My Gwendolyn Brooks
for Toi Derricotte, April 2021
Dear Toi, if we lived in the same city right now, I’d be asking you to coffee to talk about Gwendolyn Brooks. Her life and work cover more space and time than just about any other poet in modern American poetry: from gangbangers reading poems in her South Side living room to Susan Sontag waving her ass in Brooks’ face during a writer’s panel in Russia. “Ass-stounding,” says Ms. Brooks, according to her second autobiography. Do you know this story? She’s in Russia with Robert Bly, Susan Sontag, and some other important American writers when a Russian journalist asks her what it’s like to be Black in America. Sontag proceeds to answer. Brooks interrupts for obvious reasons, and then an angered Sontag stands up and shakes her big white ass in the face of the calmly seated Gwendolyn Brooks(!). Gwendolyn Brooks, the neighborly Pulitzer Prize-winning Black lady from the South Side of Chicago. Brooks doesn’t reveal her answer to the question, only the audacity of Sontag. I can’t tell whether Brooks is enraged, embarrassed or flattered by Sontag’s antics. Her prose, like her poetry, and I think even the warble of her voice, can feel astoundingly polytonal, shifting between shade and sincerity, craft and craftiness. How it is, she can be the most well-known poet with the most unread poems in modern American poetry? Her most anthologized and beloved poem, ‘We Real Cool,’ can turn four-year-olds into dynamic spoken-word artists. It can turn dynamic spoken-word artists into couplet-wielding scatting language poets. It can turn scatting language poets into little old Black ladies standing at the door of a pool hall called the Golden Shovel. I’ve written about the poem. I love its mutually formal, lyrical, social edge. It’s as futuristic/radical as jazz when it’s published in The Bean Eaters in 1960, a decade after she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Why don’t more critics write about Brooks?
My own handmade timeline of American poetry starts with Dickinson and Whitman and ends with poets like me talking about poems in the university. Where does Gwendolyn Brooks go in modern American poetry? Post-war, American poetry? The kind of poetry being written for as long as you have been alive? Brooks would be essential to the American literary canon even if all she did was publish A Street in Bronzeville in 1945. She would be essential to the American literary canon even if all she did was get Etheridge Knight writing poems in prison. Even if all she did was pay out of her own pocket to get Audre Lorde’s second book published. Gwendolyn Brooks would be essential if all she did was influence the ways we think about Blackness.
I’d given a considerable amount of thinking to the brilliant life of Gwendolyn Brooks before it occurred to me you have been my own personal Gwendolyn Brooks for the entirety of my life. You both are evidence the secret to longevity is living a poetic life. I have had all the good fortune of a student who had never been without his best teacher. Once I asked my father if he would rather be blessed or lucky. Blessed, he said. He’s a church deacon now. He seemed a little baffled to meet you in New Orleans more than twenty years ago, the year my daughter was born. He asked what you were. I remember. My mother was unusually comfortable with you, while my typically comfortable father was uneasy. Maybe I told him you were an Aries, and we laughed. I told him you were Black. I told him you were a poet, my teacher, my daughter’s godmother, my mentor, my friend, my spirit’s mother, my liberator. I’m to deliver a lecture on Brooks for the Poetry Society in the UK. If they want to know what’s truly exceptional in American poetry, they should look at Gwendolyn Brooks and her literary sisters and daughters. Anyone looking for a view of American culture as Stuart Hall understood it (“experience lived, experience interpreted, experience defined”), should study the perspectives of its most acute observers: Black women. They witness racism intensified by sexism, and sexism intensified by racism. You make, you witness. You raise generations of Black poets.
Brooks was a daughter of great migration up from Topeka to Chicago as a baby, raised in the age of Prohibition when women got the right to vote, a child prodigy who began publishing poems at thirteen, who wrote fan letters to poets, and married a man who was an aspiring poet, who was a twenty-four-year-old wife and mother living on the South Side of Chicago when A Street in Bronzeville debuted with Harper & Row in 1945. The book jacket copy begins, “In these poems of contemporary Negro life a new and talented young writer relates with sincerity, perception and stunning power her feelings about her people.” Do you know the photo of young Brooks standing with Langston Hughes, The Poetry of the Negro floating between them like a baton? Brooks is a lifelong tutor, passing batons of poems long into old age. She is our direct line to Langston Hughes who selects her work for a literary prize in 1940. He celebrates the publication of her debut in the Chicago Defender the final year of the Second World War: “This book is just about the biggest little two-dollar worth of intriguing reading found in bookshops these atomic days.” Brooks threw Hughes a going-away party when he moved.
The title A Street in Bronzeville sort of said upfront Gwendolyn Brooks was interested in her neighbors. Her neighbors were some of the most miraculous Black people ever to walk the planet. Nat King Cole, Jelly Roll Morton, and King Oliver carried music up and down Bronzeville. Growing up in Bronzeville, Brooks could have heard Louis Armstrong and His Stompers, featuring Earl Father Hines, and the teenaged MC, Cab Calloway at the Sunset Cafe. There were several as yet unreviewed Black cultural renaissances in the twentieth century. A Black poetry movement erupts in Detroit, most notably with Dudley Randall’s start of Broadside Press in 1965, the year of Malcolm X’s assassination. The mid-’60s and citizens like Robert Hayden, Margaret Danner, Naomi Long Madgett. Blackness is intimate and intense in these poets.
Had Brooks published no other book after A Street in Bronzeville, she would still be one of our great national treasures. The book remains simply mind-blowing in its formal and tonal range, its poetic dexterities, its slyness and grace. But it’s even more mind-blowing for the attention the poems pay to the everyday. Listen to Brooks read ‘when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story’ and try to picture 1945.
Brooks reads with that trademark pizzazz that seems especially right for the poem’s vampish energies. It’s a tone that makes me ponder her comment about Susan Sontag’s ass wagging. Brooks rides the edge between flirt and tease; her voice is lyric, suggestive, and slightly off-putting. It begins in medias res-ily, mid-breath, mid-pant. It folds and unfolds like bedsheets and loose limbs. Its elastic syntax is loaded with dashes, sidebars, and winks. In my recording of Brooks, she says the story is about the youth of her marriage. The poem must be one of the great newlywed poems.
The New American Poetry, 1945–1960, edited by Donald Allen in 1960, the same year Brooks publishes her third book, The Bean Eaters, covering the year of her debut, does not include Gwendolyn Brooks. Her absence makes anything Donald Allen observes about the era half-baked, half-cocked. Brooks also was not included in Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal in 1968. Baraka appears in Donald Allen’s anthology as Leroi Jones, the only Black poet included. Audre Lorde is also absent from Black Fire. The omission of these women dramatically shrinks the scope of what those brothers called Black Art. Stuart Hall says “male-oriented models and assumptions and the heavily masculine subject matter and topics which for long constituted the assumed terrain of Cultural Studies” must be rethought in light of feminism. Reconfiguring twentieth-century poetry with Brooks as one of its canonical fountains shows Hall is right. But it doesn’t matter whether Allen or Baraka or other stripes of Canonical Gatekeepers see Brooks, she’s got her eye on the future. She is the neighborly Pulitzer Prize-winning Black lady teaching poetry in Chicago’s South Side.
Both poetry anthologies (edited by male-oriented, establishment-building poets) considered Brooks, already fifty in 1967, a member of the literary establishment. They were wrong. Even ‘We Real Cool,’ from her 1960 collection, The Bean Eaters, expressed an empathetic and social concern for the young people who would power the Black Power Movement that powered parts of the Civil Rights Movement. One may assume the pool players at The Golden Shovel are Black in ‘We Real Cool,’ when one knows Brooks’ South Side. She watches them from the door of the pool hall. They will “die soon” in the wars, in prisons, in the neighborhoods undermined by government housing projects, in the hands of racists. Brooks’ social concerns for Black people evolved just as it did for Black people amid the murders and assassinations mounting in the ’60s. Within a few months in 1963 Medgar Evers was killed in Mississippi and the four girls, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair, were killed in Alabama. When Malcolm X is killed in 1965 the poet Leroi Jones moves from Greenwich Village to Harlem, changes his name to Amiri Baraka, and becomes one of the founders of the Black Arts Movement. The movement put language to the anger of the era.
Discussing the movement at the historic 1994 Furious Flower Poetry Conference (named after lines in Brooks’ ‘Second Sermon on the Warpland’), Baraka emphasized its aim to create Black art and Black institutions. In Chicago, Hoyt Fuller’s Negro Digest published the poems and prose of voices in the movement. In Detroit in 1965 Dudley Randall founded Broadside Press publishing the books and pamphlets of voices in the movement. Brooks was a central figure in every instance: sending the work of young poets to the Negro Digest and Broadside Press and speaking, teaching, guiding. She encountered a dynamic thirty-four-year-old Amiri Baraka and his peers/followers when she attended Fisk University’s Black Writers Conference in 1967. “They wanted to write and to change things with the passion of their writing,” she wrote in her 1972 autobiography, Report From Part One.
The death of Langston Hughes in 1967 marked a new chapter in American poetry. Brooks straddled chapters in the story of twentieth-century poetry. Readers can experience those blurs between eras in the poems that come to make up In the Mecca (1968), Brooks’ last book on Harper & Row, her press of the previous twenty-six years. Her poetics take shape in what she calls the “kindergarten of new consciousness.” The Mecca was the name of an impoverished apartment building on the South Side of Chicago. The South Side has been the site of Brooks’ community activism, the neighborhood workshops, the mentoring – a sort of village Black Arts Movement. It is not so much a transformation as an evolution, an intensification of attentions that emerges in Brooks after the Fisk conference. In the Mecca looks directly at the new Blackness of the era. Brooks evolves from social to political urgency just as Jones/Baraka does. Her evolution mirrors the arc of the century. ‘Second Sermon on the Warpland’, one of her extraordinary poems from the collection, is a kind of directive and manifesto for the new poets.
Brooks makes any conversation about American poetry of the last century more interesting. Brooks is born in 1917, the same year as Robert Lowell, who wins the Pulitzer in 1947, three years before Brooks. When he passed in 1977 Lowell was considered one of the chief poets of the twentieth century. He taught both Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. His family history could be traced back to the Mayflower. Lowell met with James Baldwin and President Lyndon Johnson at the White House, but Gwendolyn Brooks met with Baldwin and the poets in her living room. (Picture them at the grave of Lorraine Hansberry with flowers.) As Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are to Robert Lowell, Brooks is to several generations of poets. Brooks’ influence can be felt all along a century of American cultural struggles and successes. Her poems are a record. Brooks’ life enriches almost any angle or cultural study and speaks even more directly to the rich present field of Black Studies.
I wish there were a record of her relationship with Sonia Sanchez. Presumably, she and/or Dudley Randall introduced Sanchez to Etheridge Knight while he was in prison. They were married a couple of months after his release and divorced a couple of years later. Sonia Sanchez is the mother of the contemporary Black Studies programs. She helps start the first Black Studies department in the country at San Francisco State in the late ’60s and then helps start the second at the University of Pittsburgh at the beginning of the ’70s. When she taught at Cave Canem I heard her tell tales of the CIA posing as students – students who dressed and looked like they were CIA, when she taught the work of W.E.B. Du Bois. I wish there was a record of Brooks’ council with Sonia Sanchez, their chats about motherhood, poetry, Blackness, community.
Fred Moten describes Black Studies as an “Exhaustive celebration of and in and through our suffering” in Black and Blur (consent not to be a single being) (2017). Saidiya Hartman’s Black feminism is as dense and layered as the field of lyrical polyvocal Blacknesses. When she describes radical Black women in her book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (2019), I think of Gwendolyn Brooks. The scope of the Black Arts Movement is dramatically reduced when it overlooks the Black women poet peers. Sonia Sanchez is among the most central voices of the Black Arts Movement, but continues to be excluded from surveys of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and from broader conversations about Black American poetry. Sanchez publishes her debut Homecoming in 1969, the same year as the equally powerful, equally under-discussed Lucille Clifton publishes her debut, Good Times. Audre Lorde published First Cities, her debut, in 1968. Brooks was a central figure in the work of all three poets. She directly mentored poets like Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and Haki Madhubuti.
Brooks is a revolutionary evolutionary poet. She “inhabits every woman’s” thinking and feeling, acknowledging loss while celebrating life. You both are evidence a Blackness rooted in intimacy must also be rooted in community. That’s what Cave Canem seems to me: astounding polytonalities of Blackness. Brooks meditates on what it means to be polytonally Black. Her definition evolves into something like a pan-African Blackness in the 1980s when The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Other Poems is published. In a 1987 Los Angeles Times article Brooks says hearing a radio broadcast of two Black South African boys asking each other, “Have you been detained yet? How many times have you been detained?” prompted her to write the title poem through the voice of a Black boy growing up outside the all-white town. The poem’s slippery, sly mood is accentuated in Brooks’ dynamic delivery. Her reading style is understood as a performance, and this poem late in her career is as vibrant a performance as you may find of her anywhere.
I almost don’t want to know anything about the poem’s context. The voice speaks on many frequencies, slipping between Brooks and Near-Johannesburg Boy with overlapping intimacies and intensities. All three poems by Brooks are forward-thinking in construction/conception while grounded in subject. All three are elusively voiced, slipping between registers of affection and caution and witness. Legions of poets have been influenced by Brooks. I think of you and Rita Dove and Wanda Coleman as the daughters of Gwendolyn Brooks, a trio of sisters expressing their own frequencies of Blackness. Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem, ‘The Hill We Climb,’ in a bright yellow that makes me think, for some reason, of Gwendolyn Brooks. It will take an entirely different address to contemplate the sons and brothers of Gwendolyn Brooks. I only know that her husband once dreamed of becoming a poet. It will take an entirely different address to contemplate the loves of Gwendolyn Brooks. She wrote of marriage and motherhood before a word like feminism was in common usage. She wrote about the disappointments, dreams and desires of gender and race with a tenderness and scrutiny.
If we lived in the same city right now, I might be insisting Brooks would have been a Nobel Prize laureate had an appropriate account been given. Our Wisława Szymborska, our Pablo Neruda without question. Around Chicago community centers, schools, and publishing houses have been raised up to honor Brooks. Adults who dreamed of becoming poets as children report of letters sent to them and checks signed by Brooks. Patricia Smith may possess a stack of letters and certificates signed by Gwendolyn Brooks. Smith, one of the greatest contemporary poets in America, has to be among the truest and clearest of Brooks’ descendants. The great Patricia Smith extends the reach of Brooks. All you have given orphan poets such as myself extends the reach and embrace of Brooks. It may seem altruistic when I write about overlooked poets, about women, but I do it because I fear I am always overlooking them. Look how I nearly overlooked you, Teacher. It’s because you are everywhere I look in this life of mine. You have shown me one who lives as a poet is one who bears witness. Anyone looking for what’s truly exceptional in American poetry should look at the Black women poets.