10
Oct
15

Quick Notes on Gwendolyn Brooks

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Gwendolyn BrooksGwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 1920) is an American poet and was the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize with her book Annie Allen (1949). Langston Hughes was one of her mentors. Brooks poetry explores meter and form, politics, and the lives of many African American people (both real and fictitious), as well as “Black English vernacular” (Mickle 8).

According to Timothy Seibles in “The Black Aesthetic,” “Up to this point [the 1940s], most of the poetry written by black Americans spotlighted characters/speakers that resonated as symbols of the race, or symbols of the spirit that would sustain the race, or symbols of the suffering that black people have endured” (175). With Brooks, however, we get characters that feel real. We get inside their heads and hearts and motivations. In fact, by the time I finish Gwendolyn Brooks: Selected Poems, I feel as if Brooks created a whole new country or exposed a country filled with characters don’t traditionally appear in American poetry or who were/are rarely acknowledged in popular culture. She gives voice to the unheard and she gives it to us in their voices. Brooks can write sonnets, ballads, rhyme royals, and many brilliant form poems and free verse poems, but her creation of and delivery of these characters and making them real is what I enjoy most, especially Annie Allen in “The Anniad.”

“The Anniad” is 43-stanza long poem about a poor, black woman, who is unacknowledged by “the higher gods,” vilified by “the lower gods,” and who is “underfed.” In this poem, she becomes a hero on a quest to identify herself and/or to comfortably fit herself into the world she lives in. The title “The Anniad” plays with the title to Virgil’s epic poem “The Aeneid,” and the structure of the poem uses Chaucer’s rhyme royal, though Brooks modifies it for her needs. All the stanzas use trochaic meter with a catalectic end foot, instead of iambic pentameter, and she varies the rhyme scheme of ababbcc as is needed. By calling up the epic form (the hero’s journey) and the rhyme royal, Brooks can elevate Annie Allen from a poor, hungry black woman to that of a hero, while also involving us in the life of a black woman during World War II. This begins by showing us a double consciousness (by which I mean something similar to W. E. B. DuBois’s double consciousness – the “peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one-self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”) that the young Annie experiences with her seeing the world through the white male stories of adventure and fantasy with the world of knights (who don’t exist) – “Watching for the paladin / Which no woman had ever had” – and the reality of who she is with “black and boisterous hair” filled with “anger.” This double consciousness is also reflected in Chaucer’s form, where Brooks uses a traditional English form but fills it with content of a poor black woman and colloquial Black English (and at times with parodies of Old English to re-emphasize the dual perceptions – her perception versus the confusing and contradictory perceptions from other standards). Throughout the long poem, Annie tries to find her identity, despite the contradictory identifiers of race and gender, or as Langston Hughes says in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.” I think this is Annie’s quest, too.

Brooks also uses and alludes to these poetic forms, I think, because ofwhat Mildred R. Mickle points out in “Career, Life, and Influence”:

The twentieth century was a time when black artists made significant headway in several struggles:

  1. The struggle to define what black art can be by determining to what degree black artists should assimilate into the American mainstream or speak only to the black community
  2. The struggle to determine what the role of the black artist can be, whether as a protester or as an artist who creates only for the self
  3. The struggle to establish a place for black art within the larger confines of American art by either adhering to the standards of the mainstream or establishing new standards that would become part of the mainstream

These three issues formed the main debate of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, but they are not exclusive to that time. (4)

Brooks shows she can master the mainstream expectations of poetry while speaking to the “black community” at the same time, while creating new poetic standards.

Getting back to Annie, her “black and boisterous hair, / Taming all that anger down” is also a continuation of this double consciousness. These lines close stanza 5, which opens with “Think of thaumaturgic lass / Looking in her looking-glass.” This sets the stage of the two ways of Annie seeing herself, what she thinks about herself and what she sees in the mirror. Thus, when we get to the closing lines, we can feel even more confusion because she has her own hair but she has to tame it. And to tame it, I assume, this means she would have to straighten her curly and wild hair because of some other’s standard of beauty – the experience of double consciousness manifested in the presentation of hair. Here, also, begins her “metamorphosis” to satisfy the tan man, who will later pursue other women, who look and act differently than she, as they are “bacchanalian lass[es].”

The tan man rejects Annie as an after effect of his time fighting for America in World War II. When he returns from war to America, he doesn’t feel as equal and/or purposeful as did when he was a soldier. Back in the States, with its white privilege, there is “this white and greater chess / [that] Baffles tan man,” which is to say there are greater complications because of interactions between races, and he has to play a complicated game to survive those interactions, which he didn’t experience as a soldier. As a result, he lost his belief in America and its alleged equalities, and as a consequence, he finds women other than Annie to sleep with.

This recalls the earlier Brooks’ poem “Negro Hero,” which calls out the hypocrisies of black man considered “good enough” to fight a war for “Their white-gowned democracy [. . .] fair lady,” but where back in the states he is treated as less than human, where “a white man said / Indeed, I’d rather be dead; / Indeed, I’d rather be shot in the head / Or ridden to waste on the back of a flood / Than saved by the drop of a black’s man blood.” Back home in the states, the white-privileged men will do what they need to preserve “their law in all its sick dignity [. . .] / To the continuation of their creed / And their lives” [my italics].

Brooks also presents a double consciousness in a white woman in “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” In a similar way as in “The Anniad,” Brooks incorporates myth and fable by showing us a white woman who is situated in a fantasy world of her “Fine Prince” (her white husband or lover) and a “Dark Villain.” The Dark Villain is not a scary beast who has eaten many “knights and princesses” as she envisions it, but, in reality, he is a 14-year-old black boy “with eyes still too young to be dirty, / And a mouth too young to have lost every reminder / Of its infant softness.” Additionally, this boy, according to McKibbin is Emmett Till. This makes the lady the woman Till allegedly flirted with and makes her lover the man who killed Till for the alleged flirting. In this poem, the woman has to perform the role of mother and wife, and she has to present herself in a fashion that is pleasing to her lover – “she hurried / To the mirror with her comb and lipstick. It was necessary / To be more beautiful than ever. / The beautiful wife.” In fact, she sometimes enjoyed being objectified, or receiving his look “at her as though measuring her.” This double consciousness, however, gets complicated, according to McKibbin:

Brooks’s apparent sympathy for the white woman as the pawn of domineering white men is subverted as she deconstructs the romance within the woman’s mind and thereby holds the woman responsible for her complicity in the myth, and consequently, in the murder. (667)

Brooks, according to McKibbin, is thus condemning the woman for the romantic world she has created and lives in, and McKibbin may be correct. However, this woman is also held hostage in the hierarchy of white male privilege in the south and the romantic notions of power that come with that. He threatens and beats the children and her. Eventually, she became trapped in her hate of him, “a hatred for him [that] burst into a glorious flower, / And its perfume enclasped them – big, / Bigger than all magnolias.” In the end, she is a passive figure who does not or cannot voice a defense for herself, for the racism, the violent racism, nor can she voice in the courtroom where her lover is on trial. She is no longer the “mild maid” at the beginning of the poem, but the romantic notions of her world have been subverted.

In the end, Brooks meets all eight of the criteria she sets out in “Prologue. The New Preparation. Aims. Subject Matter. Method. The Hard Flower.,” especially points 7 and 8: “7. You must make your reader believe that what you say could be true. [. . .] 8. Remember that ART is refining and evocative translation of the materials of the world!” (11).

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Works Cited

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “Prologue. The New Preparation. Aims. Subject Matter. Method. The Hard Flower.” A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1975. 3-11. Print.

—. Selected Poems. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.

McKibbin, Molly Littlewood. “Southern Patriarchy and the Figure of the White Woman in Gwendolyn Brooks’s “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” African American Review 44.4 (2011): 667-685. Project Muse. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.

Mickle, Mildred R. “Career, Life, and Influence: On Gwendolyn Brooks.” Critical Insights: Gwendolyn Brooks (2010): 1-8. Literary Reference Center. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.

Seibles, Timothy. “The Black Aesthetic.” A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Eds. Jack Myers and David Wojahn. Carondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. 158-189. Print.

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