Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Brooksday: Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial + Poem

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)
One hundred years ago today, in Topeka, Kansas, Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born to Keziah Wims Brooks and David Anderson Brooks. Before she had turned a year old, her family moved to Chicago, specifically the South Side Bronzeville neighborhood, which became her lifelong home, and which she memorialized in a series of works including 1949's Annie Allen, which would make her first African American and first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, in 1950, one many august honors.  From an early age, her mother, a teacher and concert-trained pianist, knew she possessed a gift for literature, and told her that she was going to be the "lady Paul Laurence Dunbar" (Wikipedia), and, like Dunbar, she has left a mark that continues to influence, her poetic gifts and her influence among successive generations of writers anchoring her reputation as one of the major figures in 20th century American and African American poetry and literature.

A number of organizations are celebrating the centennial of Brooks's life. One that has a wide array of events planned is Our Miss Brooks 100, which uses the name she liked to be known by, and which is the effort of local Chicago and national individuals and organizations. Through June 2018, Our Miss Brooks 100 will be sponsoring programs. They include:

  • January 1-December 31: Hands On Stanzas (which will bring poets into the Chicago-area schools for 20-week residencies) 
  • May 12-June 18: ETA Creative Arts Foundation presents "Among All This We Stand Like a Fine Brownstone by Vantile Whitfield", at eta Creative Arts fourth (4th) mainstage production (in Chicago) & repeating throughout the summer 
  • June 17: A Gwendolyn Brooks Trolley Tour, Lecture / Discussion, Literature, Guided Trolley Tour (in Chicago)
  • Nov. 18: Manual Cinema's Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, Evening performance (Poetry Foundation, Chicago)

On the Our Miss Brooks 100 site, you can find information about her life in Chicago, and links to articles about Gwendolyn Brooks, testimonies by poets, librarians and readers.

The Academy of American Poets site features a Centennial Celebration for Gwendolyn Brooks,  which includes her poetry, an interview with her, lesson plans for teachers, essays by noted poets, and archival audio material, including Brooks's 1983 reading at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. I was quite fortunate enough to hear Miss Brooks read with then Poet Laureate Rita Dove in the early 1990s. The room was packed, and she and Dove, to no one's surprise, brought the house down again and again.

Below is one of the poems from one of her later collections, Blacks, "Boy Breaking Glass," which I reprint from the Poetry Foundation's website. In this poem, she provides a glimpse of the Chicago she lived, knew and captured in her distinctive style, while also underlining her psychological and social perceptiveness, and her deep humanity. Do check out the Centennial Celebration site, and if you have never listened to Miss Brooks, please click on the audio link there, or Google "Gwendolyn Brooks reading" to find more links.

Boy Breaking Glass

By Gwendolyn Brooks

To Marc Crawford
from whom the commission

Whose broken window is a cry of art   
(success, that winks aware
as elegance, as a treasonable faith)
is raw: is sonic: is old-eyed première.
Our beautiful flaw and terrible ornament.   
Our barbarous and metal little man.

“I shall create! If not a note, a hole.   
If not an overture, a desecration.”

Full of pepper and light
and Salt and night and cargoes.

“Don’t go down the plank
if you see there’s no extension.   
Each to his grief, each to
his loneliness and fidgety revenge.
Nobody knew where I was and now
                   I am no longer there.”

The only sanity is a cup of tea.   
The music is in minors.

Each one other
is having different weather.

“It was you, it was you who threw away my name!   
And this is everything I have for me.”

Who has not Congress, lobster, love, luau,   
the Regency Room, the Statue of Liberty,   
runs. A sloppy amalgamation.
A mistake.
A cliff.
A hymn, a snare, and an exceeding sun.

Gwendolyn Brooks, “Boy Breaking Glass,” from Blacks
(Chicago: Third World Press, 1987).
Reprinted by consent of Brooks Permissions.
Source: Blacks (1987)

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