Gwendolyn Brooks: Master at Weaving Lyric Tales of Urban Life

Gwendolyn Brooks is best remembered for distinctive, lyrical portraits of everyday urban life. Her poems combine traditional forms—such as the sonnet and ballad—with experimental free verse, jazz and blues poetry, and colloquial language. A committed voice against sexual and racial oppression, Brooks, who determinedly described herself as Black, was the first Black American to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, and grew up in Chicago, Illinois. A shy and reticent girl, she poured her emotions and experiences into poetry, which she began writing before age ten. In 1930, she published her first poem, and she continued to publish throughout her teens and into her twenties. By the mid-1940s, Brooks’s poetry had begun to win awards and critical recognition.

Brooks found much of the inspiration for her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), in the sights and sounds of her own neighborhood. “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,” she writes in “kitchenette building.” Once characteristic of Chicago’s South Side, kitchenettes were small apartments housing several families who shared one bathroom. In these cramped, crowded spaces, dreams and ambitions had to compete with “onion fumes” and “yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall.” Yet among the poverty and struggle of daily living, beauty and love persisted. “It was quite a time for loving. It was midnight. It was May,” writes Brooks in “the old-marrieds.” “But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say.”

Brooks was especially attuned to the circumscribed, sometimes luminous lives of Black women. For her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Annie Allen (1949), Brooks focused on just one woman and followed her life from birth to adulthood. At the heart of the collection is “The Anniad,” an elaborate and lengthy piece about Annie’s marriage and disillusionment as dreams give way to reality. Even as “the culprit magics fade,” however, Annie finds pleasure in the world around her: “Hugging old and Sunday sun / Kissing in her kitchenette / The minuets of memory.”

From the beginning of her career, Brooks demonstrated a controlled mastery of traditional poetic structures such as the sonnet, ballad, and epic, yet she never felt constrained by them. Arguably her most famous poem, “We Real Cool” elevates the short lyric to a new level of conciseness while also infusing the verse with a contemporary swinging rhythm:

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Brooks frequently experimented with rhyme and meter, playing with both conventional and unconventional forms, and even invented a new hybrid form, the “sonnet-ballad.”

Perhaps best known for her poems about the intimate experiences and emotions of individuals, Brooks also addressed national and international issues. “Gay Chaps at the Bar,” a sequence of 12 sonnets, was based on letters Brooks received from Black soldiers serving in World War II. “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock” considers the struggle to desegregate the nation’s public schools.

Published in 1968, In the Mecca was nominated for the National Book Award. The collection included the monumental “In the Mecca,” in which the faded grandeur of the decaying Mecca building mirrors the condition of many Blacks at the time.

Notecard Set (click to order)

In addition to numerous honorary degrees, Brooks received a lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts. She served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the position later renamed Poet Laureate) from 1985 to 1986 and as Poet Laureate of Illinois from 1968 until her death. In addition to poetry, she published two unconventional autobiographies, Report from Part One (1972) and Report from Part Two (1996). The semi-autobiographical Maud Martha, her only novel, was published in 1953.

Gwendolyn Brooks is one of ten poets featured on the Twentieth-Century Poets pane. The stamps will be issued on April 21 in Los Angeles, California, but you can preorder them today!

William Carlos Williams & the Poetry of Daily Living

William Carlos Williams was a doctor who typed out his poems between seeing patients. His work showed readers the extraordinary in the commonplace—a broken bottle, a red wheelbarrow left out in the rain, a crumpled piece of brown paper blown along by the wind—restoring to such things some of the mystery they had lost. In deliberately plain language, Williams wrote about his routine and the everyday life around him. Even today, his work contradicts what many people think poetry is supposed to be; this was especially true at the time he began writing, when rhyming verse in the style of the English Romantics was in fashion.

Williams was born on September 17, 1883, in Rutherford, New Jersey. His father, an Englishman, often went on business trips to South America and spoke fluent Spanish; his mother was born in Puerto Rico. Their children grew up hearing various languages spoken around them.

Looking back on his boyhood while writing his Autobiography (1951), Williams remembered being entranced by the natural world: “To touch a tree, to climb it especially, but just to know the flowers was all I wanted.” In high school, he became interested in poetry and decided to be a writer. He went into medicine to support his writing, entering dental school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1902, but switching to medical school a year later.

In 1913, Williams went to the watershed art exhibit known as the Armory Show, where he saw Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)” and other works which caused him to laugh out loud in wonder and appreciation—and to think about how poems looked on the page. Williams realized he wanted to treat words as words in the same way these painters worked with paint as paint, not worrying so much about representing nature but instead adding to it. As he later wrote in his Autobiography, “It is NOT to hold the mirror up to nature that the artist performs his work. It is to make, out of the imagination, something not at all a copy of nature, but something quite different, a new thing, unlike any thing else in nature, a thing advanced and apart from it.” He also resolved that his artistic materials—subject matter and language—would be found locally, rather than in some rarefied aesthetic realm. This is one of the reasons why his work is often said to highlight the universality of the local.

Many of his early, experimental poems are now considered classics, including “This Is Just to Say” (about eating the plums his wife had stored in the icebox), “The Great Figure” (about a fire truck speeding down a rainy street), and the poem widely known as “The Red Wheelbarrow” (“so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow….”). In addition to poetry, Williams wrote plays, short stories, novels, and essays. His prose works include the novel A Voyage to Pagany and In the American Grain, a series of innovative essays on historical events and figures including George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln.

Digital Color Postmarks (click to order)

In another formal experiment, Williams developed “the variable foot”—a unit of one or several words intended to have the same weight in the poem—typically grouped in threes to make up a triadic line that, in the words of one critic, “combines the staccato and fragmentary nature of American speech with a dreamy fluency that is both haunting and hypnotic.” He used this triadic line in various works, including “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” (from which the following lines come): “It is difficult // to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack // of what is found there.”

Williams died March 4, 1963, at his home in Rutherford. His longest poem, Paterson, a collage mixing prose and poetry with “found objects” such as letters from friends, stretched over many books. For his late collection, Pictures from Brueghel (1962), Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, awarded posthumously in 1963. His manner and language were such that Williams seemed distinctively American even when writing about the paintings of an old Dutch master.

William Carlos William is one of ten poets featured on the Twentieth-Century Poets pane. The stamps will be issued on April 21 in Los Angeles, California, but you can preorder them today!

National Book Month: Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems

As an adolescent, I idolized poet Sylvia Plath. While my friends talked endlessly about their favorite bands and actors they wanted hanging over their beds, I spent hours poring over Plath’s poetry and journals, desperately trying to know everything I could about this mysterious woman.

Although Plath published just one collection of poetry and one novel in her lifetime, her complex body of work showcases her ability to conquer such weighty themes as marriage and motherhood, gender and power, death and resurrection, and the search for the self. Her posthumously published Collected Poems (1981) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. The collection includes poems written from 1956 until her suicide in 1963.

Plath’s most famous poem, “Daddy” (1962), delves into the painful subject of her father’s death when she was a child. Written in the singsong style of a nursery rhyme, the emotional verse evokes the feelings of sorrow and anger she felt at not having the opportunity to know her father before he died. This anger quickly changes direction, focusing on her husband, whose betrayal is connected, in Plath’s mind, to that of her father’s. By the end of the poem, the narrator has shed the burden of grief for both of these painful relationships.

As a teenager I wanted to be a poet, and Plath’s highly autobiographical style appealed to me. The way in which Plath reveals honest details of her life and innermost thoughts seemed so extraordinary. Though I no longer hold a romanticized image of becoming a poet, I do still love Sylvia Plath’s writing. With simplicity of language and self-reflection, she gives a voice not only to her own experiences, but those of many women. She is, in my mind, truly one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century.

Upon learning about the Twentieth-Century Poets stamps issuance later this year—and that the set of ten esteemed bards includes Sylvia Plath—my excitement for the 2012 stamp program spiked. Along with Plath, the commemorative pane will pay tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, E. E. Cummings, Robert Hayden, Denise Levertov, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Designed by art director Derry Noyes, the Twentieth-Century Poets stamps will be issued in April.

“Sylvia Plath”, n.d.
Photograph by Rollie McKenna
@ Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation
Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation

National Book Month: Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools

The 22nd stamp in the Literary Arts series honored acclaimed writer Katherine Anne Porter. Although skilled in the creation of short fiction, Porter did not achieve significant financial success until the publication of her only full-length novel, Ship of Fools (1962).

A best seller that was eventually made into a movie, Ship of Fools drew on a log Porter kept of the sea voyage she made from Veracruz, Mexico, to Bremerhaven, Germany, in 1931.

Award-winning stamp artist Michael J. Deas based his painting of Porter on a 1936 photograph made by George Platt Lynes. By including a ship in the design, Deas links Porter’s portrait to the sea voyage that inspired her best-selling novel Ship of Fools and to her assessment of life, which she called, “this brave voyage.”

Considered a master prose stylist, Porter won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1966 for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, which was published in 1965.