Where would we be without Gwendolyn Brooks? This is the question at the heart of this generous collection of poems celebrating one of the 20th Century’s towering poets as well as the capacity for poets to influence each other. The anthology is based on a poetic form, invented by Terrance Hayes, in which the terminal word in each line is taken from Gwendolyn Brooks’s classic ‘we real cool’. The anthology extends this formal constraint to include all of Brooks’s work. The poems are, therefore, divided based on the Brooks poem to which each poet in the anthology chose to respond. This demonstrates which of Brooks’s poems strike a particular chord with fellow poets. The notion, popularised by T.S. Eliot, that ‘mature poets steal’ is brought into sharp focus by this editorial approach, showing us how one poet’s literary corpus can give shape and direction to the work of so many others.
This review focuses on a number of poems as a way in to what is a broad and capacious selection. It has to be said, a gathering of poets as various as this one is a singular achievement, worthy of celebration in itself. It is appropriate that a book honouring Brooks should be thus; her work has always travelled exceptionally well given its focus on the lesser-seen, seldom celebrated, corners of life. It is also apt that the poems collected in The Golden Shovel Anthology vary in their form to such a thrilling extent:
day begins, only
no one wants its sanity
or its blinding clarity. Daylight is
not what we came all this way for. A
pinch of salt, a drop of schnapps in our cup
of tears, the ticket to the life to come, a short life of
long nights & absent dawns & a little mercy in the tea.
(‘The Second Going’ – Philip Levine)
Hole-in-wall is how the uninitiated might describe the Kansas City club where I,
a one-winged flight of drunken tap dancer, become Bird. Ornithology shall
note the lightning-quick riffs I saxophone through the ivory teeth of time to create
(from “‘Ornithology’ For Charlie Parker” – M. Ayodele Heath)
These are just two of the approaches to ‘Boy Breaking Glass’ from Brooks’ 1968 collection In The Mecca; responses that vary from poems that seem semantically unrelated and those that are homages to the substance of the original — like Clare Pollard’s ‘Boy Breaking Glass, Peckham’ in which the boy of Brooks’s poem travels time and space to wind-up breaking a window in a London protest (perhaps the one in 2011 that came after the death of Mark Duggan). The original Brooks poem speaks to our political moment, Pollard seems to be saying, and in reading the original, in which the boy breaks a window ‘as a cry of art’; a destructive and constructive act, we can see Pollard’s point. Elsewhere, Brooks’ words wander in a number of directions: the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in one poem; a poet looking to the future and the last year of their life in another. This variety illustrates the possibilities of formal limitations making this a book about poetic form, and Brooks’ engagement with it, as well as a celebration of her status as a literary forbear.
Another of the triumphs of the anthology is that it brings together well-known British and American poets and those at the start of their careers. This, too, is a fitting tribute to Brooks who was such a champion of other poets. In response to ‘The Blackstone Rangers’, for example, we have such poems as ‘The Ache’ written by Chelsea Dixon ‘when she was a freshman at Oak Park and River Forest High School’ alongside work from poets without a solo publication to their name, some with a one or two book-strong bibliography, and others with more extensive bodies of work. Within the anthology each poet is accorded the same respect and this makes for a compelling and enjoyable survey of disparate poetic traditions.
It is this inclusive spirit which means that a poem by a Professor of English with several books to her name, and an influential role as an editor, appears next to work from one of a new generation of poetry superstars:
What crime could Trayvon stand for?
Some slender peregrination, youth-
inscribed, delivered him to woe […] (‘Stand Your Ground’ – Christina Pugh)
I want to raise a city behind his teeth for all boys of choirs & closets to refuge in
(‘The 17 Year-Old & The Gay Bar’ – Danez Smith)
This kind of generational mixing places the focus on the manner in which every poem is in conversation with every other poem in the tradition. This, in turn, serves to offer readers of various kinds a way in to Brooks’s work that they might not otherwise receive. The significance of this is that readers are being invited to engage in a collaborative process which is far more dynamic than would be available from a book of odes celebrating Brooks in a more conventional fashion.
The status of Gwendolyn Brooks as a political figure, and poems as a space for reflecting on socio-economic realities and disparities, is important to this anthology. A good proportion of the poems collected arise out of a political engagement in literature born out of the struggle of trail-blazers like Brooks, a poet to whom much is owed because she withstood such difficulty in order to claim her seat at the table. Brooks was writing at a time when blackness and literary excellence were thought to be mutually exclusive except in exceptional cases. She, like Phillis Wheatley before her, acted as a kind of literary talisman, what the poet-critic Rowan Ricardo Phillips would call an ‘epigraphic’ poet; one who sits before even the first line of the tradition opening a space for what follows. Consider this from the letter sent by the judges of the 1949 Pulitzer Prize in support of Brooks’s Annie Allen:
No other Negro poet has written such poetry of her own race, of her own experiences, subjective and objective, and with no grievance or racial criticism as the purpose of her poetry. It is highly skillful and strong poetry, out of the heart, but rich with racial experience.
(Henry Seidel Canby to Carl W. Ackerman)
This is what Gwendolyn Brooks was up against. A literary culture which valued poets who did not explicitly express their ‘grievance[s]’. What this passage shows us, though, from this vantage point is that by simply putting her life, or at least the lives she observed, down on paper; affirming her humanity, Gwendolyn Brooks was offering a clear and powerful critique of the status quo.
While there is much left to do, The Golden Shovel Anthology feels part of this process of renewal, a process that will leave readers the richer for having a range of poetic styles and approaches to choose from in their reading matter. I can only applaud the editors for assembling a project of such vision and import.