Feb. 26-March 2, 2000

Appreciating Gwendolyn Brooks

Urban Poet  

Earlier this week, a group of poets and scholars assembled at New York University to pay tribute to poet Gwendolyn Brooks. It was the latest show of appreciation for a writer who provided readers with a vivid picture of black culture over a seven-decade career.

As a teenager, Brooks submitted poems about her family to several black newspapers in Chicago, Illinois. And she was only in her twenties when she published her first collection of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945. Her second book of poetry, Annie Allen, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949.

Elizabeth Alexander, a poet who teaches African American Studies at Yale, says that Brooks' local community provided her with inspiration.

"She was living at the time, as she did for years and years and years, on the South Side of Chicago. And she wrote about regular folks who lived in the 'kitchenette apartments' as they were called then of Chicago's great South Side."

Poet Quarysh Ali Lansana studied with Brooks in Chicago. He says that her poetry offered windows through which most Americans had not looked. "She opened up a path into the insides of ordinary black life," Lansana explains. "I think that she really went into the day-to-day, the tiny struggles, the issues of the people she called the 'littles.' These were the folks who were trying to get to the next meal, trying to make it to work the next day, trying to raise healthy children."

Alexander and Lansana discuss the breakthroughs Brooks made in her early poetry. (Requires QuickTime. Download now.)

The first stanza of Brooks' poem "The Bean Eaters," from the 1960 collection of the same name, captures the mix of daily routine and struggle:

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

( Reprinted by Permission of the
Estate of Gwendolyn Brooks)

  • What does the line "Dinner is a casual affair" suggest to you?

  • Which words best convey the living conditions of the couple in this poem?

  • What is the effect of describing them as "yellow"?

Poet Elizabeth Alexander reads and explains parts of "The Bean Eaters."

Poet Quarysh Ali Lansana reads portions from "A Song in the Front Yard," a well-known Gwendolyn Brooks poem that explores urban life.

 

Riverdeep salutes Black History Month with a series of multimedia features.

Life in the Negro Leagues
The Negro Leagues provided an important chapter in baseball and American history.

The Story of Brother Blue
Storyteller Brother Blue brings the classics to the streets.

Check out the previous Riverdeep Today articles and special events:

 
"We Real Cool"  

Besides providing windows into black domestic life, Brooks also shook readers with her tough depictions of urban problems. None of her poems was tougher—or terser—than "We Real Cool." Using just eight lines, the poem presents seven pool-playing gang members at a bar called The Golden Shovel.

It begins with the words,

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

and ends with the statement,

We

Die soon.

( Reprinted by permission of the
Estate of Gwendolyn Brooks)

  • What does the poem's first line tell you about the speakers?

  • According to these lines, what kind of behaviors are these gang members involved in?

  • What's the impact of ending almost all of the lines with "We"?

  • What's the effect of ending the poem in the way Brooks does?

"What she says and what she doesn't say speaks volumes in terms of creating the atmosphere for the experience of these seven pool players at The Golden Shovel," Lansana says. "I think this poem reaches so many folks because of its power: the power of its content, the power of its rhythm, and the power of its simplicity."

Lansana reads and discusses portions of "We Real Cool."



A Commitment to Youth  

Lansana organized the recent Gwendolyn Brooks tribute at New York University as small payment for the large influence she had on his career and on the lives of many other young poets.

Brooks used her position as the Poet Laureate of Illinois, a post she held for more than 30 years, to promote poetry to younger generations. She could even be found at poetry slams, rooting for new poets trying out their works in front of live audiences.

"She always had time to speak to a younger poet, whether that poet was 6 or 16," Lansana remembers. "In the last several years, she had invited me to participate in her Poet Laureate awards, in which she actually gave out awards to 40 public school students from the state of Illinois. She wrote them personal checks and she gave them an award, a book generally, and a certificate."

As famous as Brooks became, she was as well-known for visiting hospitals, prisons, and drug rehabilitation centers. And she continued living until her death on the South Side of Chicago that she loved.

Lansana pays personal tribute to his mentor, Gwendolyn Brooks.

 

Learn More

  • Several years ago, poet and educator Jon Madian heard Gwendolyn Brooks speak at a national conference. On his way home, he wrote this poem in tribute.

  • Get a multimedia look at what youthful poets are writing about in the recent Riverdeep article, "Slam! The Live Poets' Society."

 

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