The Sonnet-Ballad

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The Sonnet-Ballad

Gwendolyn Brooks 1949

Author Biography

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Sonnet-Ballad” provides an excellent example of the formal poetry she wrote early in her career. As one would expect from the title, the poem is in traditional sonnet form of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter of which the last two lines form a couplet. Her facility with meter and rhyme (she was known to have written hundreds of sonnets) initially brought Brooks to prominence in 1945 with her first book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville. With the publication of her second book, Annie Allen, Brooks became the first African-American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize. Though she would move away from formal structure in her poetry toward free verse, which she felt allowed her to better express the personal and political issues of the time, she would always display in her poems the skill with the rhythm and pacing of language that she demonstrates in this poem.

This poem appears traditional in both language and subject, with its story of a woman lamenting to her mother the fatal parting of her lover to war, and its somewhat formal expressions—”walking grandly,” “my sweet love.” But Brooks’s alterations of tradition are evident in such passages as: “impudent and strange / Possessive arms,” and “Can make a hard man hesitate.” With this combination of familiar form and innovative language, the poem offers a compelling image of the soldier’s death as if it were another woman tempting him away from his lover. Thus the speaker in the poem sees the imminent death as a betrayal, and can only ask at the end of such a situation a question often found in traditional ballads concerned with false love: “where is happiness?”

Author Biography

Combining a commitment to racial identity and equality with a mastery of poetic techniques, Brooks has bridged the gap between the academic poets of her generation in the 1940s and the young militant writers of the 1960s. Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1917, but raised in Chicago, Brooks started writing poetry as a child. She was inspired by her parents, Keziah Wims Brooks, a schoolteacher, and David Anderson Brooks, a janitor who had failed to achieve his dream of becoming a doctor because of insufficient funds for tuition. By the late 1930s Brooks had published some seventy-five poems and had been encouraged in her efforts by Langston Hughes. Following graduation from Wilson Junior College in 1936, she worked briefly as a maid and then as a secretary to Dr. E. N. French, a “spiritual advisor” who sold potions and charms out of a Chicago tenement building known as the Mecca. In 1938 Brooks joined the NAACP Youth Council, where she met Henry Lowington Blakely II. The two were married the following year and in 1940 saw the birth of their son, Henry Lowington Blakely III.

In 1941 Brooks attended poetry workshops at Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center, producing poems which would appear in her first published volume, A Street in Bronzeville(1945). This work was a poetic description of the everyday lives of the black people who occupied a large section of Chicago called “Bronzeville.” Its themes would feature prominently in Brooks’s works during the next two decades: family life, war, the quest for contentment and honor, and the hardships caused by racism and poverty. Annie Allen(1949), her next book of poems, continued the movement of Brooks’s poetry toward social issues. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first time that the award had been presented to a black honoree. Brooks’s daughter Nora was born the next year and in 1953 the author published Maud Martha, a novel.

Over the next several years, Brooks produced a book of poetry for children and worked on a novel which she later abandoned (although the first chapter was published as both a story and a poem). Her next major collection, The Bean Eaters(1960), details the attempts of ghetto inhabitants to escape feelings of hopelessness. The importance of the

volume derives from Brooks’s continued mastery of poetic forms and her movement away from autobiographical tensions and toward social concerns. Brooks’s popularity and national visibility increased in the 1960s—in 1962 President John F. Kennedy invited her to read at a Library of Congress poetry festival. New pieces in Selected Poems(1963) reveal the author’s growing interest in the civil rights movement; among the new poems was a salute to the Freedom Riders of 1961.

Brooks experienced a change in political consciousness and artistic direction after observing the combative spirit of several young black authors at the Second Black Writers’ Conference at Fisk University in 1967. This inspiration helped inform the volume In the Mecca(1968), in which Brooks abandoned traditional poetic forms in favor of free verse and increased her use of vernacular to make her works more accessible. In Riot(1969) and Family Pictures(1970) Brooks evoked the revolutionary legacy of such slain black activists as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and examined the social upheavals of the late 1960s. And in the nonfiction book A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing(1975) Brooks advised beginning poets.

The 1980s continued to bring Brooks honors and awards—in 1980, she read her works at the White House with Robert Hayden, Stanley Kunitz, and eighteen other distinguished poets. Now holding over forty honorary doctorates and having served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1985 to 1986, Brooks continues to read her works throughout the United States.

Poem Summary

Line 1

“The Sonnet-Ballad,” begins with an address to the speaker’s mother. Given that in this particular case the title of the poem gives us very little specific information about the poem’s subject, it is difficult with so general an opening line to discern much about who the speaker might be. There is, however, a decent amount of compelling information in the poem that might serve to draw a reader in. For instance, the address to a parent offers the idea that the speaker is might be a child, or, at the very least, is someone’s son or daughter. This is immediately complicated though by the addition of a question which—although childlike in its simplicity—one would expect, because of its seriousness, to come from an adult. This seriousness is increased as well by the repetition of the word “mother” which gives the line a sense of pleading, and not simply asking.

This first line is an excellent example of how contrasting ideas or implications can be used to offer complexity in a poem and not necessarily confusion. In this case there is the contrast of the serious, pleading question about happiness with the implied idea of a child. Though this seems contradictory, as one moves through the poem and finds it to be about a woman who has lost her lover to war, the subject of childhood could be seen to strengthen the poem is several ways. First, it heightens the sense of loss in death by subtly offering its opposite: youth or childhood. Second, one might find the idea of childhood bringing in the feeling of vulnerability, which the speaker clearly feels later in the poem.

Line 2

With this second line the vagueness of the situation is removed as the speaker offers specific information about the situation. Her lover has been taken off to war. Notice how this line establishes a particular tone with its use of carefully chosen language. The lover did not “leave for,” or “go to” war, but he was “taken” by an anonymous “They.” This adds a sense of tragedy to the poem as it implies that the lovers had no real control in the matter. Also, it is not just the lover that departs, but the “lover’s tallness.” This change, however slight, could be seen to add human detail to our still general image of the lover. The noun provides a reader with something to begin picturing, but also implies the idea of strength. This again could be seen to add force to the already tragic experience of his being taken by establishing that he was strong, not small and weak, and yet he could not stop them from taking him.

Lines 3-4

Here, in lines three and four, the poem becomes more involved regarding both form and content. As to form, these lines are the ending of the first of the three, four-line sections of the sonnet. Notice how the end rhymes (ABAB) fit together here and solidify this as a section of the formal structure. Line 3 ends with “guess,” which of course rhymes with line l’s “happiness,” and line 4, ending with the word “for” completes the rhyme with line 2’s “war.” This rhyme scheme will now begin again with line 5. Regarding its subject, the poem now shifts focus from the departed lover to the one left behind. She is left “lamenting,” but also wondering what good her heart might be if left empty. While this is a powerful question for the speaker to ask, and it expresses a good amount of longing and distress, Brooks goes further to invent a word combination that sharpens the effect even more. With her choice of referring to the heart as a “heart-cup” she not only accentuates the possibility of the heart being “empty” by making it easier for a reader to picture, but also offers the heart as a simple, clear object that one might use every day, and more importantly, might not be able to use from this point forward.

Line 5

This line is quite simple and direct, but it offers the idea that the parting is somehow permanent, which one might not necessarily think to be the case. In other words, this simple line could be seen to erase any of the expected hope in such a situation. The poem then carries on in an attempt to explain or justify this lack of hope.

Lines 6-8

Here begins what could be seen as the explanation of why it is the speaker of the poem is so sure her lover will not return from the war. It is still left fairly vague in this section, which completes the second of the three, four-line sections. But it is worthy of notice to see what Brooks has done by choosing several words in particular. First, the choice of “grandly” as an adverb modifying the man’s walk in line 7. This establishes the possibility of a certain honor or code that the man might have regarding his action. That he would walk “grandly” off to war, even in a situation where he is being taken there could be seen to imply a certain resignation on his part to do his duty. Second, Brooks’s choice at the end of line 8 to liken the man’s possible death to a kind of infidelity. With this one word, “untrue,” Brooks introduces the compelling and unexpected simile of death being another woman to whom the speaker’s lover is drawn.

Lines 9-10

Brooks decides to repeat the phrase that claims the potential death to be both an infidelity and a result of destiny. The phrase itself is powerful and sounds strong, both reason enough for the repetition. But it might also be seen as another form of pleading that Brooks uses in the first and last lines of the poem. The repetition also emphasizes this potentially neglected word “have.” Such a simple, ordinary verb, it is possible that stated once it might not be more than a passive reference to a future action in the story. Stated twice though it makes stronger this idea that the lover who has gone to war is not in control of his own destiny. He has to be untrue, or in the terms of the original situation, he has to die.

The addition of the word “Coquettish” in line 10 then extends the simile of death as another woman, and increases the tragedy of such betrayal by claiming that She—death—in the end doesn’t even really have an interest in this particular man. Thus his being tempted is nothing but a deception.

Lines 11-12

In the next several lines this string of adjectives is extended in a continued effort to offer a unique and powerful image of how the speaker’s lover’s imminent death appears to her. It is also an attempt to explain why her lover might not be able to resist. It is the “strange / possessive arms and beauty (of a sort)” that cause the man to give in. This whole phenomenon is still left a bit vague, but the implication is that there is something about death, its confident, beautiful nature that makes “a hard man hesitate,” and long for it. This beauty possibly not the traditional beauty one might think of, as Brooks adds the parenthetical “of a sort” after it, it still has great power. How exactly it might cause a man to be drawn to it is left to the reader.

Media Adaptations

  • ”Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton” audio cassette, The American Academy of Poets Tapes Programs, 1993.

If one recalls the use of certain words earlier in the poem, “grandly” for instance, one might see this seduction as the lover’s attraction to pride or honor. Often people confront great odds out of sheer bravery and dedication. But Brooks leaves it more mysterious than this with the use of this word “beauty.” The idea that there is something beautiful and possessive about death, that would draw one to it, adds great weight and complexity to the poem as it approaches its end.

Lines 13-14

In this, the poem’s final couplet, there is the climax of the action and then the return to the question that began the poem. The speaker of the poem describes her lover finally giving in to death by stating the “yes.” Again the ambiguity or lack of certainty is shown with the use of the word “stammer,” as this implies the hesitation. It could also be seen as nervousness or fear at the point of death. Nonetheless, the speaker imagines her “hard man” finally answering the call of the other woman, who in this case is meant to be death. Then there is the final act of closure when the poem repeats as part of its couplet the first line of the poem. This could be seen to affect the poem in several ways. First, regarding the formal elements of the poem, it closes it up neatly and transforms the poem into almost a circle that could start again its song. The last line also though reintroduces the vulnerable pleading—again possibly child-like given the address to the mother—and sadness of the lover being in such a state. Lastly, it leaves the reader with a question that is as essential as it is unanswered. The poem then leaves the reader to think of the speaker of the poem asking such a question, but also possibly lets the question echo in their own mind after the poem is finished.

Topics for Further Study

  • Try writing a sonnet about something that you would like to ask a parent or grandparent about. A sonnet is fourteen lines, in iambic pentameter (which means that every line has ten syllables, with every other syllable stressed).
  • In this poem, death is personified as a flirtatious woman. Describe three or four different ways you have seen death portrayed as a person. Why do you think authors have pictured death in these different ways?
  • Why do you think the speaker addresses her questions to her mother? Is this a situation that is constant throughout the ages?



In this poem, death is personified as a woman who is trying to seduce the speaker’s lover. This, of course, is quite a reversal of the normal expectations, since soldiers going to war are expected to avoid death, not embrace it. Brooks is isolating a psychological fascination that draws men into dangerous situations, an attraction to dying that is not often acknowledged, especially not by “hard” or insensitive people. The very reason this fascination is present is that it is denied. The word “coquettish” refers to the behavior of somebody who flirts by playing hard-to-get; someone who acts shy and all the while is in command of the courtship. Death, then, is shown as being attractive exactly because it is forbidden. It is called “impudent,” which means bold or rude, and “strange,” and it is these qualities that the speaker’s lover is unfamiliar with that make her worry that he might end up attracted to death. She identifies an element of beauty about death, a beauty that has been recognized by artists throughout history, especially those who have painted or sculpted the “Angel of Death,” but she takes no steps toward identifying exactly what death’s beauty might be. After being seduced, the speaker fears that her lover will say “yes” to death: in this poem, dying in battle is voluntary and does not happen without the victim’s consent. This could reflect a concern that the soldier will let his guard down, make a mistake, forget a detail, or in some other way allow himself to die by failing to defend his life in every possible way.

Coming of Age

At the most obvious level, this poem shows the coming of age of the speaker’s lover, who walked off to war “grandly” only to be seduced by death. The ability to understand that we all die is often considered to be one way to define consciousness. It is an identifying factor that separates humans from animals: some translations of the Bible say that the apple Adam and Eve ate, causing them to fall into sin, came from the “tree of knowledge,” while others translate it as “the tree of life and death.” “The Sonnet-Ballad dramatizes the lover’s change, having him “hesitate” and “stammer” as if the speaker were there at the moment of his change—with him and watching him.

The speaker of “The Sonnet-Ballad,” Annie Allen, also comes of age in this poem. In the context of the entire collection of poems of which this one is a part, she changes when her lover changes: he comes back from the war and rejects her for being too gentle and sweet, which drives her to misery and then, after his death, to prostitution, her innocence having been drained from her when he lost his. Outside of this context, though, using just the information that is provided in “The Sonnet-Ballad,” we can see the poem’s speaker being drawn out of her childhood naivete and into an open-eyed and somewhat frightened understanding of what the world holds for her. On one level, a childishly romantic level, she is crushed because her lover is gone and her “heart-cup” is empty. In itself, this sadness would be worthy of a poem, but Brooks goes on to indicate a higher level of consciousness by starting and ending the poem with Annie crying out to her mother in confusion. This implies that she is entering a new life, an adult life in which her mother’s experience can help her understand why things cannot always be happy. The speaker of this poem foresees what will change in her lover’s life, but she is not sure what this will mean for herself.


The real culprit in this poem, as it is presented, is the unspecified “them” who “took” the lover away, eventually testing his self-control and breaking the speaker’s heart. “They,” of course, refers to the recruitment division of the armed forces, but to this speaker it also means social forces so far beyond her control or understanding that she cannot even conceive of a name for them. She is a girl who enjoys life, dreams, and love to such an extent that adversity is a mystery. In personifying the lover’s recruitment, she is viewing it as something that is done to him and her, as if the young lovers were specifically targeted. Later in the poem, she personifies death as another woman who is competing with her for her lover’s affection. She feels she has even less chance against this force than she did against “them,” because death makes such a direct effort to take what is hers. In neither case does the speaker seem to believe that she or her lover are capable of defending themselves, nor does she show any theory of why they have been chosen for victimization in the first place. This is Brooks’s early characterization of Annie, who develops self-assertiveness later in the sequence of poems, at least enough to take the responsibility for her troubles. Here, though, her innocence cannot avoid being victimized by the world in which she lives.


As its name implies, “The Sonnet-Ballad” possesses a form, invented by Brooks, which combines the form of the sonnet with that of the traditional ballad. As a sonnet, the poem has a traditional meter and rhyme structure throughout its fourteen lines—three groups of four lines, and one final couplet. The traditional meter of sonnets is iambic pentameter. This means that the lines of the poem are arranged with regard to two-syllable sections whose first syllable is unstressed, and whose second syllable is stressed. Each of these sections is an iamb, and when they are linked together in a line they produce a rhythmic or musical effect that is almost song-like. It might help to take a line as an example, and break it up into its iambs, showing stressed and unstressed syllables:

Someday / the war / will end, / but, oh, / I knew

“Pentameter” refers to the length of the line. It means there are five feet (a foot being a single two-syllable segment) per line. This then means that each line will contain ten syllables.

Finally, there is the rhyme scheme of this traditionally structured sonnet. This has the end rhymes maintaining a particular pattern. In this poem there are three sets of four lines (before the ending couplet) that follow an abab pattern (which is characteristic of the ballad form as well). This means that in each set of four lines the ends of the first and third lines rhyme, and the ends of the second and forth lines do as well.

Historical Context

In the years after World War II, Gwendolyn Brooks was enjoying the first blush of fame in a career that has since been celebrated internationally. Her first collection of poems, A Street In Bronzeville, was published in 1945. That same year she won four awards at the Midwest Writers’ Conference, was selected one of Mademoiselle magazine’s “Ten Young Women of the Year,” and received the Society of Midland Authors’ “Patron Saints” award. In 1946 she won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, and followed with another one in 1947. “The Sonnet-Ballad” appeared in her 1949 book, Annie Allen, as part of an “appendix” to a long poem about the title character. That poem is “The Annied,” a play on words of The Aeneid, written by the Roman poet Virgil about the founding of Rome. Brooks’s piece is a long, poetically textured examination of the life of Annie Allen. In many places the complexity of the prose overshadows the meaning: for example, “Narrow master-master calls; / And the godhead glitters now / cavalierly on his brow.” This is the sort of dense verbiage that an author who has been showered with praise is likely to attempt as an exercise or a challenge. Years later, looking back on The Annied, Brooks admitted that for all of her hard work writing it, some parts of the poem just are not effective, but she also admitted that writing it was fun. In 1950 Annie Allen won a Pulitzer Prize, the first one for poetry ever won by a black woman.

Brooks was raised in Chicago, a city that had a vast, vibrant, but still-segregated, African-American population. She had seen men return from World War II and had observed the effects their service had on them. Since the First World War, the trend in literature had been to expose the horrors and not to praise the glories of war. Writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Rupert Brooke, and Wilfred Owen, set new standards for cynicism about the capacity for mass destruction, and they were followed in World War II by writers who

Compare & Contrast

  • 1949: The United States military had come home from World War II in 1946, having lost 300,000 men who died in battle.

    1950-1953: The United States military was involved in the Korean Conflict in which 33,000 died.

    1964-1973: The United States military was involved in the Vietnam Conflict; 60,000 died.

    1990-1991: The United States military was involved in Operation Desert Storm; 300 died.

  • 1949: The rising fear that Communists were gaining influence in the United States lead to televised Senate hearings, during which hundreds of citizens were accused of being Communists and were pressured to name friends and associates as Communists.

    1971: The White House lost in the Supreme Court in their attempt to block publication of The Pentagon Papers, which outlined deceptive and sometimes illegal activities the government undertook to stop Communists from overthrowing South Vietnam.

    1986: President Reagan presided over the nation’s largest peacetime military buildup to defend against Communism, referring to the Soviet Union as a “evil empire.”

    1990: Lithuania proclaimed itself free of the control of the Soviet Union and was quickly followed by other states, causing the Communist empire’s collapse.

    Today: The only long-standing Communist countries are China and Cuba.

added a strong awareness of the psychological damage suffered by soldiers. There have always been writers who have seen through the celebration of war to its bloody core (Thomas Hardy and Stephen Crane, for example), but until the world wars and the depersonalizing effect induced by advanced fighting machines, their views did not resonate very widely in the general public’s imagination. There has always been a feeling, as the speaker of this poem points out, that war holds “beauty (of a sort)” for the fighting man.

Sixteen million Americans served in the armed forces during the years America was involved in World War II, from the bombing of the navel base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December of 1941, to the Japanese surrender days after atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Of these soldiers, more than 300,000 died in battle, with 670,000 others physically maimed or wounded. This poem, which combines the strict English or Shakespearean sonnet form, traditionally used for love poetry, with the folksy story-telling of a ballad, may have been inspired by the Second World War, but it is about men seduced by any war at any time.

Critical Overview

Annie Allen, the volume that includes “The Sonnet-Ballad,” has received significant amounts of criticism. Some of this came from other African Americans, writers and non-writers, who strong felt Brooks was failing to confront the issues and experience of being black in America in the 1940s and 1950s. Brooks’s early work was often written in traditional forms, such as sonnets, and it was felt by certain critics that these were European constructs that failed to speak to the black experience. Don L. Lee, a black writer and activist of the time, has written of the poet’s early work in “The Achievement of Gwendolyn Brooks.” He argues that by using “their [Europeans’] language ... she suffers by not communicating with the masses of black people.” On the other side of the coin, certain white scholars, while admitting to Brooks’s skill with language, thought she was at times too quaint in her portraits of mothers and children, or the poor.

Regardless of these criticisms, few could argue against the inherent talent evident in even Brooks’s earliest books. American writer Stanley Kunitz claimed in Poetry magazine that “Miss Brooks is particularly at home in the sonnet, where the tightness of the form forces her to consolidate her energies and to make a disciplined organization of her feelings.” Even after Brooks largely abandoned the use of formal structures in 1968, with the publication of In The Mecca, partly due to a life-changing experience at The Black Writers’ Conference at Fisk University, she would always be known for her skill with language. But most of all it was the human element of her writing that won her so much acclaim, as she continually displayed an ability to capture the emotional, social, and political reality of her time. Langston Hughes has echoed this when he once wrote of Brooks’s first two books: “There are sharp pictures of neighborhoods, relatives, friends, illnesses and deaths; of big city slums, cafes, and beauty shops.... The people and the poems in Gwendolyn Brooks ... are alive, reaching, and very much of today.”


B. J. Bolden

B. J. Bolden is an Assistant Professor of English at Chicago State University, Chicago, IL. She is the managing editor of Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas at Chicago State University and the author of Urban Rage in Bronzeville: Social Commentary in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, 1945-1960. In the following essay, Bolden examines how Brooks experiments with form, rhyme, and diction as she presents a portrait of a young black woman impacted by her lover heading off to war.

Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Sonnet-Ballad” is from her second book of poetry, Annie Allen(1949), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. The mock-epic Annie Allen is composed of three parts: “Notes from the Childhood and the Girlhood”; “The Anniad”; and “The Womanhood.” “The Sonnet-Ballad” is the final poem in “The Anniad.” Annie Allen is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age poetic tale of Annie Allen, a young Black urban girl. In a larger sense, the book is Brooks’s social commentary on the stymied lives of Black women, given their economic, social, and gender constraints. The poet-speaker of Annie Allen examines emerging womanhood, mother/daughter, and male/female relationships and the ways in which they impact the life of Annie Allen. As a further exploration, Brooks probes the tragedies of war and the emotional place women occupy as men go off to battle, and perhaps death. In the “The Sonnet-Ballad,” Brooks illuminates Annie Allen’s dramatic romanticism by employing the formal meter, or measured rhythms, of the sonnet and represents Annie’s humble origins by infusing the poem with the musical strains of the ballad.

The book is informed by three pressing concerns that confronted Brooks in the mid-1940s. First, the demands of World War II impacted family life throughout the United States and were especially difficult for Black families whose meager economic status was drastically reduced when the male heads of household were drafted or voluntarily enlisted into the armed forces. Second, as a regionalist poet who had focused many of her vignettes on the lives of urban Black women in her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville(1945), Brooks went a step further in Annie Allen by examining the dire ramifications of war on women’s domestic and emotional lives. Third, Brooks was challenged by the need to explore the metrical structure and rhyme of traditional poetic forms such as the sonnet and ballad, thus creating her own form and unique place as a poet.

Structurally, the “The Sonnet-Ballad” is one of Brooks’s experiments in form, rhyme, and diction. In an interview with Ida Lewis, Brooks commented on her experiment of combining the sonnet and ballad forms: “My one claim to fame is that I invented it” (Report, 186). Poet and critic Haki R. Madhubuti was agitated by Brooks’s clear immersion in traditional white prosodic forms and asserts his position in the preface of Brooks’s first autobiography, Report from Part One:

Annie Allen(1949), important? Yes. Read by blacks? No. Annie Allen more so than A Street in Bronzeville seems to have been written for whites. For instance, “The Anniad” requires unusual concentrated study. She invents the sonnet-ballad in part 3 of the poem “Appendix to the Anniad, leaves from a loose-leaf war diary.” This poem is probably earth-shaking to some, but leaves me completely dry.

Madhubuti’s explicit concern is clear: “Gwendolyn Brooks’s ability to use their language while using their ground rules explicitly shows that she far surpassed the best European-Americans had to offer. There is no doubt here. But in doing so, she suffers by not communicating with masses of black people.”

And to some extent, Madhubuti is right. Brooks’s mastery of prosody, the theory and principles

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Selected Poems of Gwendolyn Brooks, published in 1982 by Harper Collins, brings together most of Brooks’s most popular works up to that time.
  • Published in 1972, Understanding the New Black Poetry is slightly dated, but for that very reason it gives more space to Brooks and her peers of the era between World War II and the Black Power movement of the 1960s than newer anthologies do. Edited by Stephen Henderson.
  • Brooks, Keorapete Kgositsile, Haki R. Madhabuuti, and Dudley Randall each offer ideas that would be relevant to the black poetry writer in A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing (Broadside Press, 1977). The project was instigated by Brooks to address issues that would have been outside the focus of classes with a broader subject base.
  • Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon also covers the growth of a young African-American girl into womanhood. The author is one of America’s few winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Margaret Abigail Walker was an African-American poet who wrote at approximately the same time as Brooks. Her book For My People, published in 1942, is more formally structured and conventional in outlook than Brooks’s work, but covers some of the same ideas.

of writing verses, especially regarding rhythm, accent, and stanzas is especially prevalent in Annie Allen, but “The Sonnet-Ballad” invites a clear and perceptible explication. For instance, in the opening quatrain of the “The Sonnet-Ballad,” Brooks merges the best of the technical craftsmanship of the fourteen-line sonnet form with the folksy, sing-song chants of the four-line quatrain pattern of the ballad in the abab / bcbc / dede / ff rhyme scheme. Annie’s lyrical cry for wisdom, pity, understanding, and guidance sets the sorrowful tone of the poem: “Oh, mother, mother, where is happiness?” The repetition of her lament in the final line encloses her in a circle of grief and dismay, leaving her helpless and bewildered as she faces an uncertain future.

The regularity of the iambic pentameter line establishes the somber mood of the poem and accentuates the strict formation of the marching line in military regiments. In the deep mournful expression of her love, Annie cries over her loss: “He won’t be coming back here any more.” Yet Annie’s lament is also infused with the rhetorical repetition and folksy rhythm of the ballad as she comes to understand that her lover has changed: “... I knew / When he went walking grandly out that door / That my sweet love would have to be untrue. / Would have to be untrue. Would have to court / Coquettish death, whose impudent and strange / Possessive arms and beauty (of a sort) / Can make a hard man hesitate—and change.” These lines carry a dual message of death: the first suggested by the violence of war and the second informed by earlier references in “The Anniad” to the “man of tan” who goes off to war, carouses with exotic women like a “gorgeous and gold shriek,” “a maple banshee,” and “a mad bacchanalian lass,” and ultimately “Stiffens: yellows” from his “overseas disease.” The merger of the sonnet and ballad points to the increased emotional distance of Annie and her lover because of his newfound worldly sophistication cast against Annie’s downhome rural flavor and colloquial diction.

In Annie Allen, Brooks satisfied her multiple objectives. First, she had sought a poetics that would engage both Black and white critics, earn acceptance from her white reading audience, and secure place in the white mainstream school of arts and letters. Second, Brooks, as a regionalist poet, needed to use her own source of inspiration—ordinary life around her—to tell her own poetic story. She succeeded in both objectives. She did engage the critics, both Black and white; she captured the attention of a white audience; and she earned an award for technical expertise—the Pulitzer Prize in 1950—for creating the poetic tale of Annie Allen, the poor Black urban girl whose search for happiness is left dangling in the encircling question of the “sonnet-ballad”: “oh mother, mother, where is happiness?”

Source: B. J. Bolden, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.

Don L. Lee

In the following excerpt, Lee offers the highest praise for Brooks, stating that she “is the example for us all, a consistent monument in the real, unaware of the beauty and strength she has radiated.”

There is indeed a new black today. He is different from any the world has known. He’s a tall-walker. Almost firm. By many of his own brothers he is not understood. And he is understood by no white. Not the wise white; not the schooled white; not the kind white. Your least pre-requisite toward an understanding of the new black is an exceptional Doctorate which can be conferred only upon those with the proper properties of bitter birth and intrinsic sorrow. I know this is infuriating, especially to those professional Negro-understanders, some of them very kind, with special portfolio, special savvy. But cannot say anything other, because nothing other is truth.
-Gwendolyn Brooks

These words, this precise utterance is Gwendolyn Brooks 1972, is Gwendolyn Brooks post 1967, a quiet force cutting through the real dirt with new and energetic words of uncompromising richness that are to many people unexpected, but welcomed by millions.

When you view Gwendolyn Brooks’ work in the pre-1967 period, you see a poet, a black poet in the actual (though still actively searching for her own definitions of blackness), on the roadway to becoming a conscious African poet or better yet a conscious African woman in America who chose poetry as her major craft. However, Gwendolyn Brooks describes her poetry prior to 1967 as “work that was conditioned to the times and the peoples.” In other words, poetry that leaped from the pages bringing forth ideas, definitions, images, reflections forms colors etc., that were molded over a distance of many years. Her poetry notebook started at the age of eleven—as a result of and as a reaction to the American reality. And for black people, regardless of the level of their perception of the world, the American reality has always been a battle, the real alley fight.

The early years reaped with self-awareness—there is no denying this—even though at times the force of her poetic song is strained in iambic pentameter, European sonnets and English ballads. Conditioned! There is a stronger sense of self awareness than most of her contemporaries with the possible exception of Margaret Walker. She was able to pull through the old leftism of the 1930’s and ’40’s and concentrated on herself, her people and most of all her writing. Conditioned! Her definitions of the world as represented in the early poetry are often limited to accommodating her work and her person to definitions that were imposed on her from the outside; and she becomes the reactor rather than the actor. She is being defined not only by her surroundings and by the environment that has been built around her, but the definitions and poetic direction from the Euro-American world is also much a part of her make-up.

As early as 1945 in the book A Street in Bronzeville, we see images of womanhood, manhood, justice and race worked into memorable lines: “Abortions will not let you forget. / You remember the children you got that you did not get;” and “Men hep, and cats, or corny to the jive. / Being seen Everywhere (Keeping Alive), Rhumboogie (and the joint is jumpin’, Joe), Brass Rail, Keyhole, De Lisa, Cabin Inn. / And all the other garbage cans;” and “had to kick their law into their teeth in order to save them;” and “He was born in Alabama. / He was bred in Illinois. / He was nothing but a / Plain black boy;” and “Mae Belle Jackson’s husband / whipped her good last night. / Her landlady told my ma they had / A knock-down-drag-out fight;” and “Mame was singing / at the midnight Club. And the place was red / With blues / She could shake her body /across the floor / For what did she have to lose?;” and “you paid for your dinner, Sammy boy, / And you didn’t pay with money. / You paid with your hide and my heart, Sammy Boy, / For your taste of pink and white honey.”

As the quoted lines indicate, Gwendolyn Brooks is deeply involved with black life, black pain and black spirits. To seek white honey was natural; to seek anything white in those early years was only keeping within the expected, within the encouraged. However, this thing of doing the expected cannot be fully applied to Gwendolyn Brooks because the medium she worked in was that of the unexpected—

“Negroes just didn’t write and especially poetry.”

Her movement into poetry is a profound comment on her self-confidence and speaks to the poetic vision she possessed. The fact that she chose to be a poet denotes that her view of the “whirlwind” was serious and challenging—yet conditioned.

Her growth and development partially depended upon the climate of the time. Those critical years of the Thirties and Forties left deep scars of hunger and poverty, but due to a strong and closely knit family, she survived. She has always had unusual encouragement from her mother, who to this day is still quite active in watching over her daughter’s output. Other major influences varied from Europe’s war number two (known as World War II) to the work of Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, the Southside of Chicago where she lived and still lives today, Cunningham Stark at the Southside Community Art Center (where Gwendolyn Brooks walked off with four poetry prizes between 1943 and 1945 at Midwestern Writers’ Conferences at Northwestern University), the appearance of poems in the Chicago Defender and Poetry Magazine, working with the NAACP’s young people’s group, appearance in Mademoiselle Magazine as one of the “Ten Women of the Year” in 1945, grants from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Guggenheim Fellowships and other publishing in major magazines that published “American” poetry. Gwendolyn Brooks at this time, the late Forties, was concerned with the “universal fact.”

Her work like that of the late Langston Hughes, has always touched at some level on the problems of blacks in America. Even allowing that, she was often singled out as the “exception” and proclaimed as an “artist”—a poet of the first rank—a poet who happens to be black. Not that Gwendolyn Brooks readily accepted these nebulous titles, there was little she could do about it. We must note that she received major encouragement from all quarters to accept, participate and to be grateful for whatever recognition she received. After all, this was what everybody was working for, wasn’t it? To go unnoticed is bad enough, but to go unnoticed and not eat is not a stimulus for creativity. By 1945 she had not only married, but had a son. Her family shared most of the time that was normally used for writing and these few literary “breaks” were not only needed, but well received and actively sought after.

If A Street in Bronzeville paved the way, Annie Allen opened the door. Annie Allen(1949) ran away with the Pulitzer Prize—the first black person to be so “honored.” After winning the Pulitzer, she now belonged to everybody. In the eyes of white poetry lovers and white book promoters, the publicity was to read “she is a poet who happens to be black;” in other words, we can’t completely forget her “negroness,” so let’s make it secondary. Her winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 is significant for a number of reasons other than her being the first person of African descent to do so. One unstated fact is obvious: she was the best poet, black or white, writing in the country at the time. Also in winning the Pulitzer, she became internationally known and achieved a following from her own people where as normally she would not have had access to them. She attracted those “negro” blacks who didn’t believe that one is legitimate unless one is sanctioned by whites first. The Pulitzer did this. It also aided her in the pursuit of other avenues of expression and gave her a foot-hold into earning desperately needed money by writing reviews and articles for major white publications.

In her continuing frame of reference, the confusion over social responsibility and “art for art’s sake” intensified. Even though she didn’t actually see herself in the context of Euro-American poetry, she was being defined in that context. She was always the American poet who happened to be Negro—the definition was always from the negative to the positive. Again a Euro American definition; again conditioned to accept the contradictory and the dangerous. If you cannot definitely and positively define yourself in accordance with your historical and cultural traditions, how in the world can you be consciously consistent in the direction your person and your work must take in accordance with that which is ultimately best and natural for you? At this time Gwendolyn Brooks didn’t think of herself as an African or as an African American. At best she was a “new negro” becoming black. Her view of history and struggle was that of the traditional American history and had not been challenged by anyone of black substance. In her next book the focus was not on history or tradition, but poetic style.

Annie Allen(1949), important? Yes. Read by blacks? No. Annie Allen, more so man A Street in Bronzeville, seems to have been written for whites. For instance, “The Anniad” requires unusual concentrated study and shows the author’s ability to use rhyme royal. She invents the sonnet-ballad in part three of the poem “Appendix to the Anniead leaves from a loose-leaf war diary.” This poem is probably earth shaking to some, but leaves me completely dry. The poem is characterized by fourteen lines with a three part alternating rhyme scheme and couplet at the last two lines. Only when she talks of “The Children of the Poor” do we begin to sense the feel of home again: “What shall give my children? Who are poor / Who are adjudged the leastwise of the land” or “First fight. Then fiddle” or “Not that success, for him, is sure, infallible? But has he been afraid to reach. / His lesions are legion. / Never reaching is his rule.” In the poem “Truth” we sense that that is what she is about: “And if sun comes / How shall we greet him? / Shall we not dread him, / Shall we not fear him / After so lengthy a / Session with shade? ... Sweet it is, sweet is it, / To sleep in the coolness / Of snug unawareness / the dark hangs heavily / Over the eyes.”

The book has a very heavy moral tone, a pleading tone and “God’s actual” in one way or another is prevalent throughout. The poems range from the ridiculous such as “Old Laughter” (written when she was nineteen years old) but included in the book:

The men and women long ago
In Africa, in Africa,
Knew all there was of joy to know.
In sunny Africa
The spaces flew from tree to tree.
The spices trifled in the air
That carelessly
Fondled the twisted hair.
The men and women richly sang
In land of gold and green and red.
The bells of merriment richly rang.
But richness is long dead,
Old laughter chilled, old music done
In bright, bewildered Africa.
The bamboo and the cinnamon
Are sad in Africa

to the careful profundity of “Intermission” part three:

Stand off, daughter of the dusk,
And do not wince when the bronzy lads
Hurry to cream-yellow shining.
 It is plausible. The sun is a lode.
 True, there is silver under
The veils of the darkness.
But few care to dig in the night
For the possible treasure of stars

But for me there is too much “Grant me that am human, that hurt, that can cry.” There is an overabundance of the worldrunners, even though paradoxically in part fifteen of “The Children of the Poor,” she accurately notes that their special appeal to the “intelligence” has been the argument given to us ever since they raped us from Africa: “What we are to hope is that intelligence / Can sugar up our prejudice with politeness. / Politeness will take care of what needs caring.” Yet, Gwendolyn Brooks knows that politeness is not possessed by the enemies of the sun, politeness does not seek to control the world; and their intelligence is as misguided as their need to manipulate every living element that they come in contact with. Annie Allen is an important book. Gwendolyn Brooks’ ability to use their language while using their ground rules explicitly shows that she far surpasses the best European-Americans had to offer. There is no doubt here. But in doing so, she suffers by not communicating with the masses of black people.

Her work in the late Fifties and early Sixties, like that of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, appealed to a wide cross section. The mood of the land was integration. Come melt with us in the wind at that fume. Some of us are still recovering from the burns. LeRoi Jones (now Imamu Amiri Baraka), William Melvin Kelly, John O. Killens, Conrad Kent Rivers, Mari Evans and Melvin B. Tolson’s tone of persuasion was projected toward the conscience of America. They wrote as if America (or the rulers of America) had a conscience or a higher God that it answered to. They felt that America had a moral obligation to its other inhabitants, those who were not fortunate enough to be born white and Protestant. However, a close reading of Indian history in America or their own history in America would have wiped those illusions out completely. But, even then the “I’m a writer, not a black writer” madness was in the air and along with it existed other distortions and temptations that forever kept the writers from dealing from their African or African-American perspective. They all produced important works and all, with the possible exception of Ralph Ellison (Melvin B. Tolson and Conrad Kent Rivers are deceased) had their hands on the stop sign and were getting ready to cross the continent into the Sixties. The Sixties for Gwendolyn Brooks was to be an entrance into new life; however it didn’t start with The Bean Eaters.

Her major associations during this period of re-definition were the young and the “Black” writing that was part of their makeup. She, at first hand, witnessed a resurgence of what has been termed the Black Arts Movement. In every aspect of the creative act, young brothers and sisters began to call their own images, from drama to poetry, from fiction to non-fiction, from plastic arts to films and so on. In every area of creativity black poets cleaned house and carved their own statues into what they wanted themselves to be, regardless of who was watching and with even less regard for what critics, white and black, said. She felt the deep void when Medgar Evers and Malcolm X left us. She conducted writers’ workshops with the Blackstone Rangers and other young people. She took part in neighborhood cultural events like the dedication of the Organization of Black American Culture’s Wall of Respect. She lived through the rebellion in Chicago after King’s death while listening with disbelief Mayor Daley’s “Shoot to Kill” orders. She lives four blocks from the Black People’s Topographical Center in Chicago, the first in the nation. The murder of Mark Clark and Fred Hampton and of other blacks continued to raise questions in her mind. And major questions were “What part do play?” “Where do fit in?” “What can do?” Her first and most important contribution was to be the redirecting of her voice to her people—first and foremost. This is what is evident in In the Mecca, Riot and Family Pictures. She becomes “new music screaming in the sun.”

Gwendolyn Brooks post 1967 poetry is fat-less. Her new work resembles a man getting off meat, turning to a vegetarian diet. What one immediately notices is that all the excess weight is quickly lost. Her work becomes extremely streamline and to the point. There were still a few excesses with language in In the Mecca, but she begins to experiment more with free and blank verse, yet her hand was still controlled and timed. In the Mecca is about black life in an old Chicago landmark. This was to be her epic of black humanity. She wanted to exhibit all its “murders, loves, loneliness, hates, jealousies. Hope occurred, and charity, sainthood, glory, shame, despair, fear, altruism. Theft, material and moral.” She included all the tools of her trade, blank verse, prose verse, off-rhyme, random rhyme, long-swinging free verse, the couplet, the sonnet and the ballad. She succeeds with glimpses of greatness.

The books Riot(1969) and Family Pictures(1970) are important for a number of reasons other than the obvious. With the publication of Riot, Gwendolyn Brooks began her association with one of the newest and most significant black publishing companies in the world, Broadside Press, under the quiet and strong editorship of Dudley Randall. As the poems in Riot and Family Pictures will testify, Gwendolyn Brooks was not only asking critical questions, but seeking substantive answers. She was very conscious of the contradictions in her own personal life, and as best as possible—living in a contradictory situation in America—began to systematically deal with those contradictions. A major problem was that of Harper and Row publishers, a company she had been with for twenty-six years. Naturally, she had a certain affection and dedication to Harper and Row, even though Harper’s never, and mean that literally, pushed the work of Gwendolyn Brooks. But the decision that was to be made in regard to Harper’s was not either/or, but what is best for black people. And, when people begin to put their lives in a perspective of black people as a body (and not as we’ve traditionally done—black people as individuals)—the power and influence that we seek will come about because, in the final analysis, the only thing that an individual can do individually is die. Nobody ever built anything individually.

Thus, Gwendolyn Brooks’ movement to Broadside Press was in keeping with what she said in Family Pictures:“Black / is a going to essences and to unifyings.” She became the doer and not just the sayer. She ended her association with Harper and Row with the publication of The World of Gwendolyn Brooks and sought out after new boundaries of growth, institution building and black collective association. Before she could enjoy her new comradeship with Broadside Press, other young black writers began leaving Broadside Press and going to large white publishing companies proclaiming—loud and clear—that “the Black Arts Movement was dead” and they had to look after themselves. Here Gwendolyn Brooks was in her fifties, leaving a major white publishing company (and she never accumulated any money or security; she always shared her “wealth”) because of her principles and commitment and the new young whom she so admired and patterned herself after were reversing themselves, going to where she just left. This was difficult for her to understand. This would be the black integrity of Gwendolyn Brooks and would lead to her final affirmation of self.

The death of the Black Arts Movement as seen by some writers was, of course, only a rationale for their own sick actions, an excuse for the new young “stars” to move from the collective of “we, us and our” to the individuality of “my, me and I,” was the excuse used so as not to be held accountable for the madness to come. Let’s examine the situation a little closer. The division that resulted is of an elementary nature and is fundamentally important to the writer if he is to remain true to himself and to his work. The cutting factor was again in the area of definition. How does a black poet (or any black person working creatively) define himself and his work: is he a poet who happens to be black or is he a black man or woman, who happens to write. The black and white “art for art’s sake” enthusiasts embraced the former and the black nationalist expanded in the latter adding that he is an African in America who expresses himself and his blackness with the written word and that the creativity that he possesses is a gift that should be shared with his people and developed to the highest level humanly possible. And that this “art” form in some way should be used in the liberation of his people.

Gwendolyn Brooks had worked with this same question for about ten years now and had, in her own mind, resolved it. Yet, for the young, in whom she had put faith and trust, to reverse themselves made her, too, begin to re-examine her conclusions.

This is the issue. To be able to define one’s self from a historically and culturally accurate base and to follow through in your work; keeping the best interest of your history and culture in mind is to—actually—give direction to the coming generations. If one defines one’s self as a Russian poet, immediately we know that things that are Russian are important to him and to acknowledge this is not to leave out the rest of the world or to limit the poet’s range and possibilities in any way. If a poet defines himself as Chinese we know that that designation carries with it a certain life style which includes Chinese language, dress, cultural mores, feelings, spirituality, music, foods, dance, literature, drama, politics, and so forth. If one is an Indian from India, one is first identified with a land base; is identified with a race of people; is identified with all the cultural, religious, and political advantages or disadvantages that are associated with that people whether the “poet” accepts them or not. This must be understood. To define one’s self is to give direction and this goes without saying that that direction could either be positive or negative. When one speaks of a Yasunari Kawabata or a Yugio Mishima, we first, through name association, link them with Asia (specifically Japan) whether they reside in Asia or not. To speak of Ayi Kwei Armah, Wole Soyinka or David Diop is to speak of Africa and then the world. When seeking universality, one always starts with the local and brings to the universal world that which is particularly Russian, Asian, European, Indian, Spanish, African or whatever. If, in 1972, this is not clear will concede that the “Black Arts” Movement is dead. But the overwhelming evidence shows that by and large the majority of black “artists” at some level understand their commitment and are educating themselves to the realities of the world more and more: if we don’t look after each other, nobody else is supposed to. The black “artist” understands this.

Gwendolyn Brooks is an African poet living and writing in America whose work for the most part has been “conditioned” by her experiences in America. By acknowledging her Africanness, her blackness, she reverses the trend of being defined by the negative to her own definition in the positive. She, in effect, gives direction in her new definition which, if it does nothing else, forces her reader to question that definition. Why does she call herself African? To question our existence in this world critically is the beginning of understanding the world we live in. To constitute the largest congregation of African people outside of Africa is important. To understand that black people in this country, who number thirty million upwards, will have to question why we have no say over domestic policy in reference to ourselves, to question why we have no say over foreign policy in relationship to Africa, to question why we exist as other people’s door mats is important. To question is the beginning of empowerment. Why does Gwendolyn Brooks call herself an African? Almost for the same reason that Europeans call themselves Europeans, that Chinese call themselves Chinese, that Russians call themselves Russian, that Americans call themselves American and that Africans should call themselves Africans—people find a sense of being, a sense of worth and substance with being associated with land. Associations with final roots gives us not only a history (which did not start and will not end in this country), but proclaims us heirs to a future and it is best when we, while young, find ourselves talking, acting, living and reflecting in accordance with that future which is best understood in the context of the past. The vision of Gwendolyn Brooks can be seen in lines like:

Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
the sun-slappers,
the self-soilers,
the harmony-hushers,
“Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
And remember:
live not for Battles Won.
Live not for The-End-of-the-Song,
Live in the along

The direction Gwendolyn Brooks gives to “Young Africans” is calm, well thought out and serious:

If there are flowers flowers
must come out to the road, Rowdy!—
knowing where wheels and people are,
knowing where whips and screams are,
knowing where deaths are, where the
kind kills are

Chester Himes said that “one of the sad things in America is that they try to control the black people with creativity.” And, to control our own creativity is the prerequisite to any kind of freedom or liberation, because if you tell the truth, you don’t worry about offending. You just go ahead and cut the ugly away, while building for tomorrow.

We see in the work of Gwendolyn Brooks of 1972 positive movement from that of the sayer to the doer, where she recognizes that writing is not enough for a people in a life and death struggle. For so few black writers to reflect the aspirations and needs of so many (there are about three hundred black writers who are published with any kind of regularity) is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. Every word has to be considered and worked with as to use it to its fullest potential. We know that her association with the young had a great effect upon her present work. Also her trip to East Africa in 1971 helped to crystalize and finalize her current African association. To understand that Jews’ association with Israel is not only cultural, historical, and financial, but is necessary for their own survival, is to begin to deal with the real world. To understand why the Irish in Chicago sent over $25,000 to Northern Ireland in 1972 is to associate people with land and survival. Gwendolyn Brooks, by her dealings with the young poets, Broadside Press and other institutions is only “in keeping” with what other “European” artists have always done to aid their own. By institutionalizing her thoughts and actions, she is thinking and acting in accordance with a future which will be built by nobody but the people themselves. As in her latest poem, her advice is not confused, clouded, or overly simple, but is the message of tomorrow:

And, boys, in all your Turnings and
your Churnings,
remember Africa!
You have to call your singing and your
your pulse, your ultimate booming in
the not-so-narrow temples of your
you have to call all that, that is your
poem, AFRICA.
Although you know
so little of that long leaplanguid land,
our tiny union
is the dwarfmagnificent.
Is the busysimple thing.
See, say, salvage.
Enact our inward law

Characteristically she has said that:

My aim, in my next future, is to write poems that will somehow successfully “call” (see Imamu Baraka’s “SOS”) all black people: black people in taverns, black people in alleys, black people in gutters, schools, offices, factories, prisons, the consulate; wish to reach black people in pulpits, black people in mines, on farms, on thrones; Not always to “teach”—shall wish often to entertain, to illumine My newish voice will not be an imitation of the contemporary young black voice, which so admire, but an extending adaption of today’s Gwendolyn Brooks’ voice.

Gwendolyn Brooks is the example for us all, a consistent monument in the real, unaware of the beauty and strength she has radiated. Above all, she is the continuing storm that walks with the English language like lions walk with Africa. Her pressure is above boiling—cooking new food for our children to grow on.

Source: Don L. Lee, “The Achievement of Gwendolyn Brooks,” in The Black Scholar, Vol. 3, No. 10, Summer, 1972, pp. 32-41.


Bolden, B.J., Urban Rage in Bronzeville: Social Commentary in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, 1945-1960, Chicago: Third World Press, 1997.

Brooks, Gwendolyn, Annie Allen, New York. Harper & Brothers, 1949, reprinted in Blacks, Chicago: Third World Press, 1987, pp. 77-140.

Hughes, Langston, “Name, Race, and Gift in Common,” Voices, No. 140, Winter, 1950, pp. 54-56.

Kunitz, Stanley, “Bronze by Gold,” Poetry, Vol. LXXVI, No. 1, April, 1950, pp. 52-56.

Lee, Don L., “The Achievement of Gwendolyn Brooks,” The Black Scholar, Vol. 3, No. 10, Summer, 1972, pp. 32-41.

Redmond, Eugene B., Drumvoices: A Critical History, New York: Anchor, 1976, 278 p.

For Further Study

Kent, George, A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1990. Madhubuti, Haki R. preface. Report from Part One. Detroit: Broadside. 1972.

This biography, written by a friend of Brooks and containing a forward by D.H. Melham, gives a “behind-the-scenes” look at the poet’s life and helps the reader understand her inspirations, which do not show clearly in this poem.

Melham, D.H., Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice, Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1987.

Melham looks at the circumstances in Brooks’s life that surrounded the publication of Annie Allen, examining how the poem sequence developed over the course of three years. Although not much is said about the poetry itself, she does cover the critical reaction it received and how Brooks was affected.

Shaw, Harry B., Gwendolyn Brooks, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.

Although Shaw does not specifically mention “The Sonnet-Ballad,” he does explain “The Annied” (which the poem comes from) and the ways in which it describes “different milestones in the girl’s movement from happiness to misery.” “The Sonnet-Ballad” is central to this movement.

Tate, Claudia. “Anger So Flat: Gwendolyn Brooks’ Annie Allen. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith, eds. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987. pp. 140-150.

This explanation of the character of Annie Allen makes the poem’s context easier to understand. The brief glimpse of Annie’s life in “The Sonnet-Ballad” is filled out clearly and without confusion.

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