Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Gwendolyn Brooks

I was introduced to Gwendolyn Brooks via Bedford’s Introduction to Literature. I liked her rhythm, easy rhyme, the simplicity then reveal. But it was just that. Simple. And I like simple. A lot. But this poem alone is not a proper introduction:

“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.

Okay, fast forward just a few years and I was introduced to Gwendolyn Brooks in real life while working as a peon at Poetry magazine. She was sweet and delightful and we chatted and I told her I came across a flyer from when had been the Poetry Day poet years ago and she said she’d love to have one of those flyers, so I sent her one and she sent me a sweet thank-you note. And that is one of my stories you will probably hear again should I ever have the chance to tell it.
Of course, when I chatted with her, I only had in mind the “We Real Cool” poem. I wish, upon first introduction to Gwendolyn Brooks, Bedford had given me a sampling of her poetic diversity, cause HERE she is again:

“gay chaps at the bar”

We knew how to order. Just the dash
Necessary. The length of gaiety in good taste.
Whether the raillery should be slightly iced
And given green, or served up hot and lush,
And we knew beautifully how to give to women
The summer spread, the tropics, of our love,
When to persist, or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech. How to make a look an omen.
But nothing ever taught us to be islands.
And smart, athletic language for this hour
Was not in the curriculum. No stout
Lesson showed how to chat with death. We brought
No brass fortissimo, among our talents,
To holler down the lions in this air.

Sigh. The “We Real Cool” poem for which she is so well known was published in 1960. Poetry magazine published “gay chaps at the bar” in 1944. No excuse, Bedford. You had them both at your disposal.
I’m not knocking “We Real Cool,” it’s just that it would be beneficial for students of all races to hear something more “sophisticated” from the pen of this incredibly talented African-American woman. To at least know the scope and diversity of her talent. "To holler down the lions in this air"...wow.


Blogger Jai Sanders said...

I see "we real cool" as part of the blues tradition. It conveys a depth of understanding in a visceral and deceptively simple form. The blues is a technically simple song structure, with repetitive lyrics and rudimentary chord progression. The power comes from the presentation. The blues is cathartic only when you believe the performer. The blues is cathartic because and in spite of its rudimentary form.

Many would defend "We" by saying that the narrators know their life is in all likelihood short b/c of those choices and circumstances but that self-knowledge doesn't stop them from loving life. Many others would argue that their cool-with-that attitude is ridiculous, self-defeating and they need to straighten up. It fits nicely in the laid back neighborhood stoop vibe of a lot of the black music from that era.

It is a one dimensional view of Gwendolyn Brooks but for the poetry novice it shows a time and a place that "gay chaps at the bar”. From an anthology perspective 1940s black poetry is gonna be attached to the Harlem Renaissance but to represent black poetry of that transitional pre-black power era I think "we real cool" is a good place to start.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

oh yes. Of course you're right. When I said "simple," I was referring to the language of the poem. I can appreciate the wealth and depth of knowledge and insight that can be inferred from "simple" poems. That's one of the reasons I like poems with simple language.
I asked a friend to read the post and she said it reminded her of Sylvia Plath, who is usually introduced in academia as a depressed confessional poet - which of course is part of her identity (and which I think is valuable and vital for the poetry world), but she has an entire body of work which is not such. When only that side of her is presented to a class, it'd be easy for them to think of Plath as uniformly depressed and confessional.
And if male students in a class are exposed to very few women writers and almost all of them are confessional, they might assume that all female writers are confessional. (And again, I think the confessional poets are an important part of the history of literature.) They miss on out the dimensionality of women writers.
I think it's unfair to the poet and the reader to not expose students to the diversity and scope of a writer's work.
Thanks for responding. Your response itself could easily be an A+ worthy college paper!

3:06 PM  
Blogger Jai Sanders said...

Well, I did take a Faulkner class with Roger D Hodge, editor of Oxford American. My papers were always ripped to shreds but hey, I didn't fail or drop the class.

5:22 PM  

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