Gwendolyn Brooks and Form

“Our selection” refers to chosen passages from A Street in Bronzeville, published in 1945.

In our selection, the first named ballad is “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie” but several of the other poems have balladic rhyme or structure. The ballad can be used to express love, like with the one about Mabbie, but it can also be used to intensely describe a character and invoke emotion (like with Blues ballads). Nonetheless, I’m really curious as to how Brooks uses the ballad to problematize these notions of the form and unsettle or give commentary to other social issues within the form.

As to this second point, I’m really interested–and perhaps this is a question more than an observation–in what the form affords the content: how does the form impact Brooks’ taking up of interracial love or white supremacy/preference for whiter complexion in “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie,” about Willie Boone’s choosing a white “lynx” over Mabbie’s chocolate complexion? How does the form of the ballad help to emphasize the differences drawn out between Sadie and Maud in the poem of the same name?

How does the balladic structure almost make tragic the story of De Witt Williams in “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery”? Is it just the imagery in “The Last Quatrain of The Ballad of Emmett Till” that makes it so aptly tragic (here I’m thinking specifically of “tint of pulled taffy” “she is sorry” and “chaos in windy grays”) or is it this imagery in combination with the balladic form which makes the repetition of that rhyme (taffy, coffee, sorry, prairie) almost a recircling of grief?

As a poet, I’m always thinking about why one may use form–what possibilities does form open up? It is a common misconception, in my belief, that forms somehow create rigidity (a lot of times people call forms “rigid”). On the one hand, the structure provides an outline. On the other–and this is more interesting to me–there is a historical use of the form and the affordances/the affect of the form’s structure. For example, with the ballad structure, one must ask “What effect does the repetition of the rhyme create?” With the song, “How does the performative nature of this form relate to 1) its overall content and 2) its lyrical imagery?”

At every word, the poet makes a decision. I’m curious what we can discover together about Brooks’ decisions.

On Pound’s “A Pact”

Image rendered from

Pound begins the poem by presenting opposites, wanting to form a pact with Walt Whitman despite having detested him and then again with the image of a “grown child” in line 3. The image of the pig-headed father is also somewhat of an opposite in that pig-headed means obstinate or stubborn (OED) and yet the speaker of the poem is abstaining from his/her typical stubborn behavior of detesting Walt Whitman by now making a pact with him. This is all presuming, of course, that making a pact is only something someone does with someone they do not detest (though one might make the argument that may not necessarily be the case). Nonetheless, the image of the “grown child” seems to be setting up some sort of opposition.

The speaker also seems to be calling attention to time’s construction. The verb tenses shift from present (I make) to past participle (I have detested) back to present (I come) back to past participle again (Who has had) to present again (I am old) then simple past (It was you that broke) to present (Now is). Beyond the tense shifts, the speaker says “I am old enough now” (5) as if within the “now”-ness of the present tense, there is also an “old.” In other words, recognizing old-ness also recognizes that time passes—that something, here “I,” goes from young to old over a period of time. But that word “old” is smushed in between present tense “am” and a reference to the present, “now” (5), rendering time in the fifth line inconsistent in that there is both a set, stationary present in the “now”-ness and a passage or movement of time in the word “old.” Further down in the poem, the speaker even says “now is a time” — using the unspecific article “a” over “the,” implying there are several times, one of which is “now” (7).

The notion of carving Walt Whitman’s “new wood” in conjunction with Pound’s words in “RE VERS LIBRE” (1913) seems to refer to taking a wider free verse, long Whitman line and chiseling it down to something more structured and succinct (6). Pound has done just that. Each of these lines are purposefully broken, all but one by punctuation, and the poem itself is presented in no set meter or form, giving it a “commerce” shared between Whitman and Pound (9).

The OED defines commerce as “Exchange between men of the products of nature or art,” giving credence to the idea of a shared sap and root between the speaker and Whitman in line 8; however, my understanding of commerce is in the mercantile or economic sense– that there is monetary value about an object that becomes traded and in that sense, there is a commercial relationship between the traders of that object. Were poetry to be this object, as I understand wood to be functioning that way in this poem, then both uses of commerce seem to fit to Pound’s use. However, I don’t want to stop at “well, it works,” either– why use commerce? Wood is a natural good, so perhaps the metaphor extends into choosing that word “commerce.” What do you think?