Gwendolyn Brooks: 1917-2000

From Poetry Foundation:

BrooksGwendolyn Brooks was a highly regarded, much-honored poet, with the distinction of being the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress—the first black woman to hold that position—and poet laureate of the State of Illinois. Many of Brooks's works display a political consciousness, especially those from the 1960s and later, with several of her poems reflecting the civil rights activism of that period. Her body of work gave her, according to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor George E. Kent, “a unique position in American letters. Not only has she combined a strong commitment to racial identity and equality with a mastery of poetic techniques, but she has also managed to bridge the gap between the academic poets of her generation in the 1940s and the young black militant writers of the 1960s.”

Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, but her family moved to Chicago when she was young. Her father was a janitor who had hoped to become a doctor; her mother was a schoolteacher and classically trained pianist. They were supportive of their daughter's passion for reading and writing. Brooks was thirteen when her first published poem, “Eventide,” appeared in American Childhood; by the time she was seventeen she was publishing poems frequently in the Chicago Defender, a newspaper serving Chicago's black population. After such formative experiences as attending junior college and working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she developed her craft in poetry workshops and began writing the poems, focusing on urban blacks, that would be published in her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville.

“An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks” in Contemporary Literature 11:1 (Winter 1970).

Q. How about the seven pool players in the poem “We Real Cool”?

A. They have no pretensions to any glamor. They are supposedly dropouts, or at least they're in the poolroom when they should possibly be in school, since they're probably young enough, or at least those I saw were when I looked in a poolroom, and they. . . . First of all, let me tell you how that's supposed to be said, because there's a reason why I set it out as I did. These are people who are essentially saying, “Kilroy is here. We are.” But they're a little uncertain of the strength of their identity. [Reads:]

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

The “We”—you're supposed to stop after the “We” and think about their validity, and of course there's no way for you to tell whether it should be said softly or not, I suppose, but I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty, which they don't bother to question every day, of course.

Q. Are you saying that the form of this poem, then, was determined by the colloquial rhythm you were trying to catch?

A. No, determined by my feeling about these boys, these young men.

Q. These short lines, then, are your own invention at this point? You don't have any literary model in mind; you're not thinking of Eliot or Pound or anybody in particular . . . ?

A. My gosh, no! I don't even admire Pound, but I do like, for instance, Eliot's “Prufrock” and The Waste Land, “Portrait of a Lady,” and some others of those earlier poems. But nothing of the sort ever entered my mind. When I start writing a poem, I don't think about models or about what anybody else in the world has done.

More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).

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