|Homage to Gwendolyn Brooks|
On Sunday, December 3, 2000, Gwendolyn Brooks, a poet who grew up in Chicago in the first half of the 20th Century and made history by becoming the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, died at her South Side Chicago home with "pen in hand, and surrounded by verse and people she loved." She was 83. (The Chicago Tribune)
We are pleased to present Marilyn Hacker and Heather McHugh's contributions in appreciation of Gwendolyn Brooks's work. To read more about Brooks's astonishing life and her accomplishments, please click here at The American Academy of Poets website.
THE RITES FOR COUSIN VIT
by Gwendolyn Brooks
sonnet-ballad by Gwendolyn Brooks
I know most people love the poem "We real cool" best of alland Ill admit right now that Im probably a bigger Mystikal fan than any poet my age in academia today. But its not their lyrics, proper, I love. There are Gwendolyn Brooks poems, the lyrics of which I do, and dearly, love"The Bean-Eaters," for example, and this heart-rending ballad-sonnet, whose title introduces another high yell on behalf of proud admixtures: for a ballad-sonnet is half plaint, half straint. And the peoples ballad and the ivory towers sonnet are nowhere so deftly married as in this poignant song, a young womans apprehension of her lovers death in battle.
Just as, in the "The Bean-Eaters," a phrase like "a plain and creaking wood" manages both to turn literatures groaning-board to a sparer, simpler advantage as the elderly couples kitchen table, and also deftly to recall that other pining place, the coffinsimilarly, this young lovers song manages to be plain and fine at once. Such simple loveliness as those that occupy the sonnets second and fourth lines ("They took my lovers tallness off to war" and "What I can use an empty heart-cup for") make for irresistibly moving materials.
Four out of five of the first lines are end-stopped; to read through them is to feel a rhetorical sub-understanding develop, about how heavily ends can fall. Brooks then expertly breaks up the sixth line (the first one explicitly to mention the word "end") by giving the young woman a kind of syntactical stammer, later to be matched, semantically, by the young mans own stammer, which is mentioned (rather than illustrated) in the sixth line after hers. Hers is the stammer of a primary resistance to deathhis of an ultimate acquiescence to it. Also written into Brookss savvy rhetorical design is a sad knowing about certain gendered counterpoints of natureengendered ones, too, since the poems source and destination both involve the "mother."
There are two rhetorical turns in particular, in this sonnets tender outcry, for which I want to hold out extra-wild admiring (just as in "The Bean-Eaters" I especially loved the interbraided elements of the second stanzas paired and counterpoised effects: "Two who are Mostly Good. / Two who have lived their day, / But keep on putting on their clothes, / And putting things away." (Wow! just look at those two ons; look at those two puttings!). Here in the ballad-sonnet, its first the repetition of "would have to be untrue" that wows me: it both dares and deepens the thought, even as it is being expressed. I love how that phrases repetition rips the poems spoken fabric into fragments, as it then goes on to hazard the extraordinary turn "Would have to court/Coquettish death"a move so exquisite, with its modal hint of continental courtesy, as to call up the very literally European (battle) grounds of the American lament.
Instead of some Francoise, of course, the coquette turns out to be the human beings always-alien and always-prior claimant, death. The way the word "arms" does double duty, the way the word "beauty" is modified by the double sense of "sort"the sorrow of the proprieties of war being precisely that it demands an other, an impersonal, kind of fidelity from its young men, calling them deserters UNLESS they say yes to death (and no to the magnetic fields of personal love)desertion! the very term by which a marriage can be ended; yet if the soldier does not desert, the marriage may never beginall these ironies play delicately into the balance, toward the sonnets close. After such subtleties, the many meanings of the young mans "hesitation" and his "change" are so likelylinguisticallyto seduce us into collateral considerations that we may be amazed, by the time we reach the last line, to hear the poems first line befall us again, its rhyme now a knell of annulments.
This is gorgeous craftsmanship. And gorgeous craftsmanship has always marked Gwendolyn Brookss finest work. A salute to the pains she took, to write this way! We owe her plenty, for her subtle dynamites, her devastating discretions.
Gwendolyn Brooks by Anthony Walton
(1917-2000) Sometimes I see in my mind's eye a four-or five-
year-old boy, coatless and wandering
a windblown and vacant lot or street in Chicago
on the windblown South Side. He disappears
but stays with me, staring and pronouncing
me guilty of an indifference more callous
than neglect, condescension as self-pity. Then I see him again, at ten or fifteen, on the corner,
say, 47th and Martin Luther King, or in a group
of men surrounding a burning barrel off Lawndale,
everything sourrounding vacant or for sale.
Sometimes I trace him on the train to Joliet
or Menard, such towns quickly becoming native
ground to these boys who seem to be nobody
sons, these boys who are so hard to love, so hard
to see, except as case studies.
Poverty, pain, shame, one and a half million
a younger boy she did not have to know to love.
(first appeared in The New Yorker 12/18/00)