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Gwendolyn Brooks' "The Boy Died in My Alley"

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

Introduction and Text of "The Boy Died in My Alley"

Gwendolyn Brooks’ "The Boy Died in My Alley" plays out in nine movements. It features conversation, along with an unusual capitalization pattern that appears to be employed to emphasize certain terms.

The Boy Died in My Alley

to Running Boy

The Boy died in my alley
without my Having Known.
Policeman said, next morning,
"Apparently died Alone."

"You heard a shot?" Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the Dead.

The Shot that killed him yes I heard
as I heard the Thousand shots before;
careening tinnily down the nights
across my years and arteries.

Policeman pounded on my door.
"Who is it?" "POLICE!" Policeman yelled.
"A Boy was dying in your alley.
A Boy is dead, and in your alley.
And have you known this Boy before?"

I have known this Boy before.
I have known this boy before, who ornaments my alley.
I never saw his face at all.
I never saw his futurefall.
But I have known this Boy.

I have always heard him deal with death.
I have always heard the shout, the volley.
I have closed my heart-ears late and early.
And I have killed him ever.

I joined the Wild and killed him
with knowledgeable unknowing.
I saw where he was going.
I saw him Crossed. And seeing,
I did not take him down.

He cried not only "Father!"
but "Mother!
Sister!
Brother."
The cry climbed up the alley.
It went up to the wind.
It hung upon the heaven
for a long
stretch-strain of Moment.

The red floor of my alley
is a special speech to me.

Reading of Poem

Commentary

This work portrays the theme of evil and the accountability each individual faces in opposing it. The speaker, of course, cannot resolve the issue.

First Movement: The Lad Died Alone

The Boy died in my alley
without my Having Known.
Policeman said, next morning,
"Apparently died Alone."

The speaker begins by claiming that "the Boy" died in the alley behind her residence. She has capitalized the word "Boy," apparently to assure that readers will afford him more importance that the term would normally receive.

The speaker does not seem to know the boy's name, but in her eyes, he is no longer simply some boy. His death has drawn especial attention to him. She makes it clear that she was not well acquainted with the boy, nor was she actually aware he had died.

A policeman told her about the boy's death on the morning after it had occurred, and he added that the boy, "Apparently died Alone." She places special stress on the deep sadness and sorrow of dying alone by affixing a capital to "Alone."

Second Movement: Hearing Shots

"You heard a shot?" Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the Dead.

Again, the speaker places capital letters on the words she wishes to emphasize as the police ask her if she heard shots last night when the boy was killed. But she replies that she hears shots all the time, while never seeing the victims of the shots.

Third Movement: Hearing the Shot That Killed the Boy

The Shot that killed him yes I heard
as I heard the Thousand shots before;
careening tinnily down the nights
across my years and arteries.

The speaker tells the police then that she is pretty sure she must have heard the shot that killed the boy because she has heard, "the Thousand shots before" this event. It has been many years that the speaker has listened as gun fire rings out in the night "careening tinnily down the nights," and "across [her] years and arteries."

The speaker has heard so many shots over the years that she is almost shell-shocked from the experience. For each time one rings out, she must wonder about the trigger man and his target.

Fourth Movement: A Not so Unusual Occurrence

Policeman pounded on my door.
"Who is it?" "POLICE!" Policeman yelled.
"A Boy was dying in your alley.
A Boy is dead, and in your alley.
And have you known this Boy before?"

The speaker drifts back in time to all the other occasions that the police have banged on her door, wanting to know if she heard the shots, and asking if she had been acquainted with such and such victim.

So the speaker knows the drill. She knows them yet she does not know them, any of them.

Fifth Movement: Whether She Knew Him or Did Not

I have known this Boy before.
I have known this boy before, who ornaments my alley.
I never saw his face at all.
I never saw his futurefall.
But I have known this Boy.

The speaker begins to muse philosophically about whether she actually knows the victims or not: she has seen many of them, like this boy, but she cannot say that she knows him on a personal level.

Likely she has never spoken to him, just seen him in passing. Thus she emphasizes the "Boy" again with a cap as she muses about the nature of knowing someone well vs not at all.

She can aver that she has "known this boy before," in the sense of knowing that others like him has been victims or targets of someone's gunshots. However, she knows that she has never met any of them face to face.

They are just boys in the neighborhood. And when she sees them she often wonders if they are likely the next victim of the gun fire she continually hears played out behind her building.

Sixth Movement: Unearned Guilt

I have always heard him deal with death.
I have always heard the shout, the volley.
I have closed my heart-ears late and early.
And I have killed him ever.

Next, the speaker makes a remarkably wild and absurd statement that because she has failed to so something about all that gun play, she has "killed him ever." It is likely the grief of the reality of the latest dead victim, just a young boy, that is clouding her judgment, as she tries to fathom the foul deeds of humankind against humankind.

Seventh Movement: The Complicity of Wallowing in Unearned Guilt

I joined the Wild and killed him
with knowledgeable unknowing.
I saw where he was going.
I saw him Crossed. And seeing,
I did not take him down.

The speaker's musing continues as she kicks herself for her complicity in his murder and all the other murders. She labels her failure to prevent those murders "knowledgeable unknowing." She will allow herself to wallow in guilt that she has not earned, but likely now feels she must endure to somehow eventually assuage that fantasized guilt.

Eighth and Ninth Movements: Dramatization of Fantasy Knowledge

He cried not only "Father!"
but "Mother!
Sister!
Brother."
The cry climbed up the alley.
It went up to the wind.
It hung upon the heaven
for a long
stretch-strain of Moment.

The red floor of my alley
is a special speech to me.

The speaker supposes that all the young targets have cried out to their relative as they lay dying. She dramatizes her fantasy knowledge as the unknowing that allows acceptance in the face of doing nothing. At least she is able to understand that the situation is really out of her hands.

There is no way she could confront all those would-be killers in order to stop them. And on some deep level, she understands that she could not have stopped the victims from their foolish participation in their own demise.

The final two lines, "The red floor of my alley / is a special speech to me," bespeak an arcane, yet wretched affirmation that affixes a flabbiness to the groundless culpability that has confused the speaker’s thinking.

Gwendolyn Brooks

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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on September 09, 2019:

Thanks for commenting, Urbane.

Brooks' poetry offers an interesting, always useful view of humanity. She enriched the American poetry canon on many levels. Her simplicity remained poetic as well as genuinely dramatic.

Urbane Sleek from United States on September 09, 2019:

Love this!!! especially that last piece of it

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on September 01, 2017:

Thank you, Keuka Fields! It's always gratifying to find that someone appreciates my writing efforts.

Have a blessed day!

Keuka Fields from Syracuse, New York on August 31, 2017:

Interesting piece I really enjoyed this

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