December 5, 2000
By MEL WATKINS
Gwendolyn Brooks, who illuminated the black experience in America in poems that spanned most of the 20th century, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, died on Sunday at her home in Chicago. She was 83.
"I wrote about what I saw and heard in the street," Ms. Brooks once said. "I lived in a small second-floor apartment at the corner, and I could look first on one side and then the other. There was my material."
In Ms. Brooks's early poetry, Chicago's vast black South Side is called Bronzeville. It was "A Street in Bronzeville," her first poetry anthology, that attracted the attention of the literary establishment in 1945.
The Bronzeville poems were recommended to the editors of Harper & Row by Richard Wright, who admired her ability to capture "the pathos of petty destinies, the whimper of the wounded, the tiny incidents that plague the lives of the desperately poor, and the problems of common prejudice."
But there was more to Ms. Brooks's talent than the ability to write about struggling black people, particularly women. There was also her mastery of poetry.
"Miss Brooks has a command over both the colloquial and the more austere rhythms," the critic Rolfe Humphries wrote in The New York Times Book Review about the poems in "A Street in Bronzeville." Calling her "a real poet," Mr. Humphries said of her technique, "There is a range of form: quatrains, free verse, ballads, sonnets all appropriately controlled."
Ms. Brooks said that her reputation was bolstered by a review of "Bronzeville" in The Chicago Tribune by Paul Engle, a poet and founder of the Iowa Writers School. Mr. Engle maintained that her poems were no more "Negro poetry" than Robert Frost's poetry was "white poetry."
Among the poems in "Bronzeville' was "the old-marrieds," about an aging couple:
But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say.
Though the pretty-coated birds had piped so lightly all the day. And he had seen the lovers in the little side-streets.
And she had heard the morning stories clogged with sweets
It was quite a time for loving. It was midnight. It was May.
But in the crowded darkness not a word did they say.
In "A Street in Bronzeville" Ms. Brooks created indelible figures like the old, alienated Matthew Cole, who could only smile at such memories as, "say, thoughts of a little boy licorice-full/Without a nickel for Sunday School," and Satin Legs Smith, awakening on a Sunday:
He sheds, with his pajamas, shabby days.
And his desertedness, his intricate fear, the Postponed resentments and the prim precautions.
In 1946 and 1947 Ms. Brooks was awarded a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1949 she published her second volume of verse, "Annie Allen," a portrait of a Bronzeville girl as a daughter, a wife and a mother, experiencing loneliness, loss, death and poverty. The critics praised her use of an experimental form she called the sonnet-ballad. "Full of insight and wisdom and pity, technically dazzling," Phyllis McGinley wrote in The Times Book Review.
"Annie Allen" won Poetry magazine's Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize in 1949 and the following year was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; Ms. Brooks became the first black writer to receive the prize since it was established in 1917. She acknowledged that it transformed her life.
"That's why I am as well known as I am today," she said in a 1987 interview. "Sometimes," she added with a smile, "I feel that my name is Gwendolyn Pulitzer Brooks."
Ms. Brooks wrote a novel, "Maud Martha," which received scant consideration when it was published in 1953. "Maud Martha" traced the life of a Bronzeville woman from childhood to maturity through a series of 34 vignettes.
The reader meets Maud as a lonely, overweight girl of 7, follows her through a dreamy adolescence and finally sees her as a young newlywed living "in a sad gray building in a cold white world," married to a man numbed by his struggle with white society.
But Ms. Brooks's novel was overshadowed by her achievements as a poet and invidiously compared with Richard Wright's "Native Son" and Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," epic novels with clear-cut socio-political themes. In recent years, however, "Maud Martha" has had a rebirth, and it is now regarded in some critical circles as an important forerunner of prominent themes in the works of women writing today.
"Bronzeville Boys and Girls," a collection of children's poetry, appeared in 1956, followed by two poetry collections, "The Bean Eaters" (1960) and "Selected Poems" (1963). Critics noticed that Ms. Brooks's vision was expanding from considerations of the everyday experiences of Bronzeville to a wider world that included the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 and the racial tensions in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.
They also noticed and most applauded a sharper colloquial style that was emerging in poems like "We Real Cool" from "The Bean Eaters":
We real cool.
We Left school.
We Lurk Late.
We Strike straight.
We Sing sin.
We Thin gin.
We Jazz June.
We Die soon.
By the early 1960's Ms. Brooks had reached a high point in her writing career. She was regarded as a grande dame of America's black writers and an honored member of the literary elite, a sought-after teacher and a poet who was valued for her sensitive portraits of black women, her precise use of language and the universality of her work. But by the end of the decade she had transformed herself and her poetry, a change that reflected the new political dynamics that were sweeping across all the Bronzevilles of America.
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born in Topeka, Kan., on June 7, 1917, but grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where she remained until her death. Her parents, David Anderson Brooks and the former Keziah Corinne Wims, encouraged her and her younger brother, Raymond, to read and take an interest in culture from an early age.
She began writing poetry before she was a teenager, filling composition books with "careful rhymes" and "lofty meditations." Her mother was an enthusiastic supporter, often telling her, "You are going to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar." Ms. Brooks published her first poem, "Eventide," in American Childhood magazine when she was 13.
Prompted by her mother, she sent her poems to Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. Mr. Hughes, who would become her friend and longtime supporter, wrote back: "You have talent. Keep writing! You'll have a book published one day." Mr. Johnson also responded with encouragement, urging her to read modern poets like Wallace Stevens, E. E. Cummings and T. S. Eliot. By the age of 16, Ms. Brooks had become a regular contributor to the "Lights and Shadows" column in The Chicago Defender, the newspaper where many of her earliest poems appeared.
Three years after her graduation from the newly opened Woodrow Wilson Junior College in Chicago in 1936, Ms. Brooks married Henry L. Blakely, a young writer who later published a volume of his own poetry. They lived in Chicago for the next 30 years and divorced in 1969, but reunited in 1973. He died in 1996. She is survived by a daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely, of Chicago; a son, Henry Blakely III; and one grandchild.
Ms. Brooks's poetry shifted noticeably in form and concern after she attended a conference of black writers at Fisk University in the spring of 1967. While there she listened to readings by Amiri Baraka, Ron Milner and other young firebrand poets. "I felt that something new was happening," she later said.
Those young black writers "seemed so proud and committed to their own people," she added. "The poets among them felt that black poets should write as blacks, about blacks, and address themselves to blacks."
She later wrote: "If it hadn't been for these young people, these young writers who influenced me, I wouldn't know what I know about this society. By associating with them I know who I am."
Returning to Chicago, she began a poetry workshop in her home that included members of a Chicago street gang called the Blackstone Rangers and younger poets like Sonia Sanchez, Don L. Lee and Nikki Giovanni. Much of the talk was devoted to ways of merging black art with the political concept of black power.
These currents were evident in Ms. Brooks's next volume of poetry, "In the Mecca" (Harper & Row, 1968). The 30-page title poem described a mother's frantic search for her missing daughter in a sprawling, decrepit building called the Mecca, which once was one of Chicago's fanciest apartment houses.
In a volume that was described by one critic as "her declaration of independence" from the integrationist philosophy that had previously shaped her work, Ms. Brooks wrote about the desperate and tragic lives of the inhabitants of the Mecca. She wrote from experience. Ms. Brooks worked at the real Mecca as a typist for a "spiritual adviser" when she was young and got to know the people in the building.
The collection also offered poems about Malcolm X and the Blackstone Rangers:
Black, raw, ready.
Sores in the city
That do not want to heal
Ms. Brooks used clipped lines, abstract word patterns and random rhymes to capture her new radical tone and her more direct expression of social concern.
"In the Mecca" was nominated for a National Book Award.
Asked if the change in her work signaled her emergence as a "protest poet," Ms. Brooks said, "No matter what the theme is, I still want the poem to be a poem, not just a piece of propaganda." Ms. Brooks reflected on her approach in her 1988 poem "Winnie":
I am tired of little tight-fisted poems sitting down to shape perfect unimportant pieces.
Poems that cough lightly catch a sneeze.
This is the time for Big Poems roaring up out of the sleaze, poems from ice, from vomit, and from tainted blood.
After the publication of "In the Mecca," Ms. Brooks left her longtime mainstream publisher, Harper & Row. "Rio" (1969), her next volume of poetry, was published by Broadside Press, a small, Detroit-based black company. The change, she said, reflected her desire to support struggling black publishers and the young poets they published as well as her intention to address black readers.
With the new direction of her work and the lack of a major mainstream publisher, however, many of her subsequent books were brushed aside by reviewers for mainstream publications. From the 1970's to the 1990's she published more than a dozen volumes of poetry and nearly a dozen nonfiction titles, which included two autobiographical works, "Report From Part One" (1972) and "Report >From Part Two" (1995).
Despite the lack of news media attention, Ms. Brooks maintained her reputation as one of America's most respected literary figures. In 1968 she succeeded Carl Sandburg as poet laureate of Illinois. In 1976 she became the first black woman to be elected to the 250-member National Institute of Arts and Letters. She received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989 and another from the National Book Foundation in 1994. She was the recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees.
The Gwendolyn Brooks Chair in Black Literature and Creative Writing was established at Chicago State University in 1990, and there is a Gwendolyn Brooks Center for African-American Literature at Western Illinois University and a Gwendolyn Brooks Junior High School just south of Chicago in Harvey, Ill. She was selected by the National Endowment of the Humanities as its Jefferson Lecturer in 1994, "the absolute award crown of my career," she said. And in 1995 she received the National Medal of Arts award.
Despite such praise, Ms. Brooks preferred to stay outside what she called "the hollow land of fame" and quietly live and work on the South Side.
"All my life is not writing," Ms. Brooks once told an interviewer. "My greatest interest is being involved with young people." To that end, she gave many readings at schools, prisons and hospitals and attended annual poetry contests for school-age youngsters, which she sponsored, judged and often paid for out of her own pocket.
During her later years, Ms. Brooks tempered her assessment of the young poets of the 60's who had criticized her subjectivity and attention to form. "Many of the poets felt it was a mark of their quality, of their black and Hispanic quality, if they didn't put a lot of emphasis on technique," she said. Although she still sought to write poetry that was "direct" and appealed to "all manner of blacks," she insisted on her own standards.
"I don't want to imitate these young people," she said. "I have got to find a way of writing that will accomplish my purpose but still sound Gwendolynian.
" Gwendolyn Brooks: A Literary Sampler
"the vacant lot," from "A Street in Bronzeville" (1945):
Mrs. Corley's three-flat brick
Isn't here any more.
All done with seeing her fat little form
Burst out of the basement door;
And with seeing her African son-in- law
(Rightful heir to the throne)
With his great white strong cold squares of teeth
And his little eyes of stone;
And with seeing the squat fat daughter
Letting in the men When majesty has gone for the day
And letting them out again. "The Egg Boiler," from "The Bean Eaters" (1961):
Being you, you cut your poetry from wood.
The boiling of an egg is heavy art. You come upon it as an artist should,
With rich-eyed passion and with straining heart.
We fools, we cut our poems out of air,
Night color, wind soprano, and such stuff.
And sometimes weightlessness is much to bear.
You mock it, though, you name it Not Enough.
The egg, spooned gently to the avid pan,
And left the strict three minutes, or the four,
Is your Enough and art for any man.
We fools give courteous ear then cut some more,
Shaping a gorgeous Nothingness from the cloud.
You watch us, eat your egg, and laugh aloud
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