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
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.