Extraordinary Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks

Herb Boyd | 11/13/2014, 2:30 p.m.
In the African-American literary canon, Phillis Wheatley, Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry, Maya Angelou, Mari Evans, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, ...
Gwendolyn Brooks: A master of poetic verse

By 1972, her political shift was given an even greater urgency when she left mainstream publishing to join Randall at his newly formed press. Her first book under his guidance was “Report From Part One.” All the while she was writing, she was also teaching at various institutions, including a stint at City College of New York, where she was a distinguished professor of the arts.

She was distinguished as well by her charity, making sizable donations for many years for awards and scholarships to aspiring young writers. Moreover, she instituted several competitions, according to Paul Breman in his collection of poetry “You Better Believe It,” and the Gwendolyn Books Award has become a coveted annual honor with a fair amount of publicity organized through the Chicago-based Negro Digest, which became Black World.

Her poetical involvement in the Civil Rights Movement was exemplified in her poem “Life of Lincoln West,” where she wrote about the impact of the Montgomery Bus Boycott on protesters. “Even Christmases and Easters were spoiled/he would be sitting at the family feasting table, really/delighting in the displays of mashed potatoes/and the rich golden/fat-crust of the ham or the festive/fowl, when he would look up and find/somebody feeling indignant about him,” she wrote.

As literary critic George Kent contends, the imagery in the poem “remains realistic on a very simple level; diction and syntax approach the reader as old friends, and the narrator is an intimate chorus.”

That intimacy was typical of her poetry, but at the same time, she could keep her distance from her subject or personality in order to vividly portray a particular moment or attitude, as exemplified by this piece of writing: “We real cool/we left school/we lurk late/we strike straight/we sing sin/we thin gin/we jazz June/we die soon.”

Brooks did not die soon, in fact, she lived to be 83 before her death in 2000, a life long and productive enough to produce 15 books and garner some 75 honorary doctorates from major academic institutions.

On her 80th birthday in 1997, Madhubuti composed this image of her in his poem for Brooks who, among her books for his Third World Press, authored “Report From Part Two”: “She has approached 320 seasons/on her own terms/she has taken the alphabet and structured a language/she has walked thousands of miles carrying her own baggage.”

Some of the baggage she lugged across the ages and pages has been a vital portion of our literary heritage, and we honor her best when we carry it a little bit further.