by Danielle Chapman
POETRY FOUNDATION SYNDICATE
The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks. Ed. by Elizabeth Alexander. Library of America. $20.00.
What's better, love or respect? Most poets would probably prefer a combination of the two--that is, worship. Yet some of the most respected twentieth-century poets--T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath--seem to have squandered whatever affection came their way. So what do we do with a fiercely ambitious poet who was generous to her community, faithful to her family, and loved by everyone; who, only six years after her death, has libraries, schools, parks, institutes, conferences, scholarships, and prizes too numerous to list named after her?
The answer of anthologists thus far, which the Library of America has endorsed with this classy, but tiny, volume of Gwendolyn Brooks's poems, introduced and edited by Elizabeth Alexander, has been to respectfully--but not very enthusiastically--canonize her. This might not seem like such a shabby fate if it didn't come at a time when Robert Lowell (born in 1917, the same year as she) has just been charioted into immortality with a twelve-hundred-page doorstop of collected poems. In The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks are poems that are as formally impressive as Lowell's, while usually more relevant to social issues, and generally more nutritive to one's humanity. They are not, however, nearly as personally revealing, which may account for why they haven't gotten the serious attention they deserve.
Brooks's own body of work is staunchly impersonal. Yet this tenet of her work has been somewhat ignored--partly because it places her under the influence of T.S. Eliot, whose prejudices have made him anathema to Brooks's most ardent supporters. Yet, it was in Eliot's poems that this shy girl--who lacked the "brass" and "sass" of others in her neighborhood; who preferred practicing pentameter to going to dance parties--would have found the pure, selfish stuff of poetry, the thoughts and music of the interior life.
Her own poetic foundation was narrower--and more home-grown--than Eliot's. In addition to Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, the two iconic black writers of the time, she'd absorbed the popular poetry of folk music and the Blues: the hard-stopped, end-rhymed rhythms of hymns and the darkly humorous melodrama of ballads, meant to be bawled or belted rather than sung. It was an insistently American poetry: poetry of passion and bad luck, sustained poverty, and the common-sense religion and gallows humor that remedy it.
It was the Eliot of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "Portrait of a Lady," and parts of The Waste Land that Brooks responded to most. In "The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith" she invents the ultimate anti-Prufrock. The poem takes us through a day in the life of a flagrant peacock of a hustler, a man who dresses in "wonder-suits in yellow and in wine, / Sarcastic green and zebra-striped cobalt.... Ballooning pants that taper off to ends / Scheduled to choke precisely." This meditation shows Brooks taking the sort of license that no pious imitator would dare:
His lady alters as to leg and eye,
Thickness and height, such minor points as these,
From Sunday to Sunday. But no matter what
Her name or body positively she's
In Queen Lace stockings with ambitious heels
That strain to kiss the calves, and vivid shoes
Frontless and backless, Chinese fingernails,
Earrings, three layers of lipstick, intense hat
Dripping with the most voluble of veils.
Her affable extremes are like sweet bombs
About him, whom no middle grace or good
The impersonal, conversational purity that Brooks attained in lines like these is unmatched by anyone in her generation. In her pure delight in Satin Legs, she enables the character to come alive and exist independently of her own interests, her pathos, herself. This was something that Eliot--for all his talk of escaping his personality--could never completely do.
In 1967 Brooks attended the Black Writers' Conference at Fisk University in Nashville, an event which marked the ascendance of the Black Arts movement. From then on, much of what Brooks wrote would be influenced by her ensuing embrace of a more radical black consciousness. A smattering of work from this period powerfully symbolizes the violence Brooks was wreaking on her own poetry to make it relevant to her community. "The Second Sermon on the Warpland" blends revolutionary conviction with prophetic intensity into lines of pure apocalyptic fury, hissing on the page like the yanked-out fuses of a hard-wired poetic temperament:
cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face
all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace.
While lines like these are stunning, there is much sentimental debris scattered around the scorching insights of Brooks's late work as well, often within the same poems. The inclusion of so many of Brooks's latest poems here is emblematic of the double bind that her work finds itself in now that she has died. On one hand, she's so loved in her community that editors can't perform the necessary critical culling of her work. On the other hand, this single tribute by the LOA is a reminder that Brooks is in the process of being shelved away in the lost realm of "fair representation."
A book like The Essential Poems of Gwendolyn Brooks can't make the statement that needs to be made: Gwendolyn Brooks is as important to twentieth-century American poetry as Robert Lowell. While Lowell met the times--and rebelled against Eliot--with the spectacle of his mad, egomaniacal charm, Brooks hunkered down and used Eliot's tradition of impersonality to portray the troubles and the joys of survival in black America. That Brooks's purposes were so different from Eliot's only strengthens the connection. It shows the vitality of true poetic inspiration, how it can cut across time, temperament, race, and even the motives of its own practitioners.
Danielle Chapman's recent poems appear in The Atlantic Monthly and The New England Review. A resident of Chicago, she regularly reviews for The Chicago Tribune and Poetry.
© 2006 by Danielle Chapman. All rights reserved.
Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org.