Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Poem: Gwendolyn Brooks

After a week and a half of fiction, we're back to poetry in my American literature class, and one of the poets we're reading next week is the one and only Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000; how could I not introduce students to her work?), so I thought I'd post one of the poems we'll be looking at is "downtown vaudeville," from Annie Allen, one of her marvelous collections and the first work by an African-American author to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Though I never forget how important she is and these poems are, and though I love to return to them for pleasure, I sometimes forget how radical they are, how sharp amd piquant Brooks's critiques, how rich and variegated her portraits of post-war black and white Chicago, wrapped as they are in traditional verse forms and prosody that, as in the case of one of my favorite poems in the book, "They love the little booths at Benvenuti's," are also charged with the cross-beats of jazz and soul. (Just read that poem aloud or listen to Brooks read it, and you'll get my drift.) Reggie H. posted it some months back when Bill O'Reilly spouted off about how the Negroes up in Harlem were actually civilized, proving how prescient Brooks was and how ignorant O'Reilly...well, I don't need to finish that thought.

Brooks gave one of the best poetry readings I attended, at the first Furious Flower Conference, which took place at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She read with Rita Dove, who I believe either was still the Poet Laureate (one of the best we've had) or had just stepped down from the post. The hall was packed, and Rita gave a marvelous reading, as she always does. And then Brooks came on, and read some of her best known poems, including "we real cool," which, if you've ever heard her read it, differs from how most readers think it sounds. She brought the house down. I only wish I'd had the chance to meet her and get to know her personally!

At any rate: downtown vaudeville....

downtown vaudeville

What was not pleasant was the hush that coughed
When the Negro clown came on the stage and doffed
His broken hat. The hush, first. Then the soft

Concatenation of delight and lift,
And loud. The decked dismissal of his gift,
The sugared hoot and hauteur. Then, the rift

Where is magnificent, and heirloom, and deft
Leer at a Negro to the right, or left--
So joined to personal bleach, and so bereft:

Finding if that is locked, is blowed, or proud.
And what that is at all, spotting the crowd.

Copyright © Gwendolyn Brooks, 1949. All rights reserved.

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