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  • NYS Writers Institute

Poetry Friday: Gwendolyn Brooks

A look at the life and the words of Gwendolyn Brooks, one of America's most beloved poets, who once said "I'm just a writer who loves to write and will always write."

kitchenette building

by Gwendolyn Brooks

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,

Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong

Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes

Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes

And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,

Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,

Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,

Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!

Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,

We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

First published in Gwendolyn Brooks's collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945).

Gwendolyn Brooks in an undated photo: “I believe that we should all know each other, we human carriers of so many pleasurable differences. To not know is to doubt, to shrink from, sidestep or destroy.”

Few American poets have made as much history as Gwendolyn Brooks (1971-2000), whose birthday was celebrated on Tuesday with public readings and poems and tributes posted to social media.

A visiting poet at the NYS Writers Institute at the University at Albany in 1989, she was only 32 years old when she became the first Black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize. In 1976, she became the first African American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and served as U.S. Poet Laureate in 1985-86.

Brooks wrote largely of life in Black urban communities, drawing mainly from her own experience growing up in Chicago’s South Side. She got a start in the Chicago Defender (a prominent Black publication at the time) and published her first collection of poems in 1945 (A Street in Bronzeville). She would later publish a novel (Maud Martha), an autobiography, and many other volumes of poetry. When she wasn’t writing, Brooks spent much time teaching at schools, hospitals, and prisons. She also funded several prizes to support aspiring poets.

Brooks’ work centers on the mundanities of daily life, but the language she used was layered and complex. She was a master of craft—successful in both fixed and open form — and could develop fully flushed-out characters within a few short stanzas. She wrote about poverty, racism, and segregation, providing a portrait of Black culture when the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak. Yet she was able to do so using tangible people, rather than faraway principles. More than anything else, her work is rooted in the human experience.

-- By Rya Vallabhaneni

All outside information and poetry taken from:

Gwendolyn Brooks' books are available at The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza. and other independent local booksellers.


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