Gwendolyn Brooks Sonnet Sequences Essay

Download Gwendolyn Brooks Sonnet Sequences Essay

Post on 10-Apr-2015




4 download

Embed Size (px)


English 487W Final.An essay about the sonnet sequences of Gwendolyn Brooks from my Senior Seminar.


<p>Eric Mustin English 487W Professor Harrington April 29, 2010 Giving Two Figs: The Sonnet and The Black Arts Gwendolyn Brooks is a matron of African American Poetry. Born in 1917, she lived through both World Wars, the passage of the nineteenth amendment, and the civil rights movement. She even lived into the new millennium, passing away in December 2000. Her poetry is a voice for the American minority. She speaks for the economic, social, and racial injustices that plague twentieth century American history. Her voice, however, does not exist in isolation. Although her work can be read and enjoyed on its own, there is a chorus of contemporaries that accompany her writing with their own perspectives on American injustice and inequality. To understand her merits, one must compare her poetry to fellow African American poets. Brooks is typically lumped within the Black Arts Movement. (Thomas 217) This literary movement, typified by LeroiJones(aka Amiri Baraka) poem Black Art, works against literary and social convention present in the 1960s. Poems are bullshit unless they are Teeth or trees or lemons piled on a step. Or black ladies dying of men leaving nickel heart beating them down. Fuck poems (1-5) Exemplified in Barakas work, it is a movement that worked against racism. In order to perform this task, the Black Arts Movement propose[d] a radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic(Neal 29).Brooks did not. While her poetry defied stereotypes, it did not defy convention. Unlike the majority of African American poets publishing in the second half of the twentieth century, Brooks embraces musicality and romanticism, relying on these classical poetic structures rather than rejecting theirold-</p> <p>fashioned value. Although Brooks did show stylistic influence from the Black Arts movement in her later work, her early work still addresses racial injustice without rejecting form. In her Sonnet Sequences The Children of the Poor and Gay Chaps at the Bar, as well as in her later sonnet references, Gwendolyn Brooks criticizes the social construction of race with the same vigor and clarity as Black Arts poets in the decades that followed. Brooks published her first major work, A Street In Bronzeville, in 1945. These poems are written from different voices, and each voice constructs race and identity differently in the aftermath of World War Two. However, though unique, each voice shares a common trait. They are influenced by how others view them in American society, the assumptions other Americans make about them.These voices are not just relying on the fact of color to draw sympathy and interest(Gery 45), as evident in the last sonnet of the sequence the progress. In it, the voice represents war veterans, not just African Americans, although the two groups are not mutually exclusive.The veterans return to the United States and Still we wear our uniforms(1) and Salute the flag, thrill heavily, rejoice/ For death of men who too saluted, sang(7-8). Internally, however, they are worried whether they can come to terms with their wartime experiences and smile, congratulate: and how/ Settle in chairs?(12-13)But fellow Americans view them as war heroes, and they feel obliged to maintain an outward faade of patriotism. This outward faade continues to be apparent, and is explicitly racial, in the eponymous sonnet of the sequence, gay chaps at the bar. Once again, Brooks takes on the voice of soldiers, but this voice is concerned less with patriotism and more with How to make a look an omen(9), knowing white speech(9), how to order(1) at a white</p> <p>bar, and when to persist(8) with courting women. And just like the soldiers in the progress, who have conflicted inner feelings, these gay chaps at the bar are also unsure of how to be islands(10) in a sea of barroom patrons. Both groups of soldiers have trouble balancing inner African American identity with outward assimilation. The idea of outward appearance is expressed again in still do I keep my look, my identity, the second sonnet of the sequence. Though it is written in the third person, and does not touch on race or patriotism, its opening stanza maintains the construction of identity that Brooks establishes in the first sonnet. Each body has its art, its precious prescribed Pose. That even in passions droll contortions, waltzes, Or push of pain or when a grief has stabbed, Or hatred hacked is its, and nothing elses. (1-4) The look(13)that someone gives off to others is what makes them who they are, the same way an army uniform or a drink order determines their identity. Expressed by Brooks in 1945 throughPetrarchan sonnets, it is an idea revisited by Don L. Lee(akaHakiMadhubuti) in his 1963 free verse poem, The Self Hatred of Don L. Lee: I/ Began/ To love/ Only a/ Part of/Me-/My inner/Self which/Is all/Black/&amp;/developed a/vehement/hatred of/my light/brown/outer. (24-40) Madhubuti feels conflicts between the negative connotations of being a light skinned African American, and his inner feelings of wanting to empower African Americans. This poem, radically structured, offers the same presentation of racial identity.[that] have less to do with audience than with voice(Gery 44) that Brooks does in her formal structure. Even though Madhubuti rejects rhyme and Brooks depends on it, and Brooks chooses line breaks based on form while Madhubuti breaks lines based</p> <p>on effect, Brooks believes that in 1945 I was saying what many of the young folks said in the sixties(Tate 42). Both authors feel that race is an inner identity that conflicts with their outer identitys place. Morrisons next publication, Annie Allen, shows more maturity and political focus than her earlier poems. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, it takes on the voice of the title character, and traces her journey through an idealistic childhood to a failed marriage, and finally, a realistic outlook to the future for her children. It is in this last portion that Morrison returns to the sonnet form, this time with less concern for form and more concern for content. Whereas in her earlier sonnets she tried tocope with race through personas and internalization, in the sonnets The children of the poor she takes a more proactive stance, and addresses the black community as a kind of female preacher, a role that would have been denied to her in the more traditional structure of the black church.(Wheeler 231) In the fourth sonnet of the sequence she implores her audience to fight against assimilation and to findtheir own space in America. But first to arms, to armor.Carry hate In front of you and harmony behind. Be deaf to music and to beauty blind. (9-11) In order to civilize a space(13) where the African American community can feel unprosecuted and be allowed to play your violin with grace(14), Brooks believes they must first become more determined. Brooks is making this call to arms out of experience, and in the hope that future generations wont have to share the same experience as her. This hope for a new African American space in American society is apparent in the final stanza of the final sonnet in the sequence. Not that success, for him, is sure, infallible. But he never has been afraid to reach.</p> <p>His lesions are legion. But reaching is his rule.(15-18) Brooks believes that the younger generation of African American society will empower themselves more than her generation because he has never been afraid(10) of the stereotypes and limitations imposed by racism. Although, as mentioned in the second sonnet in the sequence, the children of the poor are contraband(6) lepers(3) that are adjudged the leastwise of the land(2), through action they can gain power. Even though her rhetoric, nor grief nor love, shall be enough alone(12) to gain that power, because they are young they still have potential. Unlike her earlier poems which were largely about internal struggle, these poems acknowledg[e] the public role poetry can exercise, the multiplicity of potential readers, the world context and not only the intimate indoor spaces in which poetry is often composed and read(Wheeler 231). Although she is using the sonnet form, typically a cathartic device that bemoans unrequited love, she is reconfiguring it as a tool for civil rights activism. The empowerment that Brooks began to conceptualize at the beginning of the fifties, many poets of the Black Arts movement later vocalized in their work. Like Brooks, Black Arts poet Sonia Sanchez makes a similar call to action that traces the experience of previous generations as precursors to the potential of African American youth, in her 1984 poem Reflections After the June 12th March for Disarmament: I have come to say that those years were not in vain, the ghosts of our ancestors searching this American dust for rest were not in vain, black women walking their lives in clots were not in vain, the years walked sideways in a forsaken land were not in vain; (23-30)</p> <p>Although Sanchez post-dates the Black Arts movement by nearly a decade with this poem, she was nonetheless an integral part of the movement at the time. Sanchez relies on anaphora in her poem, but uses it to improve her message, much like Brooks uses the sonnet to improve her message to the children of the poor. Sanchez also reflects Brooks belief that the poet should write out of his own milieu(Stavros 14). Although her poetry is more wide-ranging than Brooks, touching on subjects from the b.t. washington years(15) to the neo-conservative years(22), she also is speaking from a more progressive decade that used these references colloquially. Regardless of time period, at the heart of their poetry both authors take a maternal rhetorical position(Wheeler 229) to empower their audience. By the late 1960s, Gwendolyn Brooks had almost entirely transformed herself from a lyric poet to a preacher. Poetry that was once light hearted and lyric became increasingly socially conscious within the explicit context of race riots(Wheeler 227). Her 1968 publication, In the Mecca, focused on economic problems in Chicagos housing projects. Still, within this unromantic context Brooks maintains a connection to the sonnets form of her earlier writing. In The Second Sermon On The Warpland she references the pet bird of poets, that sweetest sonnets(8) which cannot straddle the whirlwind(9) that is the chaotic world of 1968(Wheeler 232). This shows Brooks changing belief in her role as a poet. By rejecting the sonnet form, she is also rejecting African American writers who, Brooks claims, twist their language and put in a few bigsounding words here and there, and try to obscure their meaning, thinking this will make the white literary establishment love them.(Black Women Writers 45)</p> <p>This belief that the sonnet can accomplish little is furthered in The Third Sermon On The Warpland, published in 1981 in the collection To Disembark. Speaking on behalf of The Black Philosopher(4) she had not only rejects the sonnet as a pet of poets, but also as a tool in the keep of the keeper/ in a labeled cabinet/ on the second shelf by the cookies,/ the sonatas, the arabesques(5-8).She believes that the sonnet is nothing more than a snack or a fanciful pattern, lacking the depth necessary to be useful to the African American community. This changing belief in an oppressor of the African American community is reflected through Amiri Barakas changing beliefs. Like Brooks in the 1960s, Baraka also wrote poetry as a form of African American empowerment. However, just as Brooks tone changed in The Second Sermon On The Warpland due to race riots, Baraka also adopted a different tone due to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 in his poem, Somebody Blew Up America. Who own the oil Who want more oil Who told you what you think that later you find out a lie Who/ Who/ ??? Who fount Bin Laden, maybe they Satan Who pay the CIA, Who knew the bomb was gonna blow Who know why the terrorists Learned to fly in Florida, San Diego (134-142) Although Baraka faced criticism for his reactionary and factually incorrect take on 9/11, he ascribes to the same anti-establishment beliefs that Brooks adopted in her later poetry. Whereas Brooks used lyric poetry to convey her ideas, Baraka takes a more accusatory, less poetic tone in his work. Both poets, however, espouse a dislike for white literary establishment and try to work against it in their poetry.</p> <p>Brooks, like any good artist, evolved throughout her career. Its hard to concretely define her as Black Arts Movement poet, even though parallels exist, because her style and content change in each work. However, a constant in these works is a foundation in classical conventions. From the sonnet sequences of her early works to the critical sonnet references in her later ones, Gwendolyn Brooks draws upon a long history of literary forms to help convey her themes. More importantly, she adds to that literary history. Although her legacy may lie in her more popular poems about Chicago youth, she will continue to exhibit influence over generations of poets who follow in her pursuit of equality.</p> <p>Works Cited Brooks, Gwendolyn. Blacks. Chicago, Ill. (P.O. Box 19355, Chicago, Ill. 60619): David, 1987. Print. Black Women Writers at Work. Ed. Claudia Tate. New York: Continuum, 1983, 39-48. Brooks, Gwendolyn, and George Stavros. "An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks." Contemporary Literature Winter 11.1 (1970): 1-20. Web. Gery, John. "Subversive Parody in the Early Poems of Gwendolyn Broo." South Central Review Spring 16.1 (1999): 44-56. Web. Harper, Michael S., and Anthony Walton.The Vintage Book of African American Poetry. New York: Vintage, 2000. Print. Neal, Larry. "The Black Arts Movement." The Drama Review: TDR Summer 12.4 (1968): 29-39. Web. Thomas, Lorenzo. Extraordinary measures Afrocentricmodernism and twentieth-century American poetry. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2000. Print. Wheeler, Lesley. "Heralding the Clear Obscure: Gwendolyn Brooks and Apostrophe." Callaloo Winter 24.1 (2001): 227-35. Web.</p>