A recurrent American nightmare involves the thought that possibly we are not really one people. Brand names, popular music, sports logos and such can make us seem united, but emergencies and calamities reveal divisions. What if victims and thugs, large numbers of the bereft and the violent, are who they are because in some deep way they are not part of our society?

This question doesn't exculpate people or pity them because of poverty or age or race. It is a cultural question, with political and historical implications. Gwendolyn Brooks understands that distinction and communicates it in this poem, written in 1968:

Boy Breaking Glass

To Marc Crawford from whom the commission

Whose broken window is a cry of art

(success, that winks aware

as elegance, as a treasonable faith)

is raw: is sonic: is old-eyed premiere.

Our beautiful flaw and terrible ornament.

Our barbarous and metal little man.

"I shall create! If not a note, a hole.

If not an overture, a desecration."

Full of pepper and light

and Salt and night and cargoes.

"Don't go down the plank

if you see there's no extension.

Each to his grief, each to

his loneliness and fidgety revenge.

Nobody knew where I was and now I am no longer there."

The only sanity is a cup of tea.

The music is in minors.

Each one other

is having different weather.

"It was you, it was you who threw away my name!

And this is everything I have for me."

Who has not Congress, lobster, love, luau,

the Regency Room, the Statue of Liberty,

runs. A sloppy amalgamation.

A mistake.

A cliff

A hymn, a snare, and an exceeding sun.

The poem is, among other things, an antidote to merely sentimental ideas of the word "creative." More than that, it has the ambition and generosity to consider government along with culture, lower-case lobster and luau along with upper-case Regency, Liberty and Congress. It is a reminder, in keeping with the notions of Whitman and Emerson, that our nation is itself perhaps a "sloppy amalgamation" -- that we need to hold together.

(Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "Boy Breaking Glass" can be found in her collection "Blacks." Third World. Copyright © 1991 by Gwendolyn Brooks Blakely.)