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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Number 146: Gwendolyn Brooks "The Crazy Woman"

The Crazy Woman

I shall not sing a May song.
A May song should be gay.
I'll wait until November
And sing a song of gray.

I'll wait until November
That is the time for me.
I'll go out in the frosty dark
And sing most terribly.

And all the little people
Will stare at me and say,
"That is the Crazy Woman
Who would not sing in May."

-- Gwendolyn Brooks

Hap Notes: Everybody knows Gwendolyn Brooks' (1917-200) poem "We Real Cool." I think. It's been printed on ad cards in city buses for at least 30 years, is used as an example of colloquial language use in poetry in grades 2-12 and has been set to a variety of music and been highly lauded. It has had hard use all these years and still stands fresh and crisp. But Brooks wrote a lot of poetry, some, in her early career is more formal; some, in her later career more loosely structured; but all with Brooks' sharp eye towards human behavior. She had an eagle's eye and a kind heart.

She was born in Topeka, Kansas but her family moved to Chicago when she was only six weeks old and her work is Chicago flavored stuff. You know what Chicago tastes like, right? It's that heady mixture of hotdogs, dirty snow, violets, grime, spaghetti sauce, cabbage, burnt toast, cotton candy, coffee with cream, french fries, baseball glove leather, street salt, MD 20/20, popcorn, cigar smoke, Frango Mints, luke-warm beer, gravel, grilled hamburgers, sauerkraut, roses, bacon and eggs, wet tire rubber, cheddar cheese, old wood and prune kolaches, all eaten with a fork that has the metallic tang of well-used silverware. Kinda. (I might be leaving some flavors out but that's the first taste that comes to me when I think of the place. I'm an Illinois girl, too.) Brooks' work is inextricable from Chicago and she lived a great deal of her life there.

I think many people who attended college (especially in the Midwest) during the 70s and 80s saw Brooks read. She was a tireless reader of her work. I saw her twice. The first time I was in the back of a large auditorium, the second time was in a smaller college venue and I met her but, as with all people I meet whom I admire, I was tongue-tied. (At least I had the presence of mind not to tell her that her corsage was on sideways and proceed to fix it. When I met Eugene McCarthy I blurted out that he needed to stand up straighter. I don't seem to be very gracious when faced with cultural icons. I'm a yokel that way.) I got to shake her hand, after juggling my load of books (I was always carrying a load of books which were not classroom textbooks in any way, shape or form) and she turned to the Dean of Liberal Arts standing next to her and said, as I passed, "Now, that girl is a READER." Not a particularly interesting brush with fame but there you have it.

Brooks was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize, she received numerous awards and grants and was given more than 75 honorary degrees from various colleges and universities. She was the Library of Congress Poetry Consultant (you know, Laureate) in 1985 and Poet Laureate of Illinois, too. She had to move medals and awards to get to the bathroom (as we used to say.)

I love today's poem- it's not as stirring as her story poems or as street savvy as her later ones but I've always identified with the crazy woman. This poem is Brooks in a sweet and salty playful mood. There are things that need to be said in a metaphoric November about people and life.

Her work took on a grittier tone and a looser structure as she aged. She's a joy to read and all her poetry, while accessible, will yield hidden depths. Have I mentioned yet how her work sometimes fizzes with anger, crackles with smarts and pops you a good one, right in the mouth? It often does.

Brooks' work, while a shining example of "Black" poetry, has the unenviable position of having to "stand" for everything that African-Americans are as poets or writers. I don't exactly know why we all do this to her but, Brooks is a poet, not a color and while it's understandable that she is either praised for her strong black identity or disdained for it not being strong enough, she is not a piece of cardboard or marble. She's a flesh and blood human who wrote fine poetry. I tire of those who want to shred her up for socio-political fodder. As John Berryman said it's "the stuff itself" that matters.

Here's a good Brooks quote- and, I think, one of the best descriptions of poetry: "Poetry is life distilled."

and another: "Look at what's happening in this world. Every day there's something exciting or disturbing to write about. With all that's going on, how could I stop?"

and another: "I felt that I had to write. Even if I had never been published, I knew that I would go on writing, enjoying it and experiencing the challenge."

You can find more Brooks here:

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