Brooks and Illinois poetry
By MARCELLUS LEONARD
John E. Hallwas, ed. Studies in Illinois Poetry. Urbana: Stormline Press, 1989. Pp. 143. $7 (paper).
George E. Kent. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Pp. 287 with notes and index. $25 (cloth).
Studies in Illinois Poetry is a collection of five essays that traces the changing focus of Illinois poetry from the virginal prairie through the industrial giant of Chicago to the city's blighted minority enclaves. Compact and inexpensive, it makes an excellent companion volume for readers and teachers.
In "Illinois Poetry Before the Chicago Renaissance," Hallwas, professor of English at Western Illinois University, cites the contributions of William Cullen Bryant, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg as well as lesser knowns like one anonymous writer who signed his work only with an "H."
"Tradition and Innovation in Twentieth-Century Illinois Poetry," by Millikin University's Daniel Guillory, examines as influences the partitioned land and the idiomatic voice of Illinoisans. Carl Sandburg's and John Knoepfle's uses of listing (the parading of images) provide examples of the poet capturing the way language is spoken here.
Maria Mootry of Grinnell College describes the poem's appearance on the page as just as important to the poetry of the 1970s as its sound in "OBAC and the Black Chicago Poets: Towards a Black Visual Aesthetic." Punctuation and capialization were often abandoned by African-American writers of this decade, like Carolyn Rodgers and Haki L. Madhubuti (formerly Don L. Lee), who used such experiments in linguistics as one means of promoting social revolution.
"Transplanting Roots and Taking Off: Latino Poetry in Illinois" by Marc Zimmerman (University of Illinois at Chicago) explains the gradual migration of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans into Illinois as one reason Latino poetry has developed slowly here. Three publications are cited as important in this emerging tradition: The Rican: A Journal of Contemporary Puerto Rican Thought, first published in 1971; Revista Chicano-Riquena, which in 1977 brought out its special Chicago issue Nosotros: A Collection of Latino Poetry and Graphics from Chicago; and Abrazo. which appeared in 1979 and highlighted the writing of Chicago's Mexican poets. "Chicago Rican" David Hernandez and Mexican poet Carlos Cortez are discussed as exemplars.
Robert Bray's "The Regionalist Tradition in Midwestern Poetry: Minor Leagues or Minor Key?" explains that regional poetry "is not defined by any of the common characteristics of a region — geography, folkways, dialect, class, and ethnic lineage." He identifies "strong particulars" rather than generic surroundings as crucial and cites John Knoepfle's depiction of a child as the "bean blossom" of her parents' "happy needfulness" in Poems from the Sangamon (1985) as an example of this specificity. Bray argues that just as musicians compose from a closed set of notes and keys, poets similarly work with strong particulars that vary by region.
Complementing the broad overview of Studies in Illinois Poetry is George E. Kent's A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, a biography of the current state poet laureate. Kent's book, which discusses Brooks's first 65 years as a writer, offers a lesson in patient, disciplined writing by both the biographer and his subject.
Kent met Brooks in 1969 during a celebration honoring her and obtained permission to write her biography. He interviewed her relatives and read letters to and about her. In a readable style, he links her personal experiences and emotional attitudes to her development as a writer.
As a child at Forrestville Elementary School in Chicago, Brooks was excluded by her lighter-complected classmates because she was dark-skinned and had kinky hair. She responded by asserting her racial identity and writing poems that portrayed African Americans in an array of images. Although Brooks has been enthralled with African-American culture, particularly as manifested in its urban neighborhoods, her art remains universal.
Among her representative titles, A Street in Bronzeville (1945) comments on life in Chicago's historically "colored" neighborhoods. In the Mecca (1968) describes Brooks's early job as a messenger for a spiritual adviser who operated out of the Mecca, an apartment building on the near south side of Chicago. To Disembark (1981) calls for black solidarity.
Kent emphasizes Brooks's disciplined nature and credits her parents, David and Keziah Wims Brooks, with imparting this sense of discipline to her. Poetically, she emulated the masters while developing her own style. She sought the opinions of successful contemporaries like Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and Richard Wright, yet followed her own artistic impulses. She was proud of the Black Power poets from the Civil Rights era, such as Don L. Lee, and accepted their suggestion that she more closely focus her work on discrimination against African Americans. Having been rejected as a schoolgirl by some members of her race, her association with poets like Lee in the 1960s seemed to center her in the evolving black literary tradition.
Margaret Taylor Burroughs, who later founded the Du Sable Museum of African-American History in Chicago, befriended and inspired Brooks when they met as young girls trying to establish themselves as artists in the city. As Kent explains, Burroughs was with Brooks when Brooks first met Henry Blakely, who became her husband.
As a bonus, the biography's end notes and index provide references to four decades of African-American writers. Inspirational to admirers of Brooks's poetry, to fledgling writers and to scholars alike, Kent's book will satisfy those who seek a richer understanding of the life and work of Gwendolyn Brooks.
Marcellus Leonard, assistant professor of English at Sangamon State University, has taught African-American literature for community groups in Chicago and Normal. He and Brooks have appeared on the same program at poetry readings at Chicago State University and Illinois State University.
December 1990/Illinois Issues/35