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Tue Dec 5 11:30:19 MST 2000
NY Times, December 5, 2000
Gwendolyn Brooks, Passionate Poet, Dies at 83
By MEL WATKINS
Gwendolyn Brooks, who illuminated the black experience in America in poems
that spanned most of the 20th century, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1950,
died on Sunday at her home in Chicago. She was 83.
"I wrote about what I saw and heard in the street," Ms. Brooks once said.
"I lived in a small second-floor apartment at the corner, and I could look
first on one side and then the other. There was my material." (clip)
In Ms. Brooks's early poetry, Chicago's vast black South Side is called
Bronzeville. It was "A Street in Bronzeville," her first poetry anthology,
that attracted the attention of the literary establishment in 1945. Ms.
Brooks's poetry shifted noticeably in form and concern he attended a
conference of black writers at Fisk University in the spring of 1967. While
there she listened to readings by Amiri Baraka, Ron Milner and other young
firebrand poets. "I felt that something new was happening," she later said.
Those young black writers "seemed so proud and committed to their own
people," she added. "The poets among them felt that black poets should
write as blacks, about blacks, and address themselves to blacks."
She later wrote: "If it hadn't been for these young people, these young
writers who influenced me, I wouldn't know what I know about this society.
By associating with them I know who I am."
Returning to Chicago, she began a poetry workshop in her home that included
members of a Chicago street gang called the Blackstone Rangers and younger
poets like Sonia Sanchez, Don L. Lee and Nikki Giovanni. Much of the talk
was devoted to ways of merging black art with the political concept of
These currents were evident in Ms. Brooks's next volume of poetry, "In the
Mecca" (Harper & Row, 1968). The 30-page title poem described a mother's
frantic search for her missing daughter in a sprawling, decrepit building
called the Mecca, which once was one of Chicago's fanciest apartment houses.
In a volume that was described by one critic as "her declaration of
independence" from the integrationist philosophy that had previously shaped
her work, Ms. Brooks wrote about the desperate and tragic lives of the
inhabitants of the Mecca. She wrote from experience. Ms. Brooks worked at
the real Mecca as a typist for a "spiritual adviser" when she was young and
got to know the people in the building.
The collection also offered poems about Malcolm X and the Blackstone Rangers:
Black, raw, ready.
Sores in the city
That do not want to heal.
Ms. Brooks used clipped lines, abstract word patterns and random rhymes to
capture her new radical tone and her more direct expression of social concern.
"In the Mecca" was nominated for a National Book Award.
Asked if the change in her work signaled her emergence as a "protest poet,"
Ms. Brooks said, "No matter what the theme is, I still want the poem to be
a poem, not just a piece of propaganda." Ms. Brooks reflected on her
approach in her 1988 poem "Winnie":
I am tired of little tight-fisted poems sitting down to
shape perfect unimportant pieces.
Poems that cough lightly - catch a sneeze.
This is the time for Big Poems
roaring up out of the sleaze,
poems from ice, from vomit, and from tainted blood.
Full obituary at: http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/05/national/05BROO.html
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