For many years, despite her early involvement with the NAACP, Brooks wrote a formal poetry; during the 1960s, however, influenced by the militancy of her old friend Langston Hughes and by the aggressive posture of the young Blacks, such as Amiri Baraka, she found she could no longer afford to appear as though she remained on the sidelines. She therefore began to write a more militant kind of poem. In the lead essay of A Life Distilled edited by Gary Smith and herself, Maria K. Mootry, in her essay titled "'Down the Whirlwind of Good Rage': An Introduction to Gwendolyn Brooks," said that "at the nexus of Brooks's art lies a fundamental commitment to both the modernist aesthetics of art and the common ideal of social justice." (1)
Brooks was born in 1917 in Topeka, Kansas, and educated at Wilson Junior College in Chicago, from which she was graduated in 1936. She married three years later and became the mother of two. During the Depression she worked as publicist for the NAACP Youth Council in Chicago, and subsequently she taught at various institutions of higher education in and around that city including Northeastern Illinois State College, Columbia College, and Elmhurst College.
"Nowhere is this dual commitment more apparent," Mootry continued, "than in the multiplicity of voices in her works. If the reader finds echoes of T.S. Eliot and Countee Cullen in her poetry, there are also equally strong folk vernacular voices punctuating her forty-year literary career. Her three early works, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), Annie Allen (1949), and The Bean Eaters (1960), present a wide range of poetic forms, including blues poems, ballads, experimental free verse, quatrains, Petrarchan sonnets and Chaucerian stanzas. Her subsequent publications, In the Mecca (1968), Riot (1969), Family Pictures (1971), Beckonings (1975), and To Disembark (1981), are written primarily in free verse and show her increasing concern with social issues, yet the variety of speakers continues."
Brooks' Selected Poems was published in 1963. In the "Foreword" to New Negro Poets U.S.A., edited by Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, "At the present time, poets who happen also to be Negroes are twice-tried. They have to write poetry, and they have to remember that they are Negroes. Often they wish that they could solve the Negro question once and for all, and go on from such success to the composition of textured sonnets or buoyant villanelles without the transience of a raindrop, or the gold-stuff of the sun. They are likely to find significances in those subjects not instantly obvious to their fairer fellows.
“The raindrop may seem to them to represent racial tears — and those might seem, indeed, other than transient. The golden sun might remind them that they are burning." (13)
One of Brooks' simplest and most-anthologized poems exemplifies both her innovative approach to traditional verse forms and her social commitment:
WE REAL COOL
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel
"We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
First, on the typographical level, it is clear that this is a poem written in couplet stanzas. The second immediately noticeable point is that it is a parallel series, for each line except the last ends with the word "we." Next, the eye is caught by the fact that immediately preceding the last word of each line, except the final one, there is a period — the series is made up of short independent clauses, a set of assertions.
When we read the poem, though, we wonder at first, perhaps, why we ends the lines; it ought to appear at the head of each line, for it is the subject of the parallel clauses: "We real cool. We left school. We lurk late. We strike straight. We sing sin. We thin gin. We jazz June. We die soon." But when we read it in its "correct" parallel arrangement we realize why Brooks wrote it otherwise: it is not syncopated. Read normally," another thing happens to its rhythms: Some of the strong stresses are demoted. Written as Brooks has written them, each line except the first and last consists of three strong stresses. The prosody is accentual verse. Line one has four beats, the last has two.
The rhymes of the poem from lines two through seven thus appear medially — they run right down the center of the poem. All the verbs — the strongest words — from line two on, are pushed to first place; they are drum beats. The rhyming words are also drum beats sprung by their sounds, and each is followed by a full stop, a rest. Then another drum stroke, we: ¢ ¢  ¢, and the line is enjambed into the next stress. The poem is jazz; it is a dirge played in the streets, like those of the black bands that march in slow time through New Orleans alleys to the graveyard. The dirge begins slowly with four beats, and it ends abruptly with two. The entire little poem is an exercise in linguistic counterpoint.
The level of diction of the poem is idiomatic, the tropes mainly rhetorical — it is heavy with macho braggadocio. And it ends with the assertion of a truth that brings the reader up short with a jolt. The major genre of the poem is, plainly, the lyric, but it is also almost equally a didactic poem with a clear social message.
Brooks' second book, Annie Allen, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. "Then, as now," Bernard W. Bell wrote in the introduction to his anthology Modern and Contemporary Afro-American Poetry, "Miss Brooks' race consciousness was low-keyed, yet keenly felt in every line. And her lyrics pulsate with the joys and sorrows of life. (9-10)
"Stylistically, Annie Allen is a masterpiece. Tracing the path of a black child's movement from innocence to experience, Miss Brooks skillfully employs adaptations of many of the major metrical patterns and stanzaic forms in the English tradition, from couplets and blank verse to sonnet sequences and free verse. In this and subsequent volumes, she maintains a remarkable balance between being a poet's poet and a poet of the people."
Writing in Women Poets of the World, edited by Joanna Bankier and Deirdre Lashgari, Barbara Christian, in her essay titled "Cultural Influences: African American" said, "Gwendolyn Brooks wrote much of her poetry during the 1940s and 1950s when Blacks were striving to achieve integration into the American social structure. By the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement gave way to the Black Power movement. Brooks' later work, published in the late 1960s and early 1970s, reflects that shift. The dominant literary movement of that period, Cultural Nationalism, focused on the development of Black selfhood and nationhood. There was a renewed interest in African and Afro-American history and culture. Poets saw themselves as revolutionaries in the service of their people” (337-8). Gwendolyn Brooks died in 2007 as one of America’s most highly respected literary figures.
From Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry, by Lewis Putnam Turco, Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, www.tamupress.com, 2012, 336 pp., ISBN 978-1-936205-30-1, paperback. Copyright © and all rights reserved 2012 by Lewis Turco, may not be reprinted in any way anywhere without the written consent of the author.