Monday, March 29, 2010

Here's to Living in the Along

Over on Aloud, the blog I edit for New York Women in Communications, we've been profiling women past and present for Women's History Month. This is the profile I wrote about one of my favorite poets, Gwendolyn Brooks.
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It is safe to say that poetry was Gwendolyn Brooks' true native language. Her first poem, "Eventide," was published in American Childhood magazine when she was just 13. She published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, at age 28.

Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1917, she spent almost all of her life in Chicago, and that city's people, especially its African American citizens, shaped and infused her work. The excellent biography on the Poetry Foundation Web site quotes an interview she did with Contemporary Literature magazine. She said, "I want to write poems that are non-compromising. I don't want to stop a concern with words doing good jobs, which has always been a concern of mine, but I want to write poems that will be meaningful."

And she did. She chronicled poverty and discrimination and she wrote movingly of those who had settled for dead-end lives. Her most famous poem, "We Real Cool," with its be-bop beat, talks about the hopelessness of the choices some men make.

We Real Cool
The pool players.
Seven at the golden shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk Late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

In the late 1960s, when she wrote frequently about the sometimes violent struggle for racial equality in poems like "Riot," some criticized her as too "angry." But critic Janet Overmeyer had it right when, in an article about Gwendolyn Brooks in the Christian Science Monitor, she said her "particular, outstanding genius is her unsentimental regard and respect for all human beings...from her poet's craft bursts a whole gallery of wholly alive persons, preening, squabbling, loving, weeping."

That humanity is what I love most about the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks. You can feel her strength of spirit shine through in poems like this one.

Speech to the young: Speech to the Progress-Toward

Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
the sun-slappers,
the self-soilers,
the harmony-hushers,
"even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night."
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.

Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.

Gwendolyn Brooks, who always lived in the along, was extremely prolific, writing hundreds of poems, numerous collections of poetry, an autobiography, a novel and several books of prose. It is a testament to her talent that she is one of the few modern poets to be celebrated in her lifetime. By age 30 she had won a Guggenheim fellowship, been named one of "10 young women to watch" by Mademoiselle and become a fellow in the American Academy of Arts & Letters. She became the first African American to win the Pulitzer prize in 1950, was named Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968 and became Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985. In 1994 she was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities as a Jefferson Lecturer, the federal government's highest humanities award. The honors and awards continued until her death in 2000.

  • Click here to listen to Gwendolyn Brooks talk about "We Real Cool" and then read it in her distinctive voice. 
  • Click here to learn more about Gwendolyn Brooks, read about her life and sample a selection of her poems on the Poetry Foundation's Web site.

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