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Gwendolyn Brooks' "Gay Chaps at the Bar" and James Whitcomb Riley's "The Old Swimmin'-Hole"

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.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

Introduction and Text of "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

In Gwendolyn Brooks' Innovative or American sonnet, "Gay Chaps at the Bar," from her first published collection of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, there is no overt rime-scheme, but vague echoes of sight-rime and near-rime hover in the second quatrain and first tercet.

The sonnet features an account from a soldier who served in World War II, offering the marked contrast between how he and his fellow soldiers felt as they pursued their leisure-time activities and their battlefield experiences.

(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.")

Gay Chaps at the Bar

...and guys I knew in the States, young officers, return from the front
crying and trembling. Gay chaps at the bar in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York...
—Lt. William Couch in the South Pacific

We knew how to order. Just the dash
Necessary. The length of gaiety in good taste.
Whether the raillery should be slightly iced
And given green, or served up hot and lush.
And we knew beautifully how to give to women
The summer spread, the tropics of our love.
When to persist, or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech. How to make a look an omen.
But nothing ever taught us to be islands.
And smart, athletic language for this hour
Was not in the curriculum. No stout
Lesson showed how to chat with death. We brought
No brass fortissimo, among our talents,
To holler down the lions in this air.

Commentary on "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

Gwendolyn Brooks’ "Gay Chaps at the Bar" is an American (Innovative) sonnet, based on the Petrarchan style octave of two quatrains and a sestet composed of two tercets. The theme offers a nostalgic look back at a soldier’s leisure time.

First Quatrain: A Letter from a Soldier

We knew how to order. Just the dash
Necessary. The length of gaiety in good taste.
Whether the raillery should be slightly iced
And given green, or served up hot and lush.

The poem features the following epigraph: "… and guys I knew in the States, young officers, return from the front crying and trembling. Gay chaps at the bar in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York . . . —Lt. William Couch in the South Pacific."

Brooks explains regarding the poem's title and epigraph: "I wrote it because of a letter I got from a soldier who included that phrase in what he was telling me."

The speaker of the poem is a soldier looking back at his experience, including recreation time, during the war. The speaker uses a restaurant metaphor to report how he and his buddies knew how to have a good time.

They "knew how to order. / Just the dash / Necessary." They knew how to be as rowdy as "good taste" would allow.

Second Quatrain: The Women They Knew

And we knew beautifully how to give to women
The summer spread, the tropics of our love.
When to persist, or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech. How to make a look an omen.

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The soldiers were also quite adept with the women who partied with them; the men felt that they understood how to behave properly in the company of women. More importantly, they knew how to be warm and inviting, to offer "the tropics, of our love."

They also knew when "to persist" and also when to slow down. They "knew white speech," and they also became very proficient at bringing about the outcomes they desired just by a skilled look.

First Tercet: The Seriousness of War

But nothing ever taught us to be islands.
And smart, athletic language for this hour
Was not in the curriculum. No stout

While the octave of the sonnet reports the skills of the soldier and his buddies at having a good time, the sestet returns to the seriousness of war. They learned much about behavior overseas, and it worked fairly well for their R and R activities.

But they were never "taught to be islands." They could play on the islands, but they could not become them.

No lessons could teach them how to feel about a different culture, even if they knew enough protocol to function reasonably. They did not have the ability to acquire the precise language that makes a soldier comfortable with actually fighting the war.

The speaker explains that intelligent, agile conversation that could be held to an hour’s time was never part of the lessons they were put through.

Second Tercet: Comfortable Conversant

Lesson showed how to chat with death. We brought
No brass fortissimo, among our talents,
To holler down the lions in this air.

The soldier/speaker continues and avers that there were no helpful lesson teaching them how to speak to act of dying.

While they became quite comfortably conversant with the women in the bars and at parties, they never felt that same ease on the battlefield. As he explains that the talent they possessed could never quite rise to occasion of meeting the challenges of the battlefield.

They brought their machismo and other social skills, but as soldiers of war, fighting on the battlefield, their party voices could not charm the enemy into capitulation. This soldier's report dramatizes the experience that all soldiers during all of history must have felt.

Bronze Bust of Gwendolyn Brooks

Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks

James Whitcomb Riley

James Whitcomb Riley

James Whitcomb Riley's "The Old Swimmin'-Hole"

The summer season often brings to the fore adult nostalgia. As James Whitcomb Riley’s speaker thinks back to a favorite childhood pastime in "The Old Swimmin’-Hole," he reveals that nostalgia and summer have become entwined in his soul.

Introduction and Text of "The Old Swimmin'-Hole"

James Whitcomb Riley's poem, "The Old Swimmin'-Hole," belongs to the nostalgia genre of poetry that looks back fondly at one's childhood. It shares that theme with Dylan Thomas' "Fern Hill" and John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Barefoot Boy."

Riley's poem features five stanzas each displaying four couplets for a total 40 line poem, similar to Whittier’s 102 line nostalgia piece which also featured five stanzas employing couplets. Riley's poem uniquely features a Kentuckiana dialect, a melding of the dialects of Kentucky and Indiana.

The Old Swimmin'-Hole

Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! whare the crick so still and deep
Looked like a baby-river that was laying half asleep,
And the gurgle of the worter round the drift jest below
Sounded like the laugh of something we onc't ust to know
Before we could remember anything but the eyes
Of the angels lookin' out as we left Paradise;
But the merry days of youth is beyond our controle,
And it's hard to part ferever with the old swimmin'-hole.

Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! In the happy days of yore,
When I ust to lean above it on the old sickamore,
Oh! it showed me a face in its warm sunny tide
That gazed back at me so gay and glorified,
It made me love myself, as I leaped to caress
My shadder smilin' up at me with sich tenderness.
But them days is past and gone, and old Time's tuck his toll
From the old man come back to the old swimmin'-hole.

Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! In the long, lazy days
When the humdrum of school made so many run-a-ways,
How plesant was the jurney down the old dusty lane,
Whare the tracks of our bare feet was all printed so plane
You could tell by the dent of the heel and the sole
They was lots o' fun on hands at the old swimmin'-hole.
But the lost joys is past! Let your tears in sorrow roll
Like the rain that ust to dapple up the old swimmin'-hole.

Thare the bullrushes growed, and the cattails so tall,
And the sunshine and shadder fell over it all;
And it mottled the worter with amber and gold
Tel the glad lilies rocked in the ripples that rolled;
And the snake-feeder's four gauzy wings fluttered by
Like the ghost of a daisy dropped out of the sky,
Or a wownded apple-blossom in the breeze's controle
As it cut acrost some orchard to'rds the old swimmin'-hole.

Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! When I last saw the place,
The scenes was all changed, like the change in my face;
The bridge of the railroad now crosses the spot
Whare the old divin'-log lays sunk and fergot.
And I stray down the banks whare the trees ust to be—
But never again will theyr shade shelter me!
And I wish in my sorrow I could strip to the soul,
And dive off in my grave like the old swimmin'-hole.

Reading of James Whitcomb Riley's "The Old Swimmin'-Hole"

Commentary on "The Old Swimmin'-Hole"

The speaker in this James Whitcomb Riley widely anthologized favorite employs a strong Hoosiertucky (Kentuckiana) dialect as he nostalgically revisits a summertime childhood pastime.

First Stanza: Dramatizing Sounds

The speaker begins by asserting that the old swimming hole was actually a creek, but it looked like a "baby river," a description that pretty much reveals the truth about a "crick."

The speaker then dramatizes the "gurgle" of the creek as a heavenly sound "like the laugh of something we onc't ust to know / Before we could remember anything but the eyes."

Then in the last couplet, the speaker makes it clear that he is now a grown man looking back at his pleasant experiences swimming in the creek: "But the merry days of youth is beyond our controle, / And it's hard to part ferever with the old swimmin'-hole."

Second Stanza: The Drama of Climbing

Next, the speaker creates a little drama of his experience: he used to climb up in a sycamore tree and out onto a branch that jutted out over the stream; he claims he could see his own face in the water.

Then again, the speaker laments the passing of those days for now he is an "old man come back to the old swimmin'-hole."

Third Stanza: Skipping School

In the third stanza, the speaker says that kids would skip school to go swimming.

He describes the boys as barefooted and running to the place where "They was lots o' fun." And yet again, the speaker laments that the joys of those days are lost: "But the lost joys is past! Let your tears in sorrow roll / Like the rain that ust to dapple up the old swimmin'-hole."

The "old dusty lane" leading to the creek was so pleasant to the bare feet of the boys, and the speaker unashamedly tells them to go ahead and shed a few tears at the loss of those days.

The speaker does so with a colorful exaggeration: "Let your tears in sorrow roll / Like the rain that ust to dapple up the old swimmin'-hole."

Fourth Stanza: The Beauty of the Setting

The fourth stanza offers a lovely description of the area around the creek. The bullrushes and cattails grow thick and tall, and with the sunshine and shadows, they gleam along the water with "amber and gold."

There are lilies and butterflies to decorate the scene further. One butterfly's wings are like "the ghost of a daisy dropped out of the sky."

Fifth Stanza: Sorrow in Nostalgia

The last stanza provides the sorrow that nostalgia sometimes evokes. The speaker describes the changes that the beloved swimming hole had undergone the last time he visited it: a railroad bridge "now crosses the spot."

The old diving logs were sunken and forlorn looking from lack of use.

The speaker then portrays his melancholy, creating a wonderfully appropriate metaphor: "I wish in my sorrow I could strip to the soul, / And dive off in my grave like the old swimmin'-hole."

The speaker hopes to shed his body like an old tattered garment so that his soul can dive into eternity the way his body used to dive into "the old swimmin'-hole."

The Hoosier Poet: The Life and Career of James Whitcomb Riley

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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