In manifest ways, Gwendolyn Brooks became a central figure of twentieth-century American poetry. From her earliest ballads about daily life among the downtrodden, misunderstood, and invisible to her later oracular visions of revolutionary proportions, Brooks led the way in establishing our multiracial, multiethnic American artistic heritage. After five decades of poetic achievement, Brooks earned an honored place in that realm of American poetic originals that includes the likes of Frost, Eliot, Pound, Moore, Hughes, Williams.
Born June 7, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas--the first child of David and Keziah Brooks--Gwendolyn Brooks devoted much of her lifetime to the people of Chicago and the state of Illinois. Her family moved to Chicago shortly after her birth, and throughout her life, Brooks remained faithful to the city's South Side. Although she graduated from Chicago’s integrated Englewood High School, Brooks also attended Hyde Park High School, the leading white high school in the city, and the all-black Wendell Phillips High. Brooks then went on to graduate from Wilson Junior College. What Brooks learned in these four quite different educational settings provided the basis for much of her poetic investigation of race, class, and social interchange within Chicago, and by extension, within the United States as a whole.
Brooks’ education in poetry came from markedly diverse sources. She learned the Moderns from Inez Cunningham Stark, a wealthy Chicagoan who served as a reader for Poetry magazine and who also taught a poetry class at the Southside Community Art Center. In addition, Brooks met James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, who urged her to read modern poetry and emphasized the need to write with disciplined regularity. By 1934 Brooks had become an adjunct member of the staff of the Chicago Defender and had published almost one hundred of her poems in a weekly poetry column.
In 1938 she married Henry Blakely and moved to a kitchenette apartment on Chicago’s South Side, where she began raising a family, Henry Jr. in 1940 and Nora in 1951. In 1945 her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (published by Harper and Row), brought her instant critical acclaim. (The book’s title refers to the name journalists gave to Chicago’s black ghetto.) She was selected one of Mademoiselle magazine's "Ten Young Women of the Year," she won her first Guggenheim Fellowship, and she became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Following on the heels of this success, her second book of poems, Annie Allen (1949), won Poetry magazine's Eunice Tietjens Prize.
Then, in 1950, quite amazingly and somewhat surprisingly considering the conformist American literary community that had then honored few women and no African Americans, Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection Annie Allen. That collection lends loving and serious interpretation to the lives of those “who are poor, / Who are adjudged the leastwise of the land, / Who are my sweetest lepers” (“the children of the poor”). Whether from the perspective of mother, daughter, wife, or guardian of the black community, Brooks remained steadfast in her ability to balance insights into desire and disillusionment, humor and injustice.
Other honors quickly accrued to Brooks. President John Kennedy invited her to read at a Library of Congress poetry festival in 1962. In 1985 she was appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Later, Brooks was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities as the 1994 Jefferson Lecturer, the highest award in the humanities given by the federal government.
During her long career, Brooks taught at Columbia College (Chicago), Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, Clay College of New York, and the University of Wisconsin.
A watershed in Brooks’ poetic career occurred in 1967 when she attended the Fisk University Second Black Writers' Conference. In that electric atmosphere, Brooks encountered many new young black poets whose poetry and social thinking led her to greater involvement in the Black Arts movement. One of the more visible spokespersons for "the black aesthetic,” Brooks awakened to her potential role as a black feminist leader. This same "awakening" resulted in her refusal of major publishing houses in favor of smaller but exclusively black publishers, especially the Broadside Press. With the move, Brooks’ work also changed locales, abandoning the compressed imagery and forms of her earlier work for a mode influenced by the improvisations of jazz and the spoken language of the black community. In such form, Brooks’ social commentary became more visible, energetic, and unguarded. Critics noticed, some responding with acclaim and others with alarm.
Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry ranges from traditional forms including ballads, sonnets, variations of Chaucerian and Spenserian stanzas to the familiar rhythms of the blues to an unhindered free verse. In sum, nearly all the popular forms of English poetry appear in her work, as do the competing energies of lyric, narrative, and dramatic modes. Her syntax is muscular, vibrant, and surprising. Her fondness for imbedded rhymes as well as her love of the tonal beauties of assonance and consonance make Brooks’ work a musical experience in the ear and on the tongue, something as enjoyable to speak aloud as to hear.
Succeeding Carl Sandburg, Brooks was appointed poet laureate of Illinois in 1968 and served until her death in 2000. In retrospect, that passing of the torch from the last living son of the Chicago Renaissance to a new heroic voice intent upon singing the virtues of diversity and the blessings of being black signaled expansion in both style and content. In small but definite ways, America was waking up to the almost endless possibilities of poetic expression, and Brooks had indeed helped to show the way. As laureate, Brooks was active in Illinois communities large and small. She developed and organized poetry activities in under-served areas of Chicago, and she heartily encouraged young writers to lend their voices to poetry. In Brooks’ hands, poetry was both social and aesthetic, a personal way to make something beautiful that also possesses communal value. This indeed may be her most lasting contribution to Illinois, the nation, and the world of fellow seekers.
Gwendolyn Brooks - Poems
"A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile,
a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon"