Recap: Brooks

December 5, 2010

Gwendolyn Brooks has famously said “I’m interested in telling my particular truth the way I have seen it.” I think she has masterfully reflected the “truth” of the lives of poor urban African Americans, and in doing so, frequently incorporated thematic elements of racial and ethnic identity that reverberate throughout her poetry.

My favorite Brooks poem is “The Bean Eaters.” I think this poem’s greatest strength lies in it’s rhythm, especially in the first stanza. The first and third lines of the first stanza each have ten syllables, while the second and fourth lines are notably shorter. I almost see it as a call and response type of rhythmic quality, similar to that of Jazz. The first two lines are “They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair./Dinner is a casual affair.”  The shorter response suggests, thematically, the couples’ meager and “lowly” social status. The abruptness of the line further reinforces this notion, and we see it again in the next two lines: “Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,/ Tin flatware.” The abruptness of the 4th line–which is the response to the third line’s description–again fortifies the idea of the couples’ low social status, and the adjectives “plain, creaking,” and “tin” serve as a concise and resonant characterization of the couple as modest and perhaps even frugal people.

In some of Brook’s other poems, and especially in the Anniad, we see her use color imagery (like “caramel, chocolate,” and “tan”) to categorize different skin colors and races. I wonder if the adjective “yellow” means that the couple is Asian? I’m sure how I want to read into that word choice there. Another strength of Brook’s is her emphasis on words at the beginning of her lines–through the use of repetition and spondee. The first two lines of the second stanza each begin with the words “Two who.” I definitely think both of these syllables should be stressed, and thus,  I read them as spondees, which emphasizes the connection between the two, and lessens any difference between them, as if they have grown into nearly one person through their experience of being elderly, urban, and poor. And as with many of Brooks’ poems, she uses controlled imagery to present the reader with physical objects that perhaps carry emotional weight and represent the memories of the old couple: they “lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full/of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco/crumbs, vases and fringes.” Structurally, it is interesting to note that these lines are much longer, and more fluid than the previous lines in the first two stanzas. Maybe brooks does this because these things exist in the memories of the old couple–maybe their current reality is harsh and stark (hence the short succinct lines earlier) but now that they’re going back and looking through all these old objects, their reality becomes more fluid and less contained in that precise moment. Maybe the flowing quality of the lines parallels their consciousness flowing back through memories. I think Brooks is truly a master of her craft and she comes through as easily one of the most important American contemporary poets; I’m glad we got to study her work.

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