Yesterday's story in Style on Gwendolyn Brooks incorrectly stated the annual stipend she receives as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. The correct figure is $35,000, plus a travel allowance.
Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
"Even if you are not ready for day,
it cannot always be night."
-- From the 1970 "Speech to the Young. Speech to the Progress-Toward."
Gwendolyn Brooks, the new poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, has made a formal, unfamiliar room in the library her own -- if only for an hour. Maybe it was the uneventful train ride from Chicago that envelops her with this relaxed, almost collapsed, air. She manages a matronly wiggle into the corner of a couch and laughs gustily, slapping the upholstery so hard that the fabric flowers shimmer.
She could be any rider on the bus, any woman in the marketplace, hips clothed in denim, head wrapped in a blue scarf and a senior's feet wearing blue, sensibly flat shoes. Her face is a wide, plain expanse of strong features, with a square chin that tilts to the sky like an airplane wing. But, far from an anonymity, this 68-year-old is not everywoman but one of America's distinguished poets. In person she's a wave of indigo hues. On paper, a vessel of strong ideas.
"I want to acquaint the library with those aspects of poetry that especially interest me," she says slyly. Brooks doesn't mention she is only the second black poetry consultant and the first black woman to hold the post, considered the highest attainable by an American poet.
Lofty titles, for Brooks, are nothing new. For 16 years she has been poet laureate of Illinois, heir to the mantle of Carl Sandburg. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950, the first black writer to be so honored. Still she ranks the Library of Congress post a "considerable honor" and is ready to begin there Monday with a public reading.
For the last four decades Brooks has been a name in American letters, defining urban life and personal tribulation in stanzas spare and complex, and always compassionate. In the mid-1940s she was recognized by the literary establishment and her work was published in Poetry magazine. In the ensuing years, when publishing turned its scant attention for black writers to novelists, she was one of the few black poets consistently published and anthologized. And her output ranged from poems to essays to novels to children's books.
"I don't think it had a thing to do with my quality. They didn't look to see what was right under their eyes," she says.
Like many other writers, she has been at the whim of literary trends. When publishers sought universal black voices for anthologies in the 1950s and 1960s, Brooks was a constant choice. When the black arts movement of the 1960s had publishers working overtime, Brooks was just as hot as Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka. A few years later, when the publishing world turned to women writers, Brooks stepped aside for Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange and Alice Walker. Friendly critics say her work then showed less anger than was fashionable during that era of personal outburst. But they defend her by saying she was one of the first to uncover the contradictions of being a black woman in America. Her early work, such as the 1953 novel "Maud Martha," has been hungrily resurrected by newer readers and now her fans hope her library appointment will spark renewed attention.
In the late 1960s, the time she considers the most exciting of her life, she became an example to the younger generation of vocal and political black poets as a writer who lived what she wrote. She has lived in the same frame house in the modest neigbhorhood of Park Manor for 32 years. "She has, more than any other nationally acclaimed writer, remained in touch with the community she writes about. She lives in the core of Chicago's black community," says poet Haki Madhubuti, who influenced and was influenced by Brooks. "She is her work."
O mother, mother, where is happiness?
They took my lover's tallness off to war,
Left me lamenting. Now I cannot guess
What I can use an empty heart-cup for . . . -- From "the sonnet-ballad," from "Annie Allen," 1949.
The first season of Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks started in Topeka, Kan., but her parents, a janitor and schoolteacher, moved to Chicago when she was only 1 month old. She tells of the family's poverty and frequent meals of beans during the Depression but remembers even more vividly her father's laugh and her mother's soprano ringing around their apartment.
After she started a poetry notebook as an 11-year-old, her father gave her an old desk and her mother predicted she would be the "Lady Paul Laurence Dunbar." Some of her earliest work appeared in a leading black newspaper, The Chicago Defender.
When she was about 15, she sent some poems to James Weldon Johnson, author of the classic "God's Trombone." She recalls, "He sent them back with criticisms on them. He said he admired my work, said I was talented but that I should read modern poetry. He could tell my idols were Emily Dickinson, Keats and Shelley."
Later her mother took her to hear Johnson read at a Chicago church, and when they were introduced he was rather cold, she recalls. But around the same time she attended a reading by Langston Hughes, who was friendly and encouraging.
In 1941 she met Inez Cunningham Stark, a board member of Poetry magazine, and enrolled in a workshop with a group of other Southside writers. Two years later she won the magazine's first prize for her work and embarked on years of teaching and reviewing. In 1950 she won the Pulitzer for "Annie Allen." In this early phase she earned considerable praise for the form she called a "sonnet-ballad." "The Egg Boiler," published in 1960, illustrates that style:
Being you, you cut your poetry from wood.
The boiling of an egg is heavy art.
You come upon it as an artist should,
With rich-eyed passion, and with straining heart.
We fools, we cut our poems out of air,
Night color, wind soprano, and such stuff.
And sometimes weightlessness is much to bear . . .
Besides her technical accomplishments, Brooks has defined the inner feelings of women and created such rich characters as her famous men "Satin Legs Smith" and "Lincoln West" in both her prose and poetry. The way she stripped away the privateness of pain and joy is cited by today's feminist writers. An early essay, published in the Negro Digest in 1951, was titled "Why Negro Women Leave Home." It tackled the changing patterns of family life as more women were becoming financially independent. Perhaps Brooks' most quoted work on this theme is "The Mother":
Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get.
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air . . .
Though some of her work in the early 1960s had a terse abbreviated style, her conversion to direct political expression happened rapidly after a gathering of black writers at Fisk University in 1967. Some of the younger generation considered her early style too technical and "European" but embraced her and influenced her style. Discussing their impact at the time, she said she had moved from work that was "conditioned" to poems that wanted to be "noncompromising." She has said if she had died before she was 50, she would have died a "Negro fraction."
She even severed her ties with Harper and Row and since then has used small, black publishing houses. Her latest book, "To Disembark," was published by Third World Press in 1981.
Looking back, she says, "It was the most exciting time of my life. It couldn't have continued. I am realistic about that. I would like some of the '60s feeling to survive. I would like blacks to think as well of themselves now as they did then, and they don't." Then she adds, as if she wants to bite her words, "I meet many blacks who are ashamed of being black or they just don't want to talk about it."
Yet the 1960s is a distant period. Writers that brought audiences to their feet have fallen by the wayside. Brooks looks down at a notebook on her lap and says, "Some of them were not, and this sounds a little mushy, but they weren't truly poets. Do you think there is such a thing as a truly poet? A true poet is one who is dedicated to writing poetry, fascinated by it and wouldn't give it up even if he or she thought there was never going to be any kind of publication. Someone who loves the exhilaration of it. It is exhilarating, painfully exhilarating."
While cultural exponents of the day took their work to the theater, to concert halls, to lofts, to the screen, Brooks and a few others went to the parks and taverns. She laughs at how she was sometimes described during those days. "It makes me seem like Ma Barker. It was not like that at all. We all had this family feeling. I wasn't Ma Barker, I was just sister. We would walk in and recite our poetry," she says.
She pauses, a quiver in her voice, a sign she might stop, but she switches to the present season. She smiles as she looks out a window toward the Capitol. "Does this sound 'consultant-like?' I am rather a peculiar consultant anyway. I am an ordinary person, not one of those high-flying artistes. I hate phoniness, literary airs."
She resumes speaking of the tavern lessons. "You had to be prepared to speak to these people of what interested them. You couldn't go in there and recite a sonnet and sound like John Donne or Merrill Moore."
So she read her own "We Real Cool," written in 1960:
. . . We real cool. We
Left school We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Though Brooks still reads frequently in schools and prisons, she feels general interest in poetry has declined in the last decade. "The real popular interest . . . was chiefly because so many young people were sprouting from platforms, reading poetry that was not always poetry. It stimulated some good poets," she says. Afterward, "the country became less interested in creativity, the atmosphere changed . . .
"Much of that poetry was stimulated by the spirit of revolution. A lot of young people especially thought that things were going to change if they had a part in it. Later on, they decided that things were not going to change and some of them stopped writing forever."
She chuckles, but in a way that shows her disappointment. Each year she visits about 50 campuses, where the favorites today are John Donne, William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, but she hasn't taught since 1972. "I like much better what I am doing. Prancing around, getting to meet new people and not staying around long enough for them to hate me," Brooks says lightly.
The trend today, says Brooks, is toward individualistic writing, and her favorite exponents are Audre Lorde, Derek Walcott, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood. But, if she has a hero, it is the late Ugandan writer Okot p'Bitek, author of "Song of Lawino" and "Song of Ocol."
"I wish I could do for blacks here what he has done for his people. His work is done with humor, exquisite imagery, it's personal and relative," she says. "Many black poets, and it is awesome to have to say this, they take themselves so seriously. They are scared to take a little humor. P'Bitek has a poem about the pain a woman feels because her husband has taken another woman but you are laughing through it."
This is Brooks' standard: to "write poetry that is accessible, without any sacrifice of literary quality, and interesting." And her precision, whether in the use of traditional stanza or the modern free form, is often praised by critics.
In looking at Brooks' career, poet and critic Eugene Redmond talked of how Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen had influenced her. "The results were a bewildering array of technical proficiencies, which laid a base for the thematic and psychological levels in her poetry," writes Redmond in "Drumvoices," a history of black poetry.
And Michael S. Harper, a leading scholar who teaches at Brown University, says "one of the failures of American critics" is their lack of attention to Brooks' prowess with form. He says she should be compared to Alexander Pope and John Keats and others.
While also acknowledging Brooks' technical skills, Maxine Kumin, a former poetry consultant at the Library of Congress and Pulitzer Prize winner herself, admires Brooks' thematic approaches to feminine issues. Kumin taught a seminar this summer in Austria in which she included Brooks' work. " A Street in Bronzeville," she says, citing a work published in 1945, "is one that will outlast all of us. And she also writes very movingly about womanhood. She is not afraid of the subject. She is very gutsy."
Harper points out Brooks has melded her skill as a "poet of privacy and poverty" "to provide black people with an inner life . . . the notion of how human personality operates under oppressive circumstances, and at the same time, show how inspiration operates."
Those themes, combined with the way Brooks flings her literary net to capture all audiences, makes her a unique library consultant, says one of her predecessors, Reed Whittemore. "She is filling a gap that not many poets at the library have, writing for children and capturing the feelings and patterns of street life."
Though few would take away the glory that Brooks has earned, some admirers have been disappointed with her later work. In the opinion of one: "Once she got politically involved, those ideologies demanded a fine line and it made her stifle a lot of stuff she was so good at exposing. It was not politically correct to expose those vulnerabilities."
"The early work that I liked had a combination of tenderness and a sense of being cut off from the world around her. Then, like so many others, she moved into a period of rage, great anger at the powers that be. It is always difficult to write well under those circumstances. As Marianne Moore said, 'Poetry withers when the knife of resentment is lodged in the heart,' " says Stanley Kunitz, another former Library of Congress consultant, who lists Brooks "among the best."
"I feel she is at a crossroads in presenting more explicit ideas in a kind of mass consumable way," says Claudia Tate, associate professor at Howard University and author of "Black Women Writers at Work." Tate, who feels Brooks has lessened what she calls "woman rage," says, "In her early verse she encoded her anger into rhetoric. It was not what the words meant but how it was said. That is what is missing in her new verse, the rage behind the words."
Mary Helen Washington, the author of three anthologies on black women writers, feels Brooks' recent work is missing the "undiluted naked power" of the work of the 1950s. She speaks of Brooks' novel, "Maud Martha," as "one of the most critical texts in Afro-American literature, especially as a book written by a black woman about black women."
Washington, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, also cites "Maud" as a breakthrough in style and subject. "It prefigures the themes of silence, repressed creativity and alienation that we find in the late novels of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Paule Marshall," says Washington.
Brooks thinks the "prototype" classification may be a little overstated. The younger poets, she says, "are so original. They have so much to say for themselves. I am really in awe of them."
She feels the criticism of her work during the l970s as disappointing might have some justification. "It is quite possible that it is true. I have been trying to speak blackly without sitting down to the table and writing blackly. Sometimes you flail a little during a transition period. But I hope to live long enough to correct any shortcomings."
Without my having known.
Policeman said, next morning,
"Apparently died Alone."
"You heard a shot?" Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the dead.
The Shot that killed him yes I heard
as I heard the Thousand shots before;
careening tinnily down the nights
across my years and arteries . . . -- From "The Boy Died in My Alley," 1975.
What is obvious about Brooks as she speaks is her diligence to poetry. As poet laureate of Illinois, she sponsors a contest for school-age poets that attracts hundreds of submissions. "I read every last one of them. I open them as they come and I write on the envelopes, 'Yes,' 'No,' 'Maybe so,' " she says. As for her personal productivity, she jots down four or five pages of notes a day. "I don't complete a poem. I don't require that of myself every day in my life or every week," she says.
And she keeps going by taking care of herself. Every morning at 5:30 she exercises to a television aerobics show and drinks a concoction of green peppers, celery, cucumbers and zucchini. And she is disciplined -- writing and rewriting. "I was never one who said, 'As it comes, so shall it stay,' " she explains.
When the more traditional approaches in poetic form reemerged in the writing of the mid-1970s and polemics were not passing as poetry, Brooks approved. In the 1960s, she recalls, "You were supposed to be calling out to your brothers and sisters if you were black or Hispanic. In fact, many of the poets felt it was a mark of their quality, of their black and Hispanic quality, if they didn't put a lot of emphasis on technique."
Before she gets immersed in her work at the Library, she hopes to finish the sequel to her autobiography, "Report From Part One." The new volume covers 1972 to the present and includes her travels to France, England, Ghana and Russia; the death of her mother in 1978; and her anger at the psychological retreat of some blacks.
But a summer of writing hasn't brought her satisfaction. "It is a wonderful thing to have something that feels right to you. It doesn't feel right to me yet," she says. She is also thinking of publishing an anthology of her work, "Blacks," which will contain some new writing and commemorate the anniversary of her first book in 1945.
Her standards of energy and openness will fuel her term as the 29th poetry consultant. She plans to be in town every Monday and Tuesday. The consultancy gives a $3,500 honorarium. She outlines a program of oral interviews, exhibition lunches, evenings with black and Hispanic poets and exchanges with critics. Lastly she would like to have a poetry festival similar to the one organized in 1962.
"It was several days, real excitement . . . any poet that had ever been heard of attended. Langston Hughes, Randall Jarrell -- who upset everybody with his analysis of the worth or the nonworth of his colleagues. It was a great event."
When she talks about her favorite poems, this is the one she mentions first, written in 1970:
Ugliest little boy
that everyone ever saw.
That is what everyone said . . .
His father could not bear the sight of him.
His mother high-piled her pretty dyed hair and
put him among her hairpins and sweethearts,
dance slippers, torn paper roses.
He was not less than these,
he was not more. -- From "The Life of Lincoln West."