Why you should care
Because doing something extraordinary using totally ordinary means is a magic we should all be lucky enough to master.
Poetry is dead. Sure, there’s slam poetry — and the griot, as embodied by hip-hop stylings, is close. There’s no shortage of people claiming to be poets, but that’s really like saying because we all have fists, we must all be boxers. Poetry is another sweet science, though, and one that’s sometimes so fundamentally complex that just having eyes might still not be enough to get it.
That is something you’re going to need to square yourself with when considering poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Especially if at any point you find yourself perched frontside to The Anniad, her long narrative poem drawn from Annie Allen, her 1949 second book of poems. Square, because while there’s the comfortable cheap-seat read that follows the flow of a young woman’s life as she traverses her time from singledom to married motherhood, there’s also much more. Much, much more.
Specifically, its very stringent use of poetic techniques more familiar to the kind of epic forms at play in the poem that Brooks has cribbed the title from, Homer’s The Illiad. Though the field of play is poverty and its handmaiden, discrimination, and not the Trojan War, Brooks’ careful use of language made this poem unassailably great.
You should read Brooks for many reasons, but the most significant one being how incredibly disciplined she is.
How great? So great that in 1950, at the age of 33, Brooks, a married mother of two, won a Pulitzer for it.
“Truly objective, never propagandistic and, above all, original” is how the judges put it on their way to making her the first Black person to win the Pulitzer Prize in any discipline. Just to be clear, that’s the prize that hip-hop now-near-legend Kendrick Lamar recently won for music. But in 1950, the Chicago-based Brooks, who was known on occasion to describe herself as a “housewife” — and who had been sending out unsolicited submissions almost nonstop since she was 14 years old — had arrived.
An “arrival” that seemed years too late, given that Brooks had never imagined that she hadn’t already arrived.
“You should read Brooks for many reasons,” said the late poet and writer Diane Middlebrook, “but the most significant one being how incredibly disciplined she is.” Disciplined with language, and how she understands it and how she understands how we understand it. In a February 2000 letter to writer Evelyn White, Brooks made this clear when she corrected one of White’s edits with a sharp-edged notation.
“The poem must be published as written, or not at all,” wrote Brooks. “No revisions, no excerpting, no adjustments. … I try so hard. I spend a lot of time toiling over my language: every dot and dash, every comma, every piece of alliteration, every italic MEANS something. …”
And if Brooks says it is so, it must be so, and nowhere is this more apparent than when you sample lines from stanza 21 that all at once recall Coleridge, Keats and beyond that something wholly Brooks in describing a returning warrior rejecting his lover for his true love of battle. He longs for “a gorgeous and gold shriek/with her tongue tucked in her cheek,/Hissing gauzes in her gaze,/Coiling oil upon her ways.”
Unpack even just a little bit and you have Eros and Thanatos, erotic love and death. And for this daughter of a father who, frustrated in his aspirations to become a doctor, ended up a janitor, and a mother who taught school and played piano in classical concerts, a carefully complex take on her corner of Chicago. A take nurtured by her parents, who saw in her a greatness — and beyond that a will to that greatness.
Which is why after publishing her first poem when she was 13, Brooks had gone on to publish almost 75 more by the time she was 16, ranging from sonnets to free verse, some blues-based (she was a daughter of Chicago, after all). Her work didn’t go unnoticed by giants Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. All a greased skid to that moment when a reviewer later pegged her as a capital-P Poet, and off to the races Brooks went.
“Brooks’ use of language … is great,” said Mallorca artist and Japanese ex-pat Chika Sagawa (who shares a name with the late great Japanese avant-garde poet). ”It helped me not only understand our condition better but America [as a whole.]”
Precisely why, in addition to the Pulitzer — a lead-in that most can’t lay claim to — Brooks would be awarded the Robert Frost Medal and the National Medal of Arts. That, teaching gigs at the University of Chicago, Columbia University and City College of New York and a publishing schedule that saw Brooks release a two-part autobiography, along with noteworthy works A Street in Bronzeville, the aforementioned Annie Allen and Winnie, and you have the kind of career few are likely to ever see again.
And finally, in 2000, Brooks, dying at home at the age of 83, might have offered words of exit pulled from her poem “Jessie Mitchell’s Mother”: She revived for the moment settled and dried-up triumphs,/Forced perfume into old petals, pulled up the droop,/Refueled/Triumphant long-exhaled breaths.