I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but it was just in the last two years that I actually read the Pulitzer Prize winning collection Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks. Of course, I had read a good deal of Brooks’ poetry, including A Street in Bronzeville and The Bean Eaters, but I had only read the Annie Allen poems in her selected. In the past eight years or so, I started a new commitment to read old collections of poems in their original sequence. As a result, I spend a lot of time online looking for reasonably priced (cheap) copies of 1st editions. If you haven’t been on abebooks.com, check it out. You can shop guilt-free because the service connects hundreds of independent bookstores in the U.S. and Great Britain to this online service. Good stuff.Anyway, I got a copy of Annie Allen after hearing Elizabeth Alexander deliver a Hopwood Lecture at the University of Michigan a couple of years ago. (And, I have to say: it was easily in the top five best lectures I’ve heard in my life. It’s published now, and if you can find it, read it. It was the kind of lecture that you walk out of thinking, ‘I’m going to go out into the world now and be a better human being.’) And part of my mission to be a better human being was to find Annie Allen. Elizabeth made reference to the book a few times in her lecture, and I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, I know those poems; I know that book…wait a minute.’ And it dawned on me that I had read many of the poems, but I had never read the original sequence of the poems in their entirety. Shame. One thing that I try to teach in the workshop is that we have to read collections in their original sequence, not in anthologies as I was taught to read poems in my crappy public school education in Akron, OH…and even in undergrad, really. The scholars at my college thought it was fine to teach poetry from The Western Wind and the Norton, exclusively. As a result, I never really knew how the poet conceived the experience of the read. Once you read Geography III or The Far Field or For the Union Dead, it gives you a better sense, respectively, of how Bishop or Roethke or Lowell conceptualized their work.
The experience of the read is what I really love about the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks. When I read a collection of hers in her original sequence, I get a better sense of the conversation she was having with the world. And I like this. What I mean is that it’s poetry that makes me want to be a better human being, and I like how it makes me feel. It’s as simple as that. The craft is high but the emotional resonance drapes over every line. It’s like reading a formalist on ecstasy. (Yeah..I know: Either you as the reader or the formalist herself. Take your pick.)
What I realized after spending the year with Brooks’ work is that she has been eclipsed with the good fortune of being the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize. As a result, her work is often read reductively. Now, let me be clear: Even if she were a poet whose work solely addressed the issue of race in America, she’d be tackling more of the human condition than half of us out here calling ourselves American poets. And if anyone were to say that A. Van Jordan is an African American poet, I’d say Yep, with a black fist in the air. No worries. I know I’m a black poet the way Joyce was Irish, so as long as other people understand that, I’m cool.
And this is the real point about Brooks: She used African American cultural iconography to talk about issues of class and poverty. There’s a long literary tradition of this move. When we think about Dickens, we know it’s set in England, but he’s not talking about the throne; he’s talking about the people. We know the same when it comes to Joyce.
As American readers, we often get transfixed on the cultural iconography of a writer’s work, often missing the greater themes at play in her work. Although issues of race are prominent in Brooks, I read her more as a poet who is writing about poverty in America, the struggles of urban America, and, particularly, the struggles of women in this sector of society. When we read Annie Allen and watch the maturation process of this figure, we really get a sense of what Brooks is revealing. We see the fragility of a life growing up through the struggle of economic oppression and urban crowding.
This quality in her work is probably, for me, the most consistent quality in her poems: She treats her subjects with respect even when she writes about figures who aren’t respected in the worlds in which they inhabit in life. Brooks, was not a poet of privilege. She is remembered as the poet who holds the privilege of being the first African American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, but she, in many ways, didn’t change with the award. In some ways, she dug deeper into the roots of self to make sure that the new privilege wasn’t a path to losing self. One has to find great comfort in oneself and in one’s community to do this. I’m stating the obvious in many ways, and we’ve seen this in different iterations from poets who have won awards, but Brooks wasn’t Auden, who was educated at Oxford, or even Rukeyser, who went to Vassar and Columbia. Although, I should say here, that I think of Rukeyser as being a real sister aesthetically to Brooks. I feel that they were approaching the same destination through different routes. (Hmm…Maybe I’ll talk about Rukeyser in another blog.)
Brooks was born June 7, 1917 in Topeka, KS, but her family moved to Chicago when she was only six weeks old to join the Great Migration, which meant that her family was in Chicago during the Red Summer of 1919 with many blacks who were both migrating to the north and Midwest for industrial work after World War 1.
To put into context her winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for Annie Allen (published in 1949), we should keep in mind that Brooks was 33 years old upon winning, and was the first African American to win the prize, either in poetry or in fiction. This was a major milestone for American literature and an even larger moment for both African American literature and the intellectual image of African Americans. It was a time, as Richard Wright put it, and I paraphrase, that seeing the black writer write was for whites like watching a French poodle do tricks. It was something to marvel at much in the way that Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) had to prove her intelligence to her patrons. This was an award that mitigated much of the pressure to “perform intelligence” that the black writer/artist felt she had to bear. And her award would predate much of the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement that would follow. At the time, Martin Luther King Jr was only 21 years old and would not take part in the Montgomery Boycott for another 5 years. The best and the brightest of The Black Arts Movement writers like Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka and Haki Madhubuti who would become synonymous with the idea of “the black poet,” were still children at this moment: Both Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez were 16 and Madhubuti was 8.
I’m not sure how much of a poem I can quote on here, but I’m going to give you a taste of the “Anniad” section of Annie Allen:
The Children of the Poor
People who have no children can be hard:
Attain a mail of ice and insolence:
Need not pause in the fire, and in no sense
Hesitate in the hurricane to guard.
And when wide world is bitten and bewared
They perish purely, waving their spirits hence
Without a trace of grace or of offense
To laugh or fail, diffident, wonder-starred.
While through a throttling dark we others hear
The little lifting helplessness, the queer
Whimper-whine; whose unridiculous
Lost softness softly makes a trap for us.
And makes a curse. And makes a sugar of
The malocclusions, the inconditions of love.
What shall I give my children? who are poor,
Who are adjudged the leastwise of the land,
Who are my sweetest lepers, who demand
No velvet and no velvety velour;
But who have begged me for a brisk contour,
Crying that they are quasi, contraband
Because unfinished, graven by a hand
Less than angelic, admirable or sure.
My hand is stuffed with mode, design, device.
But I lack access to my proper stone.
And plentitude of plan shall not suffice
Nor grief nor love shall be enough alone
To ratify my little halves who bear
Across an autumn freezing everywhere.
Later in Annie Allen, Brooks swings into free verse, controlled, measured lines but free verse, nonetheless. The move from childhood to womanhood, which is how it is delineated in the book, is marked by the shift in the style of the line. The connection between content and form, pattern and variation of pattern, is heartening. As I said yesterday, this is a poet who has something to say to the world about the human condition; that she does this without skipping a metrical beat is pretty amazing. It’s also striking that she did it at a time when she didn’t expect to be recognized for it, either. I have so many students who want to talk to me about awards and who worry about prognosticating what “is in now in the poetry world”; I always end up with a blank look on my face because I really don’t even know what that means. When I get out of bed in the morning, when my mind finally focuses on the writing, I’m just hoping that I have something worth saying—even if no one is listening.