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Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool," "The Bean Eaters," "The Mother"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Portrait of Gwendolyn Brooks

Portrait of Gwendolyn Brooks

Overview of Poems

The following clever poems by former poet laureate, Gwendolyn Brooks, offer slices of life as only that observant poet could do. Brooks was a keen observer of life, a deep thinker, and her life’s experiences and observations afforded her the important materials with which to craft her find dramatic pieces.

"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 jazz notes demonstrate the poet’s fine ear for language and music that enliven and inform her poetic utterances.

"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" reveals the psychological damage the speaker has suffered after undergoing her many abortions. As the speaker grows more and more maudlin, her situation becomes more and more intense for her readers/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
Die soon.

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, which demonstrates the poet's marvelous and versatile ability to craft fine little dramas.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

The Bean Eaters

Gwendolyn Brooks’ "The Bean Eaters" is an American (innovative) sonnet; it includes elements of the Elizabethan (English) and Petrarchan (Italian) sonnets, with a rime scheme, AABA CDCD EFGHF. This rime scheme is similar to the English sonnet with its two rimed quatrains; however, it resembles the Italian which employs an octave and sestet, but Brooks reduces the sestet to a cinquain.

Also, as the Petrarchan sonnet's rime scheme usually permits a wider variation than the Shakespearean sonnet does, the American (or innovative sonnet) offers even wider variety for the poet's choices; therefore, Brooks' American sonnet is displayed in an especially innovative manner.

Brooks' most significant innovation is in reducing the traditional 14-line sonnet to a 13-line form—quite logically a move to correspond to the poverty theme dramatized in the sonnet. The aged couple eat very simply—"beans mostly"— while their living quarters implies a meagre income.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Bean Eaters

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

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.

Commentary

The speaker is essentially describing the love relationship between the two people who form the "old yellow pair," living simply in quiet dignity.

First Movement: Nothing Fancy

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

In the first movement, old couple sit at their dinner table partaking of their simple meal of "beans mostly." The meal remains informal; by calling their meal "a casual affair," speaker implies a contrast between the manner in which this old couple dines and a more elegant, richly appointed couple whose dinner might be a formal affair. Instead of some fancy kind of wooden table, theirs is a "plain and creaking wood."

The poet’s speaker has cleverly coined the term "chipware," revealing the low economic status of the old couple. Instead of fancy, expensive china, the couple dines on "chipware," demonstrating that they have been using those same plates and platters so long that have pieces broken off.

The speaker reports that the old couple uses "tin flatware," instead of "silverware," as they consume their "beans." Tin is a much less expensive metal than silver. The speaker thus has demonstrated with these two terms describing the eating equipment that the old couple lives without luxury with their well-worn utensils. There is no fancy china on starched table clothes for this old pair.

Second Movement: Nourishing Lives With Spirit

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

This fascinating old couple is "[m]ostly Good," which suggests that they have a harmonious relationships with each other, and they function within the laws of their community. They likely nourish their spiritual lives as well as their mental and spiritual lives.

As no one else other than the old couple appears in the poem, readers will infer that the couple has likely outlived most of their friends and relatives, and if they raised children, those children are living their own lives. The couple demonstrates a strength of character in their daily persistence; they get up each morning, dress themselves, go through their day, and keep their home tidied. This "old yellow pair" does not demonstrate any boredom with what might seem to be a shabby existence.

Third Movement: Sharing Sacred Memories

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.

As the two eat their beans, behave in a morally acceptable way, continue to put on their clothes every day, and put their belongings in their proper place, they enjoy their memories. They continue to share with each other their sacred memories as they consume their simple fare of beans. Their possessions in their "rented back room" signal the nature of the memories they continue to cherish and about which they likely engage in pleasant conversation: "beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, / tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes." "Beads" symbolize an enthusiasm for color and beauty. Those beads likely still hang on a necklace or bracelet, presented to his wife by her husband on birthdays or other special occasions.

"Receipts" imply that the couple has always behaved responsibly with their money and other finances. "Dolls" hint that they likely did raise children. The "cloths" imply material for sewing the doll clothes and also rags with which to dust and/or clean their meagre possessions. "Tobacco crumbs" imply the smoking of a pipe or other materials. "Vases" which are often used as containers for flowers again signal a love of beauty. Also suggesting a love of beauty are the "fringes" that would drape down from the covers on beds and/or chairs.

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—and all of that is accomplished through a description of the items that surround them—which perfectly exemplifies the dictum of William Carlos Willians that there are "no ideas but in things."

Skin: Racism vs Colorism

In the black community, the phrase, "high yellow," often shortened to simply, "yellow," came into common parlance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to refer to light-skinned blacks. Not widely noted is the racism—and its corollary, "colorism"—that has always existed within the black community. But the varying shades of brown from dark to light have always determined the status of blacks even among blacks themselves. As one might expect, the lighter the skin the higher up the ladder of privilege and prestige. That racism and colorism should exist among any ethnic group should come as no surprise when one considers the many ways that members of humankind employ to lower the status of fellows in order to elevate themselves.

The speaker in Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, "The Bean Eaters," however, is not likely guilty of disparaging the old couple she is describing. The old couple just happens to be a couple of light-skinned blacks; then too, the skin of blacks often lightens as it ages. The poet allows her speaker to simply describe what she sees. There is no evidence in the poem that the speaker holds any animus toward the "old yellow pair"; she is simply referring to their color in an economical way. Also to have referred to them as "light-skinned blacks" would have placed too much emphasis on their race. In addition to these reasons for using the term, "yellow," to describe the old couple, the speaker is revealing that she herself is of the same race. Whites have seldom referred to the shade of blacks as "yellow."

Sources

Bust of Gwendolyn Brooks

Bust of Gwendolyn Brooks

The Mother

Gwendolyn Brooks' "The Mother" features a speaker who has undergone numerous abortions. She is brooding over the consequences of her actions. The speaker opens her monologue by making a generalized statement about the memories and feelings of women who have aborted their babies. This speaker then backs up her claims by offering her own experience as testimony.

The speaker of this poem reveals the psychological damage caused by abortion, the politically hot-button issue euphemistically called a "women’s health" issue or a "reproductive rights," issue. Also euphemism is employed in the label "pro-choice," to indicate those who favor keeping that destructive procedure legal. The following is an prose excerpt from testimony revealing the psychological damage and depression of a woman who underwent that legal procedure:

It was the day I lost the only child I would ever carry, and it was my fault. It was my responsibility to acknowledge and protect my child and I, in my fear and insecurity, failed to do so. There is not a day that goes by it does not cross my mind. Healing is possible, but you do not get over it. It becomes a part of you, and despite the passage of time and your dedication to minding the wound, you cannot help but wonder how things might have turned out differently.

The speaker in Brooks’ poem demonstrates that same depression that women experience long after undergoing an abortion. Her final rationalization, while sounding a bit absurd, must be accepted with understanding and compassion, for all post-abortion women must meet the challenge of healing, each in her own way.

Excerpt from "The Mother"

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 . . .

To read the entire poem, please visit, "Gwendolyn Brooks’ 'The Mother'"

Commentary

Severe depression has overtaken the speaker of this poem; she has aborted a number of her babies, and she is examining her decisions in order the meet the challenge of healing from that destructive procedure.

First Movement: The Stigma That Remains

The speaker begins by bluntly confessing that once a woman has undergone an abortion she never forgets about that act. She testifies that the mother who has aborted will "remember the children" that she conceived but "did not get," that is, allow to be born. The speaker then describes the bodies of the aborted fetuses as "damp small pulps with a little or with no hair," indicating that she has seen those bodies after they were removed from her uterus. She makes the melancholy remark that these children will never sing or work.

The sorrowful speaker has immediately revealed her situation, and the anguish she is experiencing becomes palpable. She speculates that those children might become singers, and as they worked they might have enlivened the atmosphere around them by colorfully "handl[ing] the air." Those "damp small pulps" might have brightened the world in ways she will never know, because she did not allow them to be born.

Second Movement: Rationalization

The speaker then seems to offer a rationalization that should comfort the mother who has aborted as she remarks that mothers who abort will never abuse their children—they will never "neglect or beat / Them." But on the other hand, they will never have the pleasure of placating a child with "sweet". And it is certainly true that the mother will never be able to abuse her aborted children, but then she deflates that rationalization by asserting that she also will never be able to comfort her aborted babies.

That mother will never see them suck their thumbs, and she will never be able to calm their fears of ghosts. That mother who has killed her fetus will never know the joy of returning to her child "with gobbling mother-eye" after a brief period of separation. She is confronting the various possible acts that she might have experienced had she actually become a mother.

Third Movement: The Universal to the Personal

The speaker now moves more specifically to her own experience—shifting from the universal "you" to the first person singular pronoun. She reports that she has imagined hearing the voices of her children in "the wind." Those voices of her "dim killed children" are now haunting her as she goes about her day.

Interestingly and tellingly, this "mother"—ironic, because she has never delivered a child whom she could nurture—does not euphemize with terms such as "choice," "women’s health," "reproductive rights," or "mass of cells"; she uses the term "killed" and applies it to what was done to her "children." This speaker's memory and her imagination combine to bring back those lost babies. She imagines suckling them with "the breasts" that unfortunately have never performed that function.

Fourth Movement: The Theft of Abortion

The speaker relates how she was not "deliberate" in her "deliberateness" of allowing their lives to be snuffed out; thus, she seeks to apologize to those whose futures she has stolen. The speaker delineates some of the things that she has stolen from those aborted babies: "your births," "your names," "your marriages," "your aches," and "your deaths."

This speaker-as-failed-mother suffers thinking of all that she has denied her progeny, but she tries to soothe her pain by rationalizing that even as she has denied them an ordinary physical existence, she has also denied them the trials, tribulations, and suffering with which living in the world is always fraught.

Fifth Movement: Abortion is a Crime

With utmost sorrow, the speaker frantically asks how all her whining can remove the "crime" that she realizes is hers. She admits that they are dead but then equivocates, "Or rather, or instead, / You were never made." But then she contradicts that claim as "faulty." They were, in fact, made; they did exist. Perhaps she can assuage her guilt by merely telling herself, "You were born, you had body, you died." But that will not work, because they never had the opportunity to laugh, or plan, or cry.

Sixth Movement: A Deadly "Love"

The speaker finally settles on what she perceives as her only possible recourse for deliverance—a declaration of love for all of those dead babies. This pathetic, would-be "mother" begs her aborted babies to "believe [her]" when she says, "I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you / All." While it remains a deadly sort of love, one in which it is difficult to believe, this damaged woman deserves compassion, understanding, and above help.

People make mistakes, and they always pay a price for the mistakes they make. This woman has suffered and from her testimony she has continued to suffer. Her declaration of love for her aborted children is likely her only way of meeting the challenge of healing, and even though she destroyed those innocent lives, it remains her duty to heal herself, and her declaration of love is certainly not the worst way of meeting that challenge.

Sources

Gwendolyn Brooks - Tombstone

Gwendolyn Brooks - Tombstone

An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 25, 2016:

Brooks has written some fascinating poems, for sure. Interesting woman.

Welcoming those angels! Blessings!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on November 25, 2016:

Simple, sriaghtforward, eloquent. Will find her works and take some time to peruse them.

Angels are headed your way this morning ps

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