Three Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks
The following clever poems by former poet laureate, Gwendolyn Brooks, offer slices of life as only that observant poet could do. "We Real Cool" offers a catchy refrain of the simple word "we." And the obnoxious behavior of "we" finds the chickens coming home to roost in the final line.
"The Bean Eaters" portrays the quiet, dignified love and behavior of an elderly couple. Their shabby surroundings cannot mar the beauty of the affection they hold for each other.
"The Mother" offers up a healthy helping of irony, as the speaker laments her many abortions. As the speaker grows more and more maudlin her stance become more and more weary for her listeners.
We Real Cool
THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
One of Brooks' most anthologized poems is "We Real Cool"; about that poem, Brooks has said, "The WEs in 'We Real Cool' are tiny, wispy, weakly argumentative 'Kilroy-is-here' announcements. The boys have no accented sense of themselves, yet they are aware of a semi-defined personal importance. Say the We' softly."
The poem's lengthy subtitle is "The Pool Players. / Seven at the Golden Shovel." The poet's comment about the poem thoroughly elucidates its impact. The poem is a fine example of irony.
The Bean Eaters
They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.
And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.
"The Bean Eaters" offers a portrait of an elderly couple and their somewhat ragged environment: they eat off "chipware" and their dinner is a "casual affair." Such understatement supports the clean lines of the poem as the speaker informs us that these are two good old souls who just keep on keepin' on.
A definite speaker does not appear in the poem. This phantom speaker's only purpose is to offer the bare facts of the old couple's existence. Upon first encounter, the life of the old "yellow pair" may seem unrewarding; however, after further consideration readers come to realize that this old couple's drama is shown to be not only interesting, but also filled with love, strength, peace, and blessedness.
Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.
I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children.
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches, and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?—
Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.
Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
In Brooks' poem, " The Mother," the very title delivers a whopping irony—because the poem is not about a mother at all, but is spoken by a woman who has undergone many abortions, thus never becoming a mother.
The first line, "Abortions will not let you forget." The rest of the first stanza lists the things that the aborter will remember: "You remember the children you got that you did not get, / The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair, / The singers and workers that never handled the air."
The second stanza continues to dramatize the loss: "I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed / children. / I have contracted. I have eased / My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck."
The speaker does not euphemize the act; she called them "my dim killed children." The rest of the second stanza portrays the speaker's utter remorse as she mourns the fact that her lost children were murdered. She even rejects the often-heard claim that the thing that was aborted was not really a child.
She does not "Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate." And she reasons: "Though why should I whine, / Whine that the crime was other than mine? -- / Since anyhow you are dead." The final stanza is heartbreaking, but offers the important final word on the issue: "Believe me, I loved you all. / Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you / All."
Life Sketch of Gwendolyn Brooks
Gwendolyn Brooks was born June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, to David and Keziah Brooks. Her family relocated to Chicago shortly after her birth. She attended three different high schools: Hyde Park, Wendell Phillips, and Englewood.
Brooks graduated from Wilson Junior College in 1936. In 1930, her first published poem, "Eventide," appeared in American Childhood Magazine, when she was only thirteen years old. She had the good fortune to meet James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, both of whom encouraged her writing.
Brooks continued to study poetry and write. She married Henry Blakely in 1938 and gave birth to two children, Henry, Jr, in 1940 and Nora in 1951. Living on the Southside of Chicago, she engaged with the group of writers associated with Harriet Monroe's Poetry, the most prestigious magazine in American poetry.
Brooks' first volume of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, appeared in 1945, published by Harper and Row. Her second book, Annie Allen was awarded the Eunice Tiejens Prize, offered by the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry. In addition to poetry, Brooks wrote a novel titled Maud Martha in the early '50s, as well as her autobiography Report from Part One (1972) and Report from Part Two (1995).
Brooks has won numerous awards and fellowships including the Guggenheim and the Academy of American Poets. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, becoming the first African American woman to win that prize.
Brooks began a teaching career in 1963, conducting poetry workshops at Chicago's Columbia College. She has also taught poetry writing at Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, and the University of Wisconsin.
At the age of 83, Gwendolyn Brooks succumbed to cancer on December 3, 2000. She died quietly at her home in Chicago, where she had resided on the Southside for most of her life. She is interred in Blue Island, Illinois, at Lincoln Cemetery.
An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes