Yes, I’m very late, and this time, I missed a special occasion: last Wednesday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gwendolyn Brooks. I had been taught Brooks’s poetry since elementary school, but it’s only just recently that I’ve really begun to appreciate her and her work. One of my favorites from her is 1945’s “kitchenette building”:
We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”
But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms
Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?
We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.
There are a lot of things poetry is expected to do. At one time, the primary goal of most poets was to remind people of their history and heritage, to ensure that these things were not forgotten. Today, many people consider poetry to be a voice for the voiceless, speaking out against the injustices in a society. At all times, though poets have been there to speak truth to certain fundamental human experiences, experiences that we all have regardless of our place in time or space. What I love about Gwendolyn Brooks is how she’s able to do all three at once.
For instance, in 1945, this poem would have borne witness to the deprivations suffered by poor blacks at the hands of their landlords in city centers such as Chicago, where Brooks spent most of her life. It gives us not only the sensory details of the place—the sights and smells of it—but also an idea of what it felt like to live in one of these overcrowded tenement buildings, of how it feels to be trapped in one.
And how does she create that feeling of entrapment? Start with the shape of the poem: there are two stanzas dedicated to life in the kitchenette building itself and two dedicated to the speaker’s “dream.” Those dream stanzas, though, are contained within a sort of pen made up by the other two. These two things–tenement life and the dream of better things–are equally a part of the speaker’s reality, but one, sadly, is boxed in by the other. The poem loops back around to where it began, leaving us missing the beauty that went in between.