brooks and my failure with form


I just read Gwendolyn Brooks’ Selected Poems for one of my book clubs. I’m actually embarrassed to admit that this is the first time I’ve read her work. Maybe I read the poem “We Real Cool” in high school, but I’m not even sure. It felt familiar-does that count for something?

There were a couple of her early poems from A Street in Bronzeville that I loved. This is my favorite:

kitchenette building

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Holy kit-kats. I love this: “We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,/ Grayed in, and gray.” I love the futility and melancholy, and the resignation that is often part of motherhood, and must certainly be part of living in poverty.

The other poem, also from A Street in Bronzeville, that blew my mind was “the mother,” a brave and nuanced reaction of the poem’s narrator to abortion.

Brooks was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, in 1950. (Again, why haven’t I read her before now?) And she has these moments of brilliance-the vividness of her language smacking up against the harsh reality of life in the middle of the 20th century, for women, for poor people, for people of color. So, why did I have such trouble with some of her poems?

Form, form, form. I’m not a rhyming poetry kind of gal. (Is that so wrong?) There were poems that I felt would have been so much more effective and powerful if they could have broken out of the strict form of the ballad and sonnet. Some of her couplets felt forced to me. (I can almost see the serious poets I know cringing in the face of my stupidity.)

Now, with that said, I understand why she was so adamant about form. What better way to be taken seriously? And she was. The Pulitzer proves that, doesn’t it?

So, I’d be very interested in hearing from any Brooks fans out there. And I’d like to leave you with this wonderful quote from her: “I am interested in telling my particular truth as I’ve seen it.”



  1. Sorry, this is from a “prose writer” – I can’t cringe because the poetry was beaten out of me long ago by a certain prof who meant well. Maybe even more than prose writers (but probably not, probably just in a different way), poets struggle with audience, with expectations, with convention. Anyway, I enjoyed the evolution of this entry, how you got to the idea that Brooks’ form may have been a way for her to incorporate unconventional themes into conventional forms and, thus, somehow heighten her message in a particular context. I just cringed at my own use of the word “message.” :) And “context.” It’s the comp teaching.

  2. I love her poetry…Something so simple as a blurry memory from years ago is turned magically into a vivid and beautiful poem. My favorite poem, and one that has touched so many women around the world, is titled "The Mother". Careful, however, the topic is on abortion..but so beautifully written. My favorite part of the poem you were kind enough to share is "Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now, we think of lukewarm water, and hope to get in it". It brings back memories of sharing bathwater with my five other siblings, and how badly we younger ones coveted the hot water that our older brothers got first..I love your blog, and read it often. Please post again soon!

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