“Well, life has been a baffled vehicle / And baffling…”: Helen Bowell resurrects Gwendolyn Brooks
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.
Brooks was an activist from an early age, joining the NAACP Youth Council in 1937 (aged around 20) to protest lynching and demanding justice for the Scottsboro Boys – nine Black teenagers who had been accused of raping a white woman in Alabama and initially sentenced to death despite evidence that they were innocent. Her politics carried through into her poetry. Take ‘the white troops had their orders but the Negroes looked like men’, a poem from her first book, published 1945, at the end of WWII and on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. Lynchings were still happening every year until 1952. During the war, Black American soldiers fought alongside white soldiers – for a country which had enslaved, murdered and hated Black people since its foundations. Segregation didn’t stop even while Black American soldiers were vital to the USA’s success: those who liberated concentration camps were forced to ride in the back of the military trains when they returned, while the white German prisoners of war rode in the front.
Anyway – this poem is from a series of sonnets – a staple of traditional English verse: fourteen lines, a strict rhyme scheme. Though here Brooks uses half- or off-rhyme, ‘because I felt it was an off-rhyme situation’, as she herself says. She wrote it after a Black American soldier sent her a letter. The whole series of sonnets is about discrimination in the army.
It’s a sick burn. With dripping sarcasm, Brooks exposes the absurdity of racism – ‘These Negroes looked like men.’ And it’s so interesting how she mentions ‘A box for dark men and a box for Other’ that ‘would often find the contents had been scrambled’. This, I think, is a time before people of colour had to figure out which box they fitted into in the way that I always have to tick ‘Other’ and write in my description. And when she asks ‘Who really gave two figs?’ she’s doing a few things – obviously we know that Brooks thinks we shouldn’t give two figs about these boxes. But the poem goes into the voice of the white soldiers, and we realise – it’s easy for them to say, oh who cares, we’re all in the army together fighting a common enemy, let’s not worry ourselves about boxes, we can all get along – for now. Black Americans and other marginalised peoples didn’t have the luxury of not worrying about the colour of their skin. They still don’t.
Brooks is exposing exactly that kind of double-think that’s so easy for the white soldiers, and so patently absurd. And she’s doing it within a traditionally ‘white’ European poetic form: the sonnet, used by Shakespeare and Blake and Petrach. She also ‘speaks white’ – there’s no hint of Black English here at all. One critic, Houston Baker, said in the 70s that Brooks’ work is made of ‘“white” style and “Black” content – two warring ideals in one dark body’. There’s something a bit Othering in that, but he is right that Brooks is writing about the Black communities around her within ‘high’ language and forms. She is using the master’s tools against him, but as Audre Lorde tells us, ultimately that’s not enough. Brooks comes to realise this later in her career. In the 60s, she says, “I’ve been leaving the haiku to the Japanese and the sonnets to the Miltons … I am not going to burn up any of those I’ve written, but I just feel that Blacks should be trying to develop some Black styles for themselves and I think that there is a way to do it in English.”
Let’s look at ‘We Real Cool’, her most famous poem, written in the middle of her career, which has to be one of the shortest and strangest-looking poems Brooks ever wrote. Each line has no more than three words on it. It’s kind of crazy to me that THIS is the poem that she’s remembered for most often – it’s a brilliant, brilliant poem, but doesn’t really give you much of an insight into her political activism (you really can’t tell from this poem that, for instance, she fought for Black Americans’ rights through involvement with the NAACP). However, it is written in what some would call ‘Black English’ and it’s definitely a new style – not a sonnet or any kind of ‘traditional’ form. So, in that sense, it is exciting that it’s the poem most people put to her name. But she found it pretty annoying that they only remembered this poem too, as you’re about to find out.
I’m just going to give you a minute to read the poem for yourselves in your head. We’re going to listen to Brooks bring it to life. The Golden Shovel is the name of a pool hall.
I’m going to share the audio recording of Brooks performing her poem at a poetry reading which first got me hooked on her. But since I studied her, for her centenary last year, Poetry Foundation commissioned a short film using paper puppets which I think is brilliant and want to share with you.
What a reading! And the way she reads it is so unexpected to me – she seems to stress every word except ‘We’, where she pauses at the end of the line, creating a kind of syncopated jazz rhythm. And that ending – everything’s so carefree until she brings in death. You might be asking, who is the ‘we’ in the poem? It’s at the end of every line except the final one so it’s got to be important – bigger than the seven at the Golden Shovel. Is it all the young Black men in this community? Is it bigger than that still?
It’s such a captivating poem that Terrence Hayes, a Black male (sorry) living (sorry) poet, has made a new poetic form out of it called a ‘Golden Shovel’, in homage to Gwendolyn Brooks, and it’s kind of taking over the poetry world. It all started when Hayes wanted his children to memorise a poem each, and he picked ‘We Real Cool’ for his son. They kept practising and practising and the poem got stuck in Hayes’ head, so he decided to write his own poem inspired by memories of his father in the pool hall, using every single word in ‘We Real Cool’ and placing each word down the right margin of his new work. So the first line of his poem ends ‘we’, the second line ends ‘real’, the third line ends ‘cool’, ‘we’, ‘left’, ‘school’ etc., all the way through the poem. So you can read down the right edge of his poem and find Gwendolyn Brooks’ entire work there. It’s kind of magical.
Here’s the start of his poem ‘The Golden Shovel’:
When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we cruise at twilight until we find the place the real men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool. His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left in them but approachlessness. This is a school I do not know yet.
… and so on. You can see how his Golden Shovel poem is entering into a conversation with Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem – it can’t not, with every single one of her words embedded within his. The Golden Shovel really lends itself to resurrection (as Bridget Minamore discovered when communing with Margaret Walker). Now every poet educator is going, ‘hey now that’s quite a good idea for a writing workshop!’ and new ‘Golden Shovel’ poems are sprouting up everywhere. You can take a line from a Brooks poem, or any poem really – a Golden Shovel after Joni Mitchell was commended in the 2018 National Poetry Competition – and create something that kind of bounces off it. Find out more about Golden Shovels here.
Dead [Women] Poets Society is all about how our literary forebears have influenced us, as women writing today. I’m going to share a Golden Shovel poem I wrote as part of a commission on the theme of ‘stories’, something I’ve never set out to write about. In the end I veered away from the form, but I would never have got to the final poem without starting off by getting my ideas onto the page, and creating interesting images, with a Golden Shovel.
My source text was a quotation from author Ursula Le Guinn, who died earlier this year . She was speaking about stories and said (rather grimly): ‘In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood. Take the tale in your teeth, then, and bite till the blood runs, hoping it’s not poison; and we will all come to the end together, and even to the beginning: living, as we do, in the middle.’ I took the last phrase, “we will all come to the end together, and even to the beginning: living, as we do, in the middle”, to be the words at the end of my lines. See if you can spot them.
Story Stories are how strangers call themselves “we”. If you plant them right, they are where the grass will grow. You can make wooden rafts out of all the stories of all the people you know. They’ll float. How can you tell a story without becom- ing someone else? Tales are the only way to lie truthfully. The feeling that waits at the end of a story could turn apples into pears. Together, we build stories like pylons, dangerous with electricity. Even the Queen delights in telling tall tales, in coming to her great-grandchildren with a sly smile signalling the beginning of a whopper. A story is a living. Treat every story as if it were true, because every one knows something we don’t. My father once told me a story. Do you know that one too? In two thousand years even our bones will be at the- ir end, but stories will still be going on, only at their middle.
I want to end by thinking about what Brooks has to say to us, as women. First off – remember that she is not writing for white women. She is writing for Black audiences. When asked about the suffrage movement, she expressed concern about Black women separating themselves from Black men – and we know of course that the fight for universal suffrage was largely not very intersectional. But though she’s not writing for all women there’s something we can all learn from her work.
I’ve already mentioned how Brooks is interested in young Black women’s hopes, dreams, disappointments and so on, and she writes a lot of ballads about women – the ballad of chocolate Mabbie; another one about a hunchback girl; another one about characters called Sadie and Maud. She is putting these women – until now excluded – back into literature.
She does not shy away from difficult or taboo subjects within womanhood, either. The third poem in her first book is called ‘the mother’ and it begins:
Abortions will not let you forget. You remember the children you got that you did not get, The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair, The singers and workers that never handled the air.
As the story goes, fellow writer Richard Wright begged Brooks not to publish this poem, saying that the world wasn’t ready to read about abortion. Brooks ignored him and the book was pretty much universally acclaimed – she was called by one reviewer ‘a young but permanent talent’. I think it’s an incredible testament to her belief in her own writing that she ignored a man of the establishment who told her not to write about something that so many women of the time had to go through because of the lack of readily available contraception – abortions, in the plural.
The book she won the Pulitzer Prize for was Annie Allen, a novel in verse which exposed the misogyny of romance conventions. In the middle of the book is ‘The Anniead’, a pun on Virgil’s masculine epic Aeneid. Just to give you a flavour of what she’s writing about, she describes Annie as:
Watching for the paladin Which no woman ever had, Paradisiacal and sad With a dimple in his chin And the mountains in his mind; Ruralist and rather bad, Cosmopolitan and kind.
(A paladin is a legendary champion of Charlemagne.)
A later poem is ‘weaponed woman’. Read it here. She wrote it much later in her life, so this is the perspective of a woman who’s been through it all, so to speak, and looking back:
Well, life has been a baffled vehicle And baffling. But she fights…
It ends so beautifully. (Go on, do read the end.)
Finally, and I’ll end on this (thank you for listening), she says in her autobiography something about and for Black women specifically, but which I think all women would do well to carry with them:
“[A B]lack wom[a]n must remember . . . [t]hat her personhood precedes her femalehood, that, sweet as sex may be, she cannot endlessly brood on Black man’s blondes, blues and blunders. She is a person in the world – with wrongs to right, stupidities to outwit, with her man when possible, on her own when not. . . . Therefore she must, in the midst of tragedy and hatred and neglect . . . mightily enjoy the readily available: sun- shine and pets and children and conversation and games and travel (tiny or large) and books and walks and chocolate cake. . .”
Helen Bowell is a poet, administrator and a co-founder of Dead [Women] Poets Society, and has resurrected Elizabeth Bishop, Charlotte Mew and Charlotte Turner-Smith alongside Gwendolyn Brooks. In 2019/20 she was selected as a London Library Emerging Writer and a member of the Roundhouse Poetry Collective. She is a graduate of The Writing Squad, and the London Writers Awards run by Spread the Word. In 2020, she was the Bronze winner of the Creative Future Writers' Award. Her poems have appeared in The Willowherb Review, harana poetry, Strix, The Manchester Review, The Missing Slate, and Introduction X: The Poetry Business Book of New Poets. She works at The Poetry Society. @helen_bowell