Dead [Women] Poets Society Blog

“Well, life has been a baffled vehicle / And baffling…”: Helen Bowell resurrects Gwendolyn Brooks

Updated: Apr 27

This is a post from the archives! This is adapted from a talk that was given by Helen Bowell on 20 August 2018 at The Poetry Café, alongside Ankita Saxena who resurrected Maya Angelou.

When I decided to speak about Gwendolyn Brooks for tonight’s event, I didn’t really know that much about her. I’d studied her most famous poem ‘We Real Cool’ in a poetry creative writing seminar in my second year at university, and loved it. There’s a famous recording of Brooks reading the poem, and I was so obsessed with the way she performed it that I felt compelled to write about the poem – even though that paragraph ended up being a bit irrelevant to the essay in question.

So, tonight, I’m going to give you a bit of background, read a bit of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry, think about her legacy, talk about Golden Shovels, and read one of my own poems too.

Brooks was born in 1917, making last year her centenary. Though she was born in Texas she grew up in Chicago, where she spent the rest of her life. Her dad was a janitor who wanted to be a doctor but gave it all up to have a family; her mother was a schoolteacher and concert pianist, who told her that the young Brooks would someday be ‘the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar‘ (who was a similarly prolific Black American poet).

Brooks had always written poetry. She said, “As my mother told me, I was seven when I began putting rhymes together.” She was widely published from the age of eleven, and was the first Black author to win a Pulitzer Prize. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress—the first Black woman to hold that position—and poet laureate of the State of Illinois. She married a fellow poet, Henry Blakely, and they stayed together until he died. She lived until the year 2000.

Brooks is very good at telling stories, looking at people more than anything else, and recording Black communities, whose everyday lives didn’t usually get reported on. She says: ‘I feel that writing is part of life. I often say that poetry is “life distilled”, and I believe that’s true of any other aspect of writing.’ She asks questions about how people can have time to dream in the face of a day-to-day struggle; how Black communities grapple with the problems of materialism, racism and blind religiosity; and she looks seriously at the hopes, dreams, aspirations, disappointments and voices of young Black women more than all. Here’s an early example – her poem ‘kitchenette buidling’. It begins:

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan, Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But then there’s a turn:

But could a dream send up through onion fumes Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes…

It ends on a more practical note, but there’s a self-awareness:

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute! Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now, We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

It’s such a short poem that you instantly want to start from the top and read it again. That desire for freedom might be kept quiet by the end of the poem, but it never goes away.