Gwendolyn Brooks
Writing with uncommon strength, Gwendolyn Brooks creates haunting images
of black America, and their struggle in escaping the scathing hatred of many
white Americans. Her stories, such as in the “Ballad of Rudolph Reed”, portray
courage and perseverance. In those like “The Boy Died in My Alley” Brooks
portrays both the weakness of black America and the unfortunate lack of care
spawned from oppression. In “The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie” Brooks unveils
another aspect of her skill by entering the domestic arena with the lingering
limitations imposed by prejudice. These aspects, such as strength and finesse,
are among Brooks great attributes. Worthy of exploration, Brooks powerful and
haunting techniques can be separated and explored in the above mentioned poems.

Each work contains a specific tactic, which effectively promotes her ideas. It
is for that reason, tactics mixed with ideas, which have placed Brooks among the
finest poets.

Perhaps because of Brooks’ use of a stiff format, “The Ballad of Rudolph
Reed” may be her strongest work. Imbuing the poem with incredible lines and
description, Brooks transforms Rudolph Reed, who is the character the poem is
built around, into a storybook hero, or a tragic character whose only flaw was
the love he held for his family. Brooks creates a strong, solid character who
is more than another fictional martyr, but a human being. The Finesse she
imbued in this work from the first stylized Peiffer 2 stanza: “Rudolph Reed was
oaken. His wife was oaken too. And his two girls and his good little man
Oakened as they grew.” (1081, 1-4) Here brooks’ symbolic use of the word
oakened, coupled with the use of a rhyme scheme of the second and last sentence
of every stanza causes the reader to more deeply feel what the character and his
family are going through. Using the idea of a dream home, Brooks stabbed to the
heart of the American dream and where those of African descent fit into it.

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Every person, man or woman, has at one time or another dreamt of living in a
beautiful home:
“I am not hungry for berries. I am not hungry for bread.

But hungry hungry for a house Where at night a man in bed “May never
here the plaster stir as if in pain. May never here the roaches
Falling like fat rain. “Where never wife and children need Go blinking
through the gloom. Where every room of many rooms Will be full of
room. “Oh my house shall have its east or west Or north or south behind
it. All I know is I shall know it, And fight for it when I find it.”
(1081, 5-20)
Without her use of the above dream, Brooks would have been unable to bring an
effective human perspective to Rudolph Reed and his family. Once this human
side was Peiffer 3 created, the horrible demise of Rudolph Reed struck with an
intensity which would otherwise have been lost.

Losing finesse in place of what at first seems a shallow attempt at
poetry, “The Boy Died in My Alley” develops into an incredible exploration of
enfeeblement. Brooks power comes again from her ability to bring the reader
into a human world, with human characters. It explores the pain one person
feels, and the hopelessness spawned from it. Although relatively few people
live in an area where crime is so rampant as in “The Boy Died in My Alley”, it
strikes a chord of fear and depression most in society may relate to. The use
of a strong beat in this poem help to create the frantic yet uncanny depression
found throughout the poem:
“Policeman pounded on my door. “Who is it?” “POLICE!”
Policeman yelled. “A boy was dying in your Alley. A boy is dead, and in
your alley. And have you known this boy before?” I have known this
boy before. I have known this boy before, who ornaments my alley. I
never saw his face at all. I never saw his futurefall. But I have known this

(1084, 10-21)
The staccato rhythm Brooks uses is developed through repeating many of the lines.

The lines are not exact copies, Peiffer 4 but keep the poem rolling forward,
which is important if Brooks hopes to keep the reader active in the storyline.

Included for the staccato rhythm, is a short curt sentence structure:
“Without my having known. Policeman said, next morning,
“Apparently died alone.” “You heard a shot?” Policeman said. Shots I
hear and shots I hear. I never see the dead.” (1083, 1-6)
This use of rhythm is the style the work hinges on. In many ways the broken
sentences remind the reader of the forms the English language have taken for
black Americans. Again, it can be pointed out this was the intention of Brooks.

In ways not seen in “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed”, Brooks acts as the conductor
of a symphony of words and style.

An intoxicating work is “The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie”. Second only
to “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed”, “Chocolate Mabbie” has an unrivaled depth of
character. Once again, Brooks draws the reader deep into the human soul. She
bares the wheels and cogs which keep people moving. It is the one thing nearly
every man woman and child has felt from one time or another, that Brooks delves
into. Bringing to life a little girl of seven, Brooks creates a vision of human
life. Unfortunately it is painfully aware to the reader Mabbie’s crush will
never manifest itself beyond herself: Peiffer 5
“Oh, warm is the waiting for joys, my dears! And it cannot
be too long. Oh, pity the little poor chocolate lips That carry the
bubble of song! Out came the saucily bold Willie Boone. It was woe for our
Mabbie now. He wore like a jewel a lemon-hued lynx With sand-
waves loving her brow.

Mabbie is black, and her crush is white. Brooks again crushes the readers
senses with the struggle of inequality and racism. As in “The Ballad of Rudolph
Reed”, Brooks uses both finesse, and human characters. She allows the reader to
feel close to the characters. She gives them a chance to realize they may have
lived through a time in their lives which were as difficult.

It is safe to say, Gwendolyn Brooks is a master of styles. Her ideas
come to life on the page through careful examination of possible stylistic
interpretations; will it be finesse, rhythm or a combination of both. Brooks
brings out the best a work has to offer with strong, powerful lines, with enough
finesse to lull the reader into the story.

An Exploration of Style by: Will Peiffer

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Gwendolyn Brooks-
A Critical Analysis of Her Work
Gwendolyn Brooks is the female poet who has been most responsive to changes in the black community, particularly in the community’s vision of itself. The first African American to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize; she was considered one of America’s most distinguished poets well before the age of fifty. Known for her technical artistry, she has succeeded in forms as disparate as Italian terza rima and the blues. She has been praised for her wisdom and insight into the African Experience in America. Her works reflect both the paradises and the hells of the black people of the world. Her writing is objective, but her characters speak for themselves. Although the idiom is local, the message is universal. Brooks uses ordinary speech, only words that will strengthen, and richness of sound to create effective poetry.

The poem The Bean Eaters (see the included poems) is a fine example of all three of these key elements. First and foremost is the use of ordinary speech. For instance the lines They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair / Dinner is a casual affair. Each of these words are easily understandable. Though plain speech, each word is used more differently and more intensely than in ordinary discourse. Old yellow pair resounds with more meaning than old couple. “Yellow” implies faded or old; “Pair” is more compassionate than “couple”, suggesting more of a connection than just a matchup. Though easily readable, the first line sets a tone of tenderness. Dinner is a casual affair is also a unique statement. Though five plain words, each is used effectively to create an irony which is maintained for the rest of the stanza. “Dinner” and “affair” imply more formal situations, but yet are described as “casual.” This vague irony is further developed in the next two lines, Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood, / Tin flatware. Chipware is Brooks’s own term, which originates from flatware. “Dinnerware” implies wealth and elegance, while chipware implies aged dishes used by the poor. Yet, chipware also calls up the dignity of dinnerware. The “plain and creaking wood” or table reinforces a sense of poverty. Consistent with the preceding images, “Tin flatware” implies cheapness because of tin, but also refinement from “flatware.” Each word is used to add or reinforce meaning in the poem. No words are used unnecessarily.
The first stanza is laden with sonorous words that effectively convey the meaning of each phrase. The three round O sounds in the first line are a mouthful, and create an almost whispery quality that is reminiscent of the worn quality of the people. Dinner is a casual affair is a line with soft vowel sounds, which are easier to swallow than the long sounds of the first line. This coincides once again with the implications of the words. The first line paints almost a dreary picture, while the second adds an air of lightness. These vowel tones segue into a more caustic series of consonant combinations in the rest of the stanza. Tin flatware imitates the sound of the forks and spoons hitting the plain creaking wood’. The repetition of plain’ introduces a pattern of repetition that will appear throughout the poem. A relief from the biting consonant tones of the last two lines comes with an almost cooing first line of the second stanza.

The line Two who are Mostly Good allows the reader to dig for meaning. Brooks has encouraged young writers to allow for interpretation of their writing, and this is a perfect example of her own advice. The internal capitalization of Mostly Good is somewhat confusing. In a recording by the author the words are not emphasized. Rather, one can assume that the words are capitalized not for auditory emphasis, but for their important meaning. Brooks seems to be making the statement that no one is completely good, but does not necessarily add a negative connotation. A separation of the eventfulness of the past and the repetition of the present is shown by the lines Two who have lived their day / But keep on putting on their clothes / And putting things away. Twinklings and twinges remind the reader of youthful memories and stars, but also harsh memories. The use of alliteration ties the two opposites together, much as a person has the most vivid memories of the happiest and saddest times. The poem continues on in this fashion where each word is meaningful and the sound contributes to the effect of the poem.

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“The Bean Eaters” displays her use of ordinary speech, sound, and effective use of words quite well. But these elements are found in her other poems also. “We Real Cool,” possibly her best known poem also displays these characteristics, as does “Corners on the Curving Sky.” In “We Real Cool” the lines “We real cool. We / Left school,” are excellent examples of how the characters in the poem would speak in real life. “That means that you and I can hold / completely different / Points of view and both be right,” from “Corners on the Curving Sky” makes a definite statement without using florid speech. “We / Lurk late. We / Strike Straight,” in “We Real Cool” are crisp words that impart the almost punchy style of the seven characters’ speech. This use of sound is again seen in the lines “Your sky may burn with light, / While mine, at the same moment, / Spreads beautiful to darkness.” The description of the sky burning with light personifies the blazing of the sun; and the spreading of the darkness creates an even more powerful mental image. A careful inspection of each of these poems also reveals that no words are used that do not contribute to the meaning of the poem. “We Real Cool” acquires a powerful meaning through the employment of only thirty-two words. “Corners on the curving sky also is quite brief, but still very powerful, and it only contains fourteen lines.

It is important to not that the direction of Brooks’s literary career shifted dramatically in the late 1960’s. While attending a black writers’ conference she was struck by the passion of the young poets. Before this happened, she had regarded herself as essentially a universalist, who happened to be black. After the conference, she shifted from writing about her poems about black people and life to writing for the black population.

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