“I want to write poems that will be non-compromising.” — poet Gwendolyn Brooks


It’s her birthday today.

I first encountered Gwendolyn Brooks’s stuff in Humanities in high school.

Brooks’ most famous poem is “We Real Cool”.

We Real Cool

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.


You have to hear HER read it!

Born in 1917, she died in 2000. She was the descendant of a runaway slave, and her parents instilled in her a ferocity towards getting an education. She started writing poetry very early on, and was publishing stuff regularly as a teenager. She meant business. She had gone to both white and black high schools, giving her an entryway into the white world, which, in turn, gave her a very interesting perspective on the racial divide in Chicago. Her father encouraged her, wanting her to push on in her dream to be a writer.


The Harlem Renaissance poets were very important to her, as well as to her parents. In the Norton Literary Anthology, the editors write, of Brooks’s influences:

Brooks learned the hard discipline of compression from two sources. The modernists famously demanded that superfluities be eliminated, that every word be made to count (le mot juste), and this seems to have been the guiding principle of the Chicago poetry workshop she attended in the early 1940s, in which she read T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and E.E. Cummings. Brooks also learned this lesson from the spare, hard, stripped-down idiom of the blues, which Langston Hughes urged her to study. Like the authors of the blues, she uses insistent rhymes and terse simplicity, and she can be at once understated and robust. Despite Brooks’s reputation for directness, her poetry, like the blues and other African American oral traditions, evinces a sly and ironic indirection.

Brooks often wrote in everyday vernacular, and you can hear the jazz and blues influence in her phrasing. Her family was upwardly mobile. When she was a child, her father built her bookshelves and a desk, sending a strong message: “This is what is valuable” but she grew up surrounded by violence too. She wrote a devastating poem called “The Boy Died In My Alley”. She observes. But not from afar. This has happened to her neighbor.

The Boy Died In My Alley
The Boy died in my alley
without my Having Known.
Policeman said, next morning,
“Apparently died Alone.”

“You heard a shot?” Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the Dead.

The Shot that killed him yes I heard
as I heard the Thousand shots before;
careening tinnily down the nights
across my years and arteries.

Policeman pounded on my door.
“Who is it?” “POLICE!” Policeman yelled.
“A Boy was dying in your alley.
A Boy is dead, and in your alley.
And have you known this Boy before?”

I have known this Boy before.
I have known this boy before, who ornaments my alley.
I never saw his face at all.
I never saw his futurefall.
But I have known this Boy.

I have always heard him deal with death.
I have always heard the shout, the volley.
I have closed my heart-ears late and early.
And I have killed him ever.

I joined the Wild and killed him
with knowledgeable unknowing.
I saw where he was going.
I saw him Crossed. And seeing,
I did not take him down.

He cried not only “Father!”
but “Mother!
The cry climbed up the alley.
It went up to the wind.
It hung upon the heaven
for a long
stretch-strain of Moment.

The red floor of my alley
is a special speech to me.


Brooks climbed to the greatest heights any poet can climb, being appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1985 (the first African-American woman to be so honored), and Chicago is full of streets named for her. There’s a junior high school named for her in Harvey, Illinois.

She had an epiphany later in life. In the late 1960s, she went to a black writer’s conference and by this point she was in her 50s, a published poet, an established voice. But she met and talked with the younger poets coming up, many of them black nationalists, more politicized than she was. She said she found it “uncomfortable”, and felt that she “woke up”. She put it gorgeously, using words only a writer would use:

“Until 1967, my own blackness did not confront me with a shrill spelling of itself.”


Brooks could not turn back. She organized a poetry workshop for young African-American kids, and invited the members of a neighborhood gang to join. The gang was called the Blackstone Rangers (she wrote a lengthy poem about them).

The Blackstone Rangers


There they are.
Thirty at the corner.
Black, raw, ready.
Sores in the city
that do not want to heal.


Jeff. Gene. Geronimo. And Bop.
They cancel, cure and curry.
Hardly the dupes of the downtown thing
the cold bonbon,
the rhinestone thing. And hardly
in a hurry.
Hardly Belafonte, King,
Black Jesus, Stokely, Malcolm X or Rap.
Bungled trophies.
Their country is a Nation on no map.

Jeff, Gene, Geronimo and Bop
in the passionate noon,
in bewitching night
are the detailed men, the copious men.
They curry, cure,
they cancel, cancelled images whose Concerts
are not divine, vivacious; the different tins
are intense last entries; pagan argument;
translations of the night.

The Blackstone bitter bureaus
(bureaucracy is footloose) edit, fuse
unfashionable damnations and descent;
and exulting, monstrous hand on monstrous hand,
construct, strangely, a monstrous pearl or grace.


A Rangerette

Gang Girls are sweet exotics.
Mary Ann
uses the nutrients of her orient,
but sometimes sighs for Cities of blue and jewel
beyond her Ranger rim of Cottage Grove.
(Bowery Boys, Disciples, Whip-Birds will
dissolve no margins, stop no savory sanctities.)

Mary is
a rose in a whiskey glass.

Februaries shudder and are gone. Aprils
fret frankly, lilac hurries on.
Summer is a hard irregular ridge.
October looks away.
And that’s the Year!
Save for her bugle-love.
Save for the bleat of not-obese devotion.
Save for Somebody Terribly Dying, under
the philanthropy of robins. Save for her Ranger
an amount of rainbow in a string-drawn bag.
“Where did you get the diamond?” Do not ask:
but swallow, straight, the spirals of his flask
and assist him at your zipper; pet his lips
and help him clutch you.

Love’s another departure.
Will there be any arrivals, confirmations?
Will there be gleaning?

Mary, the Shakedancer’s child
from the rooming-flat, pants carefully, peers at
her laboring lover ….
Mary! Mary Ann!
Settle for sandwiches! settle for stocking caps!
for sudden blood, aborted carnival,
the props and niceties of non-loneliness—
the rhymes of Leaning.


I love her short stark poem for Emmett Till.

The Last Quatrain Of the Ballad of Emmett Till

Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing;
the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
through a red prairie.

Brooks dazzles, but not by being ostentatious, proclaiming Truths from on high. The editors at the Norton Anthology compare her to Edgar Lee Masters (my excerpt of him here), which I love. Brooks wrote of one community, in all of their voices, and her poems – like “The Bean Eaters”, my favorite one of hers – have this way of revealing an entire life in a couple of short lines, just like Masters did in Spoon River Anthology.

The Bean Eaters

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.


Gwendolyn Brooks, from her autobiography:

I—-who have ‘gone the gamut’ from an almost angry rejection of my dark skin by some of my brainwashed brothers and sisters to a surprised queenhood in the new Black sun—-am qualified to enter at least the kindergarten of new consciousness now. New consciousness and trudge-toward-progress. I have hopes for myself… I know now that I am essentially an essential African, in occupancy here because of an indeed ‘peculiar’ institution…I know that Black fellow-feeling must be the Black man’s encyclopedic Primer. I know that the Black-and-white integration concept, which in the mind of some beaming early saint was a dainty spinning dream, has wound down to farce…I know that the Black emphasis must be not against white but FOR Black. In the Conference-That-Counts, whose date may be 1980 or 2080 (woe betide the Fabric of Man if it is 2080), there will be no looking up nor looking down.

Gwendolyn Brooks:

I want to write poems that will be non-compromising. I don’t want to stop a concern with words doing good jobs, which has always been a concern of mine, but I want to write poems that will be meaningful … things that will touch them.”

George E. Kent:

“[Brooks holds] a unique position in American letters. Not only has she combined a strong commitment to racial identity and equality with a mastery of poetic techniques, but she has also managed to bridge the gap between the academic poets of her generation in the 1940s and the young Black militant writers of the 1960s.”

Gwendoly Brooks on her style:

Folksy narrative.

Starr Nelson, Saturday Review of Literature, on A Street in Bronzeville:

A work of art and a poignant social document.

Langston Hughes:

“The people and poems in Gwendolyn Brooks’ book are alive, reaching, and very much of today.

Annette Oliver Shands, Black World, review of Brooks’ novel Maud Martha:

Brooks does not specify traits, niceties or assets for members of the Black community to acquire in order to attain their just rights… So, this is not a novel to inspire social advancement on the part of fellow Blacks. Nor does it say be poor, Black and happy. The message is to accept the challenge of being human and to assert humanness with urgency.

Toni Cade Bambara, New York Times Book Review:

[At the age of 50] something happened to Brooks, a something most certainly in evidence in In the Mecca (1968) and subsequent works-—a new movement and energy, intensity, richness, power of statement and a new stripped lean, compressed style. A change of style prompted by a change of mind.

R. Baxter Miller, Black American Poets between Worlds, 1940-1960:

In the Mecca is a most complex and intriguing book; it seeks to balance the sordid realities of urban life with an imaginative process of reconciliation and redemption.

Janet Overmeyer, Christian Science Monitor:

Brooks’s particular, outstanding, genius is her unsentimental regard and respect for all human beings…She neither foolishly pities nor condemns—she creates…From her poet’s craft bursts a whole gallery of wholly alive persons, preening, squabbling, loving, weeping; many a novelist cannot do so well in ten times the space.

David Littlejohn:

“The words, lines, and arrangements have been worked and worked and worked again into poised exactness: the unexpected apt metaphor, the mock-colloquial asides amid jewelled phrases, the half-ironic repetitions—-she knows it all.”

Gwendolyn Brooks’, on the disappointed critical reaction to her autobiographies:

They wanted a list of domestic spats.

Toni Cade Bambara on Brooks’ autobiography:

It is not a sustained dramatic narrative for the nosey, being neither the confessions of a private woman poet or the usual sort of mahogany-desk memoir public personages inflict upon the populace at the first sign of a cardiac…It documents the growth of Gwen Brooks.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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6 Responses to “I want to write poems that will be non-compromising.” — poet Gwendolyn Brooks

  1. Jimmy Ray Flynn says:

    Thank you, Sheila.
    I wasn’t aware of Gwendolyn Brooks, until today.
    A gifted, very COOL, soul.

  2. Audrey says:

    Another poet I enjoy! I discovered her right around the time I first read Natasha Trethewey and they’re two of my favorites to date. “We Real Cool” has the kind of momentum and gut-punch that makes poetry, well, real.

    (I honestly get a big smile every time I see a post dedicated to more poets, thank you for your inclusion of them!)

    • sheila says:

      Audrey –

      // I honestly get a big smile every time I see a post dedicated to more poets //

      I’m so happy to hear this!

      I don’t know Natasha Trethewey – will check her out pronto. Thank you!

  3. DBW says:

    Oh, what a surprise. Gwendolyn Brooks was one of my Dad’s heroes, and I wasn’t really aware that anyone else was that familiar with her. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realize she was so well-recognized and honored. I must have missed this post back in 2017. Thank you for showing me, once again, how much smarter my Dad was than I, and for introducing some more of Gwendolyn Brooks to me.

  4. Desirae says:

    Have you seen the new statue of her in the park named for her, Sheila? I love it, you can see her thinking:


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