by J. Hope Stein
My used copy of Blacks by Gwendolyn Brooks came in the mail and to my surprise it was signed by her – January 17, 2000. It says – “May the New Century SING to you.” She did all the caps just like that.
I finished the book on an empty beach. At one point a man walking on the promenade above me leaned over the railing and said – “are you studying?” I was. I was studying the way Brooks titles her pieces. The man leaned over the railing again and said, “nice classroom.”
Anyway, I wrote some radical Maud Martha-inspired titles for a piece I have that went 2 years without titles. So, Gwendolyn Brooks is officially a crush.
In an interview Brooks did with Studs Turkel in 1961, where he treats her like a delicate flower, she said something similar to what I heard Louise Gluck once say in an interview, where she was also treated like a delicate flower by Grace Cavalieri. Of The Wild Iris, she said – “The Wild Iris was a book suffused with awe, and is deeply lyrical. It was very clear to me afterward I could not do anything more of that kind. I don’t think that that’s how you grow as an artist…I seem to have two methods of writing. One is the craftsperson method, which now seems, because I haven’t done it a while, very dear to me, in which the words are labored over; and a sense of agency is created by that process. You actually have a sense of yourself as making the poem. When you write very rapidly, when I write very rapidly, I lose that sense that the poem is mine. I can’t think where it came from. But it’s usually done quite quickly, and altered very little.”
Brooks says this about Annie Allen which won her the Pulitzer Prize– “I was very much impressed with effectiveness of technique, and I wanted to write poetry that was honed to the last degree it could be…I no longer feel that is the proper attitude to have when you sit down to write poetry.” She says she prefers A Street in Bronzville. “I was just interested in putting people down on paper and, although it is rougher than Annie Allen, I feel that there is more humanity in it.”
Interesting that 2 such gifted lyricists came to think that way. I think there is something in both approaches and one must do what one can to evolve and stay in love with process. But I like this one from Annie Allen. It doesn’t feel labored over to me. Just playful.
High up he hoisted me, and cruel rock
Was lovely for a love seat. Then our talk
Came, making sweet-mouth waves ridiculous,
Who could not hope to honey it with us.
High up he hoisted me, after the year.
And rock was silly business for a chair.
We tried to make the waves ridiculous.
But sweet-mouth waves got very square with us.