Gwendolyn is further developed in the next two
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.
“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.