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Gwendolyn Brooks’ “a song in the front yard”

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 "a song in the front yard"

Gwendolyn Brooks’ speaker in "a song in the front yard" offers a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an innocent, sheltered young girl who becomes enamored of the "bad" kids and who wants to experience a side of life from which her mother would protect her.

a song in the front yard

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.

They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).

But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

Recitation of Brooks' "a song in the front year"

Commentary

A young girl laments that her mother wants to keep her from having fun.

First Movement: A Front Yard Metaphor

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

The speaker metaphorically compares her sheltered life to being kept "in the front yard all [her] life." She announces that she hankers to see what is going on in the back yard. She describes the back of her dwelling as "rough and untended" where "hungry weed grows."

The girl has decided that she is "sick of a rose," which continues her metaphor complaining that she has grown tired of everything "good," implying she is ready to experience some "bad."

Second Movement: Hankering After the Seamy Side of Life

I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.

This girl insists that she desires to get involved in the not-so-pleasant aspects of life, and she is ready "now." She wants to go to the back yard and "maybe down the alley." She yearns to go where the "charity children play," and she associates those unfortunates with "a good time," which she yearns to experience "today."

Third Movement: Warnings to Youth

They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).

The girl asserts that those "charity children "do some wonderful things," and thus they also have "some wonderful fun." Her mother takes a different view of those characters with whom her daughter yearns to associate.

Her mother "sneers" at her daughter’s new desires. But the daughter insists that she, unlike her mother who has given the girl a curfew, thinks "it’s fine / How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine."

The mother has warned her daughter that one of the young rough girls, Johnnie

Mae, will turn out unsavory, and the rough girl will likely "grow up to be a bad woman." And a young man, George, the mother believes will end up in jail because he stole their back yard gate and sold it.

Fourth Movement: A Challenging Attitude

But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

Unfortunately, for the mother, the young girl’s attitude will remain a challenge because the daughter thinks the activities of those young thugs are "fine." The daughter emphasizes her belief, insisting, "Honest, I do."

The daughter/speaker then adds words to strike fear and sadness in the hearts of mothers and fathers: she claims she would like "to be a bad woman." She wants to prance down the streets with her face full of make-up in "stockings of night-black lace."

The Frightening Delusion of Youth

Brooks’ poem dramatizes a profound split between the mother who would protect her daughter from the dark side of life and the daughter who is intrigued by that side and hankers to take part in it.

This deceptively simple poem offers a clear yet frightening glimpse into the delusion of youth. Brooks has fashioned a little drama that speaks to the experience of most parents with young daughters whose delusion presents a great challenge to good parenting.

Head Stone - 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