Gwendolyn Brooks
    (b. 1917)

    Contributing Editor: D. H. Melhem

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Brooks's work is generally accessible. Occasionally, however, and more likely in some earlier works, like Annie Allen and individual poems like "Riders to the Blood-red Wrath," intense linguistic and semantic compression present minor difficulties.

    My Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice can be used as a guide to her published works. As holds true for most poetry, Brooks's should be read aloud. In the process, its power (boosted by alliteration), the musicality, and the narrative are vivified.

    Although I have not had the opportunity to teach Brooks extensively, students seem taken with identity poems like "The Life of Lincoln West" and the didactic "Ballad of Pearl May Lee," which was Hughes's favorite. The narrative aspect seems to be especially appealing. As these are not in this anthology, you may wish to recommend them as extra reading.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Themes include black pride, black identity and solidarity, black humanism, and caritas, a maternal vision. Historically, racial discrimination; the civil rights movement of the fifties; black rebellion of the sixties; a concern with complacency in the seventies; black leadership.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Brooks was influenced at first by the Harlem Renaissance. Her early work featured the sonnet and the ballad, and she experimented with adaptations of conventional meter. Later development of the black arts movement in the sixties, along with conceptions of a black aesthetic, turned her toward free verse and an abandonment of the sonnet as inappropriate to the times. She retained, however, her interest in the ballad-- its musicality and accessibility--and in what she called "verse journalism."

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    In the earlier works: Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Laurence Dunbar, Merrill Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Claude McKay, Ann Spencer.

    In the later works: Amiri Baraka, Haki R. Madhubuti, and again, Hughes.


    The most useful books on Brooks are the following:

    Melhem, D. H. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

    Chronologically discusses each major work in a separate chapter; biographical introduction; biocritical, prosodic, and historical approach; discusses correspondence with first publisher.

    --. Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions and Interviews. University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

    The first of six chapters that offer introductions to and interviews with six outstanding black poets who bear some relation to or affinity with Brooks presents a summary of her life and art. Includes a discussion of new work ( The Near-Johannesburg Boy, "Winnie" in Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle ), an essay, "The Black Family," a new poem, and an interview arranged for the book. This American Book Award-winning work also features Dudley Randall, Haki R. Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, and Amiri Baraka.

    Other books include the following:

    Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Foreword and Afterword by D. H. Melhem. University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Biography.

    Mootry, M. K. and G. Smith, eds. A Life Distilled (essays). University of Illinois Press, 1987.

    Shaw, Harry. Gwendolyn Brooks. New York: Twayne, 1980. Presents a thematic approach.