10 of the Best Gwendolyn Brooks Poems Everyone Should Read

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was an important twentieth-century American poet whose work was firmly rooted in the African-American community which she wrote about so well. Born in Kansas, Brooks declared her intention to become a poet when she was just seven years old.

She would go on to fulfil that ambition: in 1945 her first volume of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, was published (with Richard Wright, himself a notable African-American author, as her editor), and in 1960 one of her most acclaimed collections, The Bean Eaters, followed. In 1968 she became the Poet Laureate of Illinois.

Some of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems are well-known, being widely taught in schools and colleges and appearing in numerous anthologies. But what are Brooks’ very best poems? Below, we select and introduce ten of her finest.

1. ‘Speech to the Young’.

‘Speech to the Young’, full title ‘Speech to the Young: Speech to the Progress-Toward’, is a poem by the American poet Gwendolyn Brooks, included in her 1970 collection Family Pictures as well as several subsequent collections.

The poem is dedicated to Brooks’ two children, Nora Brooks Blakely and Henry Blakely III, although in a sense the poem is addressed to all young people. Brooks urges the young not to rest on their laurels, or to think that society has reached a point where all battles worth fighting have already been won and there is no more progress to be made.

2. ‘The Rites for Cousin Vit’.

Brooks worked in a variety of verse forms, and in this poem – one of her best-known – she gives a twist on the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet form.

The poem is, on the face of it, an elegy for a woman who has died, but the poem is more a celebration of Cousin Vit – her very name summoning vitality and lively vigour – than a traditional poem of mourning.

3. ‘The Crazy Woman’.

This poem can be regarded as a self-reflexive piece, in which the ‘crazy woman’ of the title (who is to say she is ‘crazy’?) announces her determination to ignore convention – and audience expectations – and sing a sad song, even though her listeners want a happy song.

The poem can thus be regarded as a miniature declaration of artistic independence. For ‘song’ read ‘poem’?

4. ‘Kitchenette Building’.

One of Gwendolyn Brooks’ earliest great poems, dating from the 1940s, ‘Kitchenette Building’ was inspired by the cramped, dirty accommodation – known as ‘kitchenettes’ – which many Black Americans were forced to live in.

Langston Hughes’ very short story ‘Thank You, Ma’am’ takes place partly in a kitchenette and is also partly about poverty among the African-American community. And like another Hughes work, ‘Harlem’, Brooks’ poem is about what chance a ‘dream’ of a better life has of flourishing in such an unpromising environment.

5. ‘The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock’.

This poem was written in response to the racial integration of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957. Brooks uses a simpler form than many of her poems – rhyming couplets – to capture the voice of the news reporter who finds that white people in the South are ‘like people everywhere’.

Brooks’ poem thus humanises both sides of segregation, even as she acknowledges the violent divisions at the heart of such communities.

6. ‘The Vacant Lot’.


If ‘Kitchenette Building’ is about the conditions in which many Black Americans lived in Chicago during the mid-twentieth century, this short poem is about the end of an era: the African-American woman who once lived in a small home in the neighbourhood has gone, as has her daughter and the daughter’s husband (with the final lines suggesting the daughter was having an affair, or else supporting herself through sex work).

The poem is matter-of-fact as Brooks bids farewell to a family who, despite airs and graces (note the satirical ‘rightful heir to the throne’ used to refer to the African son-in-law), were no better than their neighbours, and whose disappearance from the area, we suspect, nobody mourns.

7. ‘Boy Breaking Glass’.

This poem, commissioned for a magazine by Marc Crawford (hence the dedication), is about the cry of despair from many young male Black Americans who have found themselves unable to advance themselves in life. The boy’s act of vandalism is also ‘art’, in a sense, because it is a means of expression.

8. Riot.

This long poem was written in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King (who provides the poem with its epigraph) in 1968, and the social unrest that followed. Brooks’ poem suggests that social progress can be effected not just by protest or action but by thinking, reading, and reflecting.

9. ‘The Bean Eaters’.

Published in 1960, The Bean Eaters is one of Brooks’ best-known and most critically acclaimed poetry collections. This title poem from the volume is an example of what Gwendolyn Brooks does best in her poetry: a snapshot of the everyday lives of ordinary people.

In this case, it’s an elderly couple whose daily routine Brooks describes to us in unsentimental terms. Nostalgia for a vanished past, and themes of class and poverty, loom large.

10. ‘We Real Cool’.

Written in 1959 and published the following year in her poetry collection The Bean Eaters, this poem has been widely taught in schools and anthologised on many occasions.

The poem was inspired by seeing a group of young boys in a pool hall rather than in school. How do they view themselves, she wonders? ‘We Real Cool’ gives them a voice – and in doing so, reflects the new phenomenon of the 1950s: the teenager.

Although the tone and voice of ‘We Real Cool’ seems triumphant and self-assured, the teenagers’ collective statements mask a darker and more negative story, involving the many young black Americans who had left school for the life of gang warfare, with no jobs and no qualifications.

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