Perhaps Our Greatest Living Poet

May 04, 1994|By DIANE SCHARPER

Soon after Gwendolyn Brooks won the 1943 Midwestern Conference Poetry Award, Harper and Brothers accepted an unsolicited manuscript of her poems.

The editors suggested, however, that the collection be expanded, particularly to include a long poem that would exhibit more of the personal feeling of the author. ''Take your time,'' they said.

''But I would not take my time,'' Ms. Brooks remembers. ''They might forget me in the suggested two years -- in a year. I folded myself into my kitchenette. I refused all parties. I gave up movies (always our main entertainment.) I wrote, wrote. I wrote 11 off-rhyme sonnets . . . and I wrote 'The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith.' Then I went heart-beating fast to the post office.''

''A Street in Bronzeful,'' the resulting book, was published August 15, 1945. Ms. Brooks would go on to publish 15 more books -- mostly poetry, for which she received numerous awards including 50 or more honorary degrees from universities and colleges and the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She was the first African-American to be so honored.

Now, at 77, Gwendolyn Brooks, perhaps our greatest living poet, has been chosen by the National Endowment for the Humanities to deliver the 1994 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. She will speak today in Washington and next week in Chicago. This is the highest honor the federal government bestows for intellectual achievement in the humanities. It was given because she has brought the experiences of black Americans into our national consciousness and transformed them into art.

Ms. Brooks began writing poems -- ''putting rhymes together'' -- when she was 7. At 11, she began keeping her poems in composition books, her mother telling her that she would become the female Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Believing her mother, Ms. Brooks kept on writing, sometimes turning out two or three poems in one day, ''all very, very, very bad,'' she said.

Having few friends (she thought it was because she had a dark complexion and nappy hair), she ''slumped through the halls, quiet, hugging books,'' immersing herself in reading and writing. The color bar, she explained, was very high. ''A dark-skinned girl just didn't have a chance.'' Ms. Brooks put much of what she experienced into writing. Her novel, ''Maud Martha,'' contains a scene where a boy wants to put a light-skinned girl into his wagon but not a darker girl. When she says something, he says, ''shut up, you old black girl.''

Many similar scenes appear in Ms. Brooks' poems.

Reading them is like looking through a scrapbook showing various black characters who, like the hunchback girl thinking of heaven as a straight place, say more than they mean to say. A poem about love and war puts it this way: ''We want nights of vague adventure, lips lax wet and warm, Bees in the stomach, sweat across the brow. Now.''

Often as the characters talk, the stories of their lives emerge. Speaking of her aborted children as ''damp small pulps with little no hair,'' a mother describes the lives they might have led, ending the poem with a declaration of love: ''Believe me, I knew you though faintly, and I loved, I loved you all.''

Love is one of the major themes in Ms. Brooks' work. It can be romantic love: ''You are the beautiful half of a golden hurt.''

It can be man's love for art: ''Art urges voyages -- and it's easier to stay at home, the nice beer ready.''

It can be man's love for God: ''Out from Thy shadows, from Thy pleasant meadows, Quickly, in undiluted light . . . Step forth.''

Most of Ms. Brooks' characters are poor, but the poems do not describe material poverty. They describe spiritual richness that exists despite such poverty. A woman cooking dinner looks at the squirrel in her yard, envying its ''silver skill . . . thinking it a mountain and a star, unbaffleable; with sentient twitch and scurry.''

Satin-Legs Smith, the hero of a long narrative poem, bathes thinking, ''Life must be aromatic. There must be scent, somehow there must be some . . .'' Another poem says, ''There is silver under the veils of the darkness. But few care to dig in the night. . At their best, these poems suggest the imaginative and aesthetic powers of all people, ultimately of life itself.

The poems in ''Annie Allen,'' the book which won the Pulitzer Prize, brims with such poems, moving from Annie's birth (''Weeps out of western country something new'') to her maturity (''We are lost, must wizard a track through our own screaming weed'').

Writing to another poet, Ms. Brooks advised, ''Dare to be raw sometimes, Poet! Dare to extend, with something more of clangor. Dare -- sometimes -- to concern yourself with seeable, feelable, hearable people.'' Gwendolyn Brooks has dared.

Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of ''The Laughing Ladies,'' a collection of poetry.

hunchback girl: she thinks of heaven

My Father, it is surely a blue place

And straight. Right. Regular. Where I shall find

No need for scholarly nonchalance or looks

A little to the left or guards upon the

Heart to halt love that runs without crookedness

Along its crooked corridors. My Father,

It is a planned place surely. Out of coils,

Unscrewed, released, no more to be marvelous,

I shall walk straightly through most proper halls

Proper myself, princess of properness.

you, the sonnet-ballad

Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?

They took my lover's tallness off to war,

Left me lamenting. Now I cannot guess

What I can use an empty heart-cup for.

He won't be coming back here any more.

Some day the war will end, but, oh, I knew

When he went walking grandly out that door

That my sweet love would have to be untrue.

Would have to be untrue. Would have to court

Coquettish death, whose impudent and strange

Possessive arms and beauty (of a sort)

Can make a hard men hesitate -- and change.

And he will be the one to stammer, ''Yes.''

Oh, mother, mother, where is happiness?

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