Today would have been Gwendolyn Brooks’ 100th birthday. To say that she is one of the most influential and important American poets of the 20th century is to state the obvious and still fail to give full credit due. The first African American woman to win the Pulitzer, her experiments with form and content revolutionized poetry. To mark the date of her birth, the Poetry Foundation has teamed with Eve Ewing and Nate Marshall, and Jamila Woods and Ayanna Woods (who did the music) for a charming short film to illustrate and illuminate the poet’s most popular work, “The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel” – better known as “We Real Cool.”
Brought to life by paper-cut puppets, the imagery in the short unfolds against and animates a recorded interview in which Ms. Brooks reveals the inspiration for the poem. The short also offers droll observation of the way an artist’s best-known work might become something of an albatross as it obscures everything else they’ve done in the popular imagination and collective memory bank.
In the article, “The Bard of Bronzeville,” Megan Behrent breaks down the poem and its relevance today:
A frequently anthologized poem, widely taught in high schools across the U.S., the deceptively simple poem is an apt example of Brooks’ genius, as her economy of language gives expression to a world of alienation and pain, of young men dying too soon.
As the poet Angela Jackson remarks in A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun, “The impact of the poem lies in its indictment of a society that has alienated these young Black men.”
While Brooks once noted that the “we” at the end of each line in the poem should be said softly to reflect the young men’s tentative sense of their own identity, the rousing recitation at the Art Institute is a testament to the passion that her work inspires and its resonance in the era of #BlackLivesMatter.
As a poet, Brooks’ poetry gave voice to the poor, the exploited and the oppressed–making art of the daily tragedies wrought by racism, sexism and economic deprivation, while commemorating the aspirations, relationships and community that give life meaning even amid miserable conditions.
Full article here.
Top photo courtesy Chicago Tribune Historical Archive