Gwendolyn Brooks

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Emily & I Are Absolutely Different In The Details Of Our Lives
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Thank you very much. I was just remarking on how strange, how interestingly strange it is that this podium faces the door when here are all you people. Oh dear. However, I’ll keep twisting around so as to include everybody.  It’s a real pleasure to be here in this otherwise very beautiful room and interestingly arranged room.

I was told, it says so right here somewhere, "Ms. Brooks will be participating in a program with other woman poets celebrating Emily Dickinson." And it certainly is my pride to be anywhere in the neighborhood of Adrienne Rich. I understand that possibly Audrey Lorde might be coming, Maxine Kumin has already been here. Is she here now? Well, I'm really proud to be included in such company.

And my mother's name was Keziah, Keziah. I always wished that she had named me Keziah instead of Gwendolyn, which is such a fancy-sounding name. I named my daughter Nora. N-O-R-A. Simple and clean and direct and easy and quick to say. Well, I'm going to be reading, I’ll tell you exactly what I’m going to be reading and I’m to stop by maybe 5 minutes to 8 (is it 5 minutes to 8, or 10 minutes to 8 that Adrienne Rich is going to come on?).  Alright.  I’m going to read one, two, three, four, five woman-oriented poems. Then I'm afraid I'm going to mention a boy.  And then seven boys.  And then all of us.  And then I'll be closing with a poem addressed to young people in general.

Well, the first woman-oriented poems I want to read, or at least it was written by a woman, although a woman of twelve, not myself, Aurelia Davidson, entered this poem in my Illinois Poet Laureate competition in Chicago, for everybody in Illinois. And I had to give this poem a prize because I felt it was such a clear note of warmth-oriented and honesty-oriented poetry. She called her poem "Trapped":

I am trapped,

because I am black

“Let me out,” I say.

But the white man say


I turn, I turn,

but who am I?

I walk, I walk

but who am I?

I am a little black girl


but will I get out?


I say.

I look, I learn, and I sing

and I dance and

out I come

from the past.

[end poem]

I would like to think that all of our little black women would subscribe to that and I told Aurelia, "Aurelia, I wish I had written that poem." So, I thought it was a good way to begin my little part of this session.

And I have my next offering called "Essential Black Women." And I was asked to write a little poetic introduction to a calendar celebrating black women and I wrote this to precede a poem I had already written called "To Black Women," which I’ll read right after this prosy part:

Look at these women. They are clean-willed, they are adventurous, they are warm of heart, and clear of spirit. They are reasonable. They are sane. They subscribe to the beauty and nurturing potential of black family, and by black family, I mean our entire range of categories. South Africa, the little babe just born in the South Bronx. These black women love us. They are not trying to wriggle out of our race. They do not decry nor revile new roads. They approve new roads of discovery, discovery founded on and referential to the nourishment of our past. And they understand that if we do not work with and warrant our black men, we are lost. These women know we cannot go into battle alone, no matter how muscular our weapons and our wit. They know we must review and respectfully remodel and extend our black men. These black women salute all that is rich and right and civil within us. And I salute them in my poem.

["To Black Women"]


where there is cold silence—

no hallelujahs, no hurrahs at all, no handshakes,

no neon red or blue, no smiling faces—


Prevail across the editors of the world;

who are obsessed, self-honeying and self-crowned

in the seduced arena.


It has been a

hard trudge, with fainting, bandaging and death.

There have been startling confrontations.

There have been tramplings. Tramplings

of monarchs and of other men.


But there remain large countries in your eyes.

Shrewd sun.

The civil balance.

The listening secrets.


And you create and train your flowers still.

[end poem]

Thinking about Emily Dickinson, as I made up my little list of poems to read, I said "you know, this is almost hopeless, because Emily and I are absolutely different in the details of our lives." And well, I think I would like to tell you how I met Emily. We had been having, for many years in our textbooks, of the various schools I went to, selections of Emily Dickinson's work, and I rarely cared for them. But when I was nineteen I went to the junior college library and found a collection of her work that had been discovered by that time. I was absolutely enchanted. And I began to really appreciate her way with common words and her way of putting common words together so they made new magic. But what would Emily have made out of the late sixties? In which I found such help, lots of mistakes and clumsinesses, but a lot of help, too. That help helped form what I am today. So, I just said, “well I will come there and I will offer them what I have to give. And if it is not a million, well, that's unfortunate or fortunate.”

 (Aside: If you don’t mind I’m going to take off this jacket because for some reason it’s quite warm up here.) 

Okay, let’s see what comes next. I decided to read "The Mother." People have been playing with this poem for decades. Because it was first published in '45, and some strange things have been said about it. And of course, after people have read it, or listened to it, they are positive—especially the critics, who wear crowns—they are positive that they know exactly how I feel on the subject, of this controversy, because I should tell you those of you who do not know this poem that the first word in it is "abortions." And it's called, it has been referred to so often, as "her abortion poem." I believe that, in here, there is a little catalog of the qualities of motherhood. And, of course, you're free to take anything else from it that you need to use. That's one of the richnesses of poetry, that we take from the poems we read what we need.

“The Mother”

Abortions will not let you forget.

You remember the children you got that you did not


The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,

The singers and workers that never handled the air.

You will never neglect or beat

them, or silence or buy with a sweet.

You will never wind up the sucking-thumb

or scuttle off ghosts that come.

You will never have them, controlling your luscious


return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.


I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my

dim killed children.

I have contracted. I have eased

My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.

I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized

Your luck

And your lives from your unfinished reach,

If I stole your births and your names,

Your straight baby tears and your games,

Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your mar-

riages, aches, and your deaths,

If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,

Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not de-


Though why should I whine,

Whine that the crime was other than mine?—

Since anyhow you are dead.

Or rather, or instead,

You were never made.

But that too, I am afraid,

Is faulty: what shall I say, how is the truth to be


You were born, you had body, you died,

It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.


Believe me, I loved you all.

Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I

                        Loved you


[end poem]

Now one of the passages that I particularly appreciate about this poem is this little catalogue of things that mothers do.  Most mothers love their children. Most mothers love their children. But, no matter how much you love your children you want to get away from them sometimes. You wanna go downtown have lunch with a friend look in at a store window.  Go to a disco. Have fun and be by yourself, essentially. But at a certain time in the experience you are almost bound, I think, to have an urgent interest in getting back to those children.  That’s why I said, “return for a snack of them with gobbling mother-eye.”

I’m not gonna read—are there some men here aren’t there? Are there some black men here? Any black me here? In your honor, black men, I'm not going to read, "Ballad of Pearl May Lee." Black men have really been getting a pounding of late. And there have been features on T.V. directed at their villainy, their lax, their losses, their lunacy. I just decided not to add to it tonight. I want to say I had a wonderful black father and I grew up on a street of wonderful black families where the fathers worked and then came home and had dinner. I hope this doesn't sound absolutely remarkable to you. But my father would come home and have dinner at about six o'clock, and we would sit down at the table—my brother, my mother, my father and I—and we would talk about what had happened during the day. My father had the sweetest smile and the warmest deep voice that I have ever heard. After dinner, he might recite poetry to us or we might group around (if you read the papers today, I know you're not going to believe this), group around my mother, who would play the piano while the rest of us sang. And she sang too in her lovely soprano voice. It was a very happy black household, a very rich, black family life that I came from and I'm happy to salute it.

I’m going to read now a poem, well a sonnet, in a series called "The Children of the Poor." Five sonnets in that series, but I'm just going to read the fourth one, the one that has resulted in many people considering me the “Ma Barker” of the late sixties. Anybody who knows anything about the late sixties in Chicago knows that is such a strange assumption. But this poem has frequently been called "militant." Militant. That is a word that covers a variety of virtues and villainies.

[“Children of the Poor”]

First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string

With feathery sorcery; muzzle the note

With hurting love; the music that they wrote

Bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing

Threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing

For the dear instrument to bear. Devote

The bow to silks and honey.  Be remote

A while from malice and from murdering.

But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate

In front of you and harmony behind.

Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.

Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late

For having first to civilize a space


Wherein to play your violin with grace.

[end poem]

Now that's my heroine, “Annie Allen,” thinking about her children and wondering what she can do to validate them, to send them out into the world enweaponed (of course that's a bad word to use, enweaponed). And, of course, she's probably going to do what my mother did: take her children to the Art Institute and see that they have piano lessons. My mother saw that I had piano lessons until I had passed the third year, and she could tell that not much was going to come of it, and she let me go. But still, there is that wonderment about how much any of this is doing to strengthen children. And I thought I would read a nice, happy, woman-oriented poem. All of these things seem to, well not all—"To Black Women" might have been an exception—but the others do seem to speak for not just the ‘woman’ but for the whole family unit, or in this case, for a couple. It's a familiar poem to those of you who have been listening to me read over the decades: "when you have forgotten Sunday, the love story." I guess there's still love in the world. Young people listening to me reading this poem start snickering, and they put their hands up too—not everybody, but some of them—"Listen to that old woman up there talking about love, romantic love. She knows that's all in the past." Well, I must have been involved with that magic entity at some time in my life or I wouldn't have a son, 45, and a daughter, 34:

["when you have forgotten Sunday, the love story”]

----And when you have forgotten the bright bedclothes

                        on a Wednesday and a Saturday,

And most especially when you have forgotten Sunday—

When you have forgotten Sunday halves in bed,

Or me sitting on the front-room radiator in the limping


Looking off down the long street

To nowhere,

Hugged by my plain old wrapper of no-expectation

And nothing-I-have-to-do and I’m-happy-why?

And if-Monday-never-had-to-come—

When you have forgotten that, I say,

And how you swore, if somebody beeped the bell,

And how my heart played hopscotch if the telephone


And how we finally went in to Sunday dinner,

that is to say, went across the front room floor to the

ink-spotted table in the southwest corner

To Sunday dinner, which was always chicken and


Or chicken and rice

And salad and rye bread and tea

And chocolate chip cookies—

I say, when you have forgotten that,

When you have forgotten my little presentiment

That the war would be over before they got to you;

And how we finally undressed and whipped out the

                        Light and flowed into bed,

And lay loose-limbed for a moment in the week-end

Bright bedclothes,

Then gently folded into each other—

When you have, I say, forgotten all that,

Then you may tell,

Then I may believe

You have forgotten me well.

[end poem]

Thank you very much.

I want to read you a poem called "The Near Johannesburg Boy." The titling of this poem is strategic. This boy can't live in Johannesburg. I decided to write this poem when I found myself hearing on T.V. that little black children in South Africa were meeting in the road and saying to each other, "Have you been detained yet?" And I thought that was truly appalling and it meant, I believe, that they are feeling now that being imprisoned is equivalent to playing ball or whatever games they have time for over there. So, I decided to empathize with one of those young blacks. And I was really rewarded, but I don't know how some of you poets feel about being rewarded. It's not necessary. You don't have to be rewarded for writing a poem, but I was very pleased in a kind of grim way when I read this poem at the James Madison University and a young fellow from South Africa said that his brother was imprisoned, waiting to be executed, and his father had been killed, and shortly after that, his mother had died, and he was quite tearful, as he said to me about the boy in this poem, "I am that boy."

[“The Near-Johannesburg Boy”]

My way is from woe to wonder.

A Black boy near Johannesburg, hot

In the Hot Time.


Those people

do not like Black among the colors.

They do not like our

calling our country ours.

They say our country is not ours.


Those people.

Visiting the world as I visit the world.

Those people.

Their bleach is puckered and cruel.

It is work to speak of my Father. My Father.

His body was whole til they stopped it.


With a short shot.

But, before that, physically tall and among us,

he died every day. Every moment.

My Father….

First was the crumpling.

No. First was the Fist-and-the-Fury.

Last was the crumpling. It is

a little used rag that is Under, it is not,

it is not my Father gone down.


About my Mother. My Mother

Was this loud laugher

below the sunshine, below the starlight at festival.

My mother is still this loud laugher!

Still moving straight in the Getting-It-Done (as she names


Oh a strong I is my Mother.

Except when it seems we are lax in our looking.


Well, enough of slump, enough of Old Story.

Like a clean spear of fire

I am moving. I am not still. I am ready

to be ready.

I shall flail


in the Hot Time.


Tonight I walk with

a hundred of playmates to where

the hurt Black of our skin is forbidden.

There, in the dark that is our dark, there,

a-pulse across earth that is our earth, there,

there exulting, there redeeming, there

                        Roaring Up

(oh my Father)

we shall forge with the Fist-and-the-Fury:

we shall flail; in the Hot Time:

we shall

we shall

[end poem]

There's no punctuation at the end. Thank you.

“We Real Cool”




We real cool. We

Left school. We


Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We


Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We


Jazz June. We

Die soon.

[end poem]

Oh, it's been banned here and there…

Somebody wrote to the library and asked that I find books with poems featuring handicapped people for a conference that was going to feature handicapped people. So, I decided I was going to try to write such a poem myself. I have a certain way of feeling about handicapped people. I feel that we're all handicapped to some degree in some dimension, so under the title I wrote "For handicapped all":

["For handicapped all"]

Everybody here

is infirm.

Everybody here is infirm.

Oh. Mend me. Mend me. Lord.


Today I

say to them

say to them

say to them, Lord:

look! I am beautiful, beautiful with

my wing that is wounded


my eye that is bonded

or my ear not funded

or my walk all a-wobble

I’m enough to be beautiful.


You are

beautiful too.

[end poem]

And I hope every last one of you believes that about yourself.

Thank you.  I'm going to read a poem called "To the Young Who Want to Die." I saw a tele-film about a year ago. I'm sure many of you saw it, too. It was much heralded, very nicely crafted. It was about a young couple in their late teens who loved each other, loved each other very much. Nobody understood. Their parents didn't understand, other elders didn't understand, so they decided to kill themselves so they could be together forever. And I hope I don't sound cruel, or cold, or mean. And I know that there are many varieties of reasons for this act. I'm not fitted to deal with this phenomenon. I'm not a psychiatrist. I felt, however, as I looked at that picture, "Such a waste." Their reasons didn't seem, really didn’t seem, to have any—any—quality at all. And I'd just like to say—this is preaching, of course—but I'd just like to say to young people who might be think about doing away with themselves, feeling that they're not important, that they have nothing to give, that they do have something to give, just stay here and smile. So I wrote out what I’m going to read, this poem, to you.  Ultimately, people are always saying, "Why don’t you just go ahead and read your poems? don't have to talk about them so much." But you see, you can do that for yourselves. You can get a book and read what I've written. But I feel you go to the trouble of inviting me out to be with you that you ought to get a little something extra. And I am only too happy to give it.

Well I wrote this out as a kind of song for the poem, perhaps, in addition to other things that I wanted to say about this subject, says “are you gonna die soon? Soon enough!” And I wrote here: 

Soon enough

You’ll begin to notice the rapid passing of time

Especially when you get married

And start a family

Certainly those little children are not the

Same two days in a row

About that time, I believe, many women become conscious

Of the fact that time really is moving

Suddenly, your little quick-trotting mother begins to wobble and wain

Suddenly your strong, strong father begins to gasp as he climbs a stair

Suddenly an aunt disappears

Even a cousin begins to wrinkle

And an uncle crumbles before your very eyes

One day you’re gray

Another day, you’re gone

That is the natural course of things

So what’s the hurry?

Stay here

And help the rest of us with

Some smiling

[end poem]

I was at a hotel recently and I sat down for room service and a young waiter came up and he, he looked rather tense and I said "Good morning!" And he said, "Oh, thank you, thank you!" Already life, early as it was in the morning, had already begun to deal with him and he was grateful for just a smile. So, that is something that we can all do to make life different and bearable.

“To the young who want to die”


Sit down. Inhale. Exhale.

The gun will wait. The lake will wait.

The tall gall in the small seductive vial

will wait will wait:

will wait a week: will wait through April.

You do not have to die this certain day.

Death will abide, will pamper your postponement.

I assure you death will wait. Death has

a lot of time. Death can

attend to you tomorrow. Or next week. Death is

just down the street; is most obliging neighbor;

can meet you any moment.


You need not die today.

Stay here--through pout or pain or peskiness.

Stay here. See what the news is going to be tomorrow.


Graves grow no green that you can ever use.

Remember, green's your color. You are Spring.

[end poem]

Now I'm going to close—thank you—I’m going to close with a children's poem, and it's suitably called "A Little Girl’s Poem." And I'm sure that Emily would have felt this way if she had lived in this most challenging time:

["A Little Girl’s Poem"]

Life is for me and is shining! Inside me I

feel stars and sun and bells and singing.

There are children in the world

all around me and beyond me—

here, and beyond the big waters;

here, and in countries peculiar to me but not peculiar to themselves.

I want the children to live and to laugh.

I want them to sit with their mothers and fathers and have happy cocoa together.

I do not want

fire screaming up to the sky.

I do not want

families killed in their doorways.

Life is for us, for the children.

Life is for mothers and fathers,

life is for the tall girls and boys

in the high school on Henderson Street, is for the people in African tents, the people in English cathedrals, the people in Indian courtyards;

the people in cottages all over the world.

Life is for us, and shining. We have a right to sing.

[end poem]

I feel we're all little girls and boys in that case.


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