A Street in Bronzeville by Gwendolyn Brooks (1945) — Two Reviews

A Street in Bronzeville by Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 2000) was just twenty-eight years old when her first book, A Street In Bronzeville, was published in 1945. Following are two original reviews from 1945 of A Street in Bronzeville, which are typical of the universal praise it received.

The title of this poetry collection, whose title was a reference to  Chicago’s South Side where the poet grew up, was very well reviewed and led to her winning a Guggenheim Fellowship. 

Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetic work included sonnets, ballads, and blues rhythm in free verse. She also created lengthy lyrical poems, some of which were book-length. Each poem is an exquisitely crafted portrait of fictionalized (but true-to-life) characters and landmarks of the community. 

From Bronzeville forward, Brooks’ poetry work revealed thoughtful, honest, and sometimes harsh reflections of urban African American life of the mid-twentieth century. Though her lens focused on Black America, many of the themes of her poetry were universal, hence its broad appeal, and the respect it earned.

Poetry was how Gwendolyn Brook made her unique, singular life. In 1968, she was named Poet Laureate for the state of Illinois, and from 1985 to 1986, she served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Later in her life, she taught at a number of prestigious colleges and universities.

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Gwendolyn Brooks at her desk

Learn more about Gwendolyn Brooks

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Chicago Can Take Pride in New, Young Voice in Poetry

From the original review of A Street in Bronzeville in the Chicago Tribune, August 26, 1945, review by Paul Engle: The publication of A Street in Bronzeville is an exceptional event in the literary life of Chicago, for it is the first book of a solidly Chicago person.

Miss Brooks attended Englewood High School and Wilson Junior College. I hope they know it and are proud. But it is also an event of national importance, for Miss Brooks is the first Negro poet to write wholly out of a deep and imaginative talent.

Here is the story of a day on the South Side; it has the marvelous title of “The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith,” itself a poem. In it, Miss Brooks shows that she has a vigorous mind and uses it cunningly with slow concentration of word.

There are many poems about people and they’re all accurately human, alert, and moving. Miss Brooks goes through Chicago with her eyes wide open, taking the reader right inside the reality observed. There are keen notes on our mortal frailty, such as the amorous gentleman who, seeing an attractive woman, “wonders as his stomach breaks up in to fire and lights …”

How long it will be
Before he can, with reasonably
slight risk of rebuke, put
his hand on her knee.

There are poems which bear the immediate sense of the personal life strongly lived out:

It was quite a time for loving.
It was midnight. It was May.
But in the crowding darkness
Not a word did they say.

There is the quick observation of the shame and sorrow behind performance, as in “Queen of the Blues”:

Mame was singing
At the Midnight club.
And the place was red
With blues.
She could shake her body
Across the floor.
For what did she have
To lose?

The longest piece in the book is a sequence of poems about the soldier, called “Gay Chaps at the Bar.” They are the most controlled, the most intense poems in the book.

And they can be read for what they are and not, as the publishers want us to believe, as Negro poems. For they should no more be called Negro poetry than the poems of Robert Frost should be called white poetry. They’re poems for all readers who want warmth and softness, a quick hand and slow voice.

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Gwendolyn Brooks

11 Iconic Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks
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Poignant Music

From the original review in the Hartford Courant, November 11, 1945: It’s an encouraging sign when any good poetry is published today, and even more encouraging when such poetry is by a gifted, unusual voice bespeaking Negro genius.

We have had the fine mastery and sense for the classic form of Countee Cullen, the poignant realism of Langston Hughes, and more recently, the powerful prose of Richard Wright. That the quality of rhythmic song is innate to the Black pen has been persistently demonstrated by the work of these and other writers.

Now comes Gwendolyn Brooks, displaying all the old, ready aptitude for idiomatic music, but with a great deal of depth, original thinking, and expression.

Here is a fearlessly eloquent poet who can handle any mood or meter equally well, any subject and form, and at the same time give us poetry of ideas, not merely cerebral, which goes far beyond the bitterness against the “the White Race.” The bitterness is there, but it’s not the exclusively motivating factor.

Gwendolyn Brooks writes good satirical sketches, comic verse, love poems, acid sketches of Negro life and manners, poetry of the tenderest emotion and compassion, and verses about the the war that stab the conscience.

In a good deal of her work she prefers the use of consonance to rhyme, and somehow this manner seems curiously fitted to her purpose.

Illustrative of the poet’s depth of perception and trenchant expression, is the following poem:

The White Troops Had Their Order But the Negroes Looked Like Men

They had supposed their formula was fixed.
They had obeyed instructions to devise
A type of cold, a type of hooded gaze.
But when the Negroes came they were perplexed.
These Negroes looked like men. Besides, it taxed
Time and the temper to remember those
Congenital iniquities that cause
Disfavor of the darkness. Such as boxed
Their feelings properly, complete to tags —
A box for dark men and a box for Other —
Would often find the contents had been scrambled.
Or even switched. Who really gave two figs?
Neither the earth nor heaven ever trembled.
And there was nothing startling in the weather.

[read an analysis of this poem, “Gwendolyn Brooks and Positive Integration”]

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