For the reader looking for an introduction to Brooks' poetry without having to work through the vast complete works would do well to start here.
I fully recommend "Selected Poems" by Gwendolyn Brooks.
on July 26, 2015
These poems are important historically as well as poetically. Brooks shows mastery of the genres of her time but fiercely maintains both her own style--usually quite readable, sometimes a bit puzzling--and her observations of life around her in the African-American community. Most poems, which span decades years in this book, stick to life as people in those communities knew it and leave the politics implicit, but sometimes a righteous politics come to the fore. I enjoyed the recently added observations at the end.