selected as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Her poetry covers a wide range of forms and styles - including free verse, dramatic monologues, lyrics, and objective presentations driven by a controlled but powerful rage. The poetry is always rooted in the concrete experience and the localities of the characters whose stories she tells. The culture in which the characters of her poetry live out their lives is by turns oppressive, dynamic, and dangerous. Within this culture, the mundane details of an individual life can be lifted by Brooks through accumulation of detail and sympathetic rendition to a poem that celebrates as it mourns.
Brooks attended high schools in Chicago that ranged from largely white, to all black, to integrated. She graduated from the city's Wilson Junior College (now Kennedy-King College) in 1936, and was encouraged early in her publishing career by James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. She published many of her early poems in the Chicago Defender, where she was an adjunct member of the staff, and later in Poetry. In 1938 Brooks married Henry Blakely and moved to Chicago's South Side.
Her first book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, was published in 1945 and was received with critical acclaim. In this book appeared such characteristic poems as "A Song in the Front Yard," where the speaker wants to break free from respectability and convention ("I want to peek at the back . . . / A girl gets sick of a rose"), and "Of De Witt Williams on His Way to Lincoln Cemetery," detailing the haunts and truncated life of "a / Plain black boy." These poems echo the narrative vein and novelistic style of a poet such as Edwin Arlington Robinson, or the Spoon River Anthology poems of Chicago poet Edgar Lee Masters. The characters are sympathetically treated even as their limitations are exposed. "The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith" is another often anthologized poem from this first book. From a different perspective, the dramatic monologue "The Mother" explores the emotions of the speaker towards the children she has aborted, aware of their presence through their absence, offering a love which can only reach out to their memory, for "Abortions will not let you forget."
Brooks's second book, Annie Allen (1949), won her the Pulitzer Prize, and was followed by a regular output of essays and reviews, the novel Maud Martha, as well as poetry volumes that continued to be well received: Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956), The Bean Eaters (1960), and We Real Cool (1966).
The poetry in these earlier volumes often protests against the injustice of the limited lives imposed upon her characters by poverty and segregation. "Gay Chaps at the Bar," from 1945, is a series of 12 sonnets based in part upon letters that Brooks received from black soldiers fighting in the Second World War in the segregated US army. "The Lovers of the Poor" (1960) recounts the patronizing distaste felt by "The Ladies from the Ladies' Better ment League" for the prospective recipients of their charity, as they look for "The worthy poor. The very very worthy / And beautiful poor. Perhaps just not too swarthy?" From 1961, "The Ballad of Rudolph Reed," tells the story of a black man and his family who, in search of better housing and a better life, move into a white neighborhood, resulting in a series of violent confrontations that lead to the man's death. The title poem from We Real Cool captures in its eight lines, its monosyllables, and its rhymes the inevitability of its speakers' self-destruction. The speakers' "we" is an assertion of communal strength which in its repetition reinforces the shared limitation, and in its absence in the final line, the shared doom.
These themes of protest and of social and racial oppression in Brooks's poetry up to 1967 intensified in her work following what she came to see as a defining moment in her career that occurred in that year. When attending the Second Fisk University Black Writers' Conference she was impressed with the activism of many of the participants, and particularly with the work of Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones). In her first volume of autobiography she recalled, "Until 1967 my own blackness did not confront me with a shrill spelling of itself." Following this conference Brooks began active community work with the Chicago wing of the Black Arts movement. She founded a poetry workshop for young black writers, and promoted the work of black writers to the wider community. She left her commercial publisher, Harper & Row following In the Mecca (1968), and began publishing with small minority-owned presses. In 1981, with Primer for Blacks, she began to publish her own work. Brooks's two volumes of autobiography appeared in 1972, Report from Part One, and 1996, Report from Part Two.
Later poems include "The Blackstone Rangers," a sequence based on the various members of a street gang from Chicago's black ghetto, and "The Boy Died in My Alley," in which the shooting death of a particular black boy echoes many similar deaths. The speaker's foresight of the doom of such lives is matched only by a frustrated sense of powerlessness. "To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals" celebrates those black women who "have not bought Blondine," who "never worshipped Marilyn Monroe," and who "say: Farrah's hair is hers." A sequence from 1981, "To the Diaspora," includes a section on Steve Biko, murdered by the South African police, and regrets the rote and passionless memorials that will inevitably ensue, the "organized nothings / . . . the weep-words." Such a characterization indicates as well as anything what the tough, unsentimental voices and stories in Brooks's own poetry sought to avoid.
Honors continued to come Brooks's way right up to her death, on December 3, 2000. In 1968 she was named Poet Laureate for the state of Illinois, following Carl Sandburg. From 1985 to 1986 she served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Adrienne Rich, writing the citation when Brooks was awarded the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1999 "for distinguished poetic achievement," praised both the technical range of her work and its variety, "from precise microcosmic narratives of the human condition to apocalyptic meditations." The poetry, she concluded, "holds up a mirror to the American experience entire, its dreams, self-delusions and nightmares."
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