Gwendolyn Brooks on Vulnerability as Strength and Her Advice to Writers
By Maria Popova
In 1950, a year after she made her debut, poet Gwendolyn Brooks (June 7, 1917–December 3, 2000) became the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize. She was only thirty-three.
Exactly forty years later, having by then become one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century, the recipient of more than seventy honorary degrees, and first black woman appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, Brooks took the stage at Chicago’s Poetry Day to reflect on her life and read from her work. In this excerpt from the lecture, Brooks shares her best advice to writers, originally published in her 1981 prose book Young Poet’s Primer (public library) — advice that applies as much to poetry as it does to all art and even to the art of living itself:
In writing your poem, tell the truth as you know it. Tell your truth. Don’t try to sugar it up. Don’t force your poem to be nice or proper or normal or happy if it does not want to be. Remember that poetry is life distilled and that life is not always nice or proper or normal or happy or smooth or even-edged.
Brooks goes on to read from her evocative 1988 pamphlet-length poem Winnie — a tribute to South African political leader and human rights activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, written in Mandela’s voice. The poem’s central message stands today as a powerful invitation and incantation for our own time — a timeless ode to life’s tenacity, to the relationship between vulnerability and strength, and to poetry’s singular power to wrest from the smallness of a single life, a single day, a single moment essential bigness of being.
Yet I know
that I am Poet!
I pass you my Poem.
A poem doesn’t do everything for you.
You are supposed to go on with your thinking.
You are supposed to enrich
the other person’s poem with your extensions,
your uniquely personal understandings,
thus making the poem serve you.
I pass you my Poem! — to tell you
we are all vulnerable —
the midget, the Mighty,
the richest, the poor.
Men, women, children, and trees.
I am vulnerable.
Hector Pieterson was vulnerable.
My Poem is life, and not finished.
It shall never be finished.
My Poem is life, and can grow.
Wherever life can grow, it will.
It will sprout out,
and do the best it can.
I give you what I have.
You don’t get all your questions answered in this world.
How many answers shall be found
in the developing world of my Poem?
I don’t know. Nevertheless I put my Poem,
which is my life, into your hands, where it will do the best it can.
I am not a tight-faced Poet.
I am tired of little tight-faced poets sitting down to
shape perfect unimportant pieces.
Poems that cough lightly — catch back a sneeze.
This is the time for Big Poems,
roaring up out of sleaze,
poems from ice, from vomit, and from tainted blood.
This is the time for stiff or viscous poems.
Big, and Big.
Complement with Brooks’s trailblazing vintage poems for kids celebrating diversity and the universal spirit of childhood, then revisit John F. Kennedy’s timeless speech on poetry and power and James Baldwin on the poet’s role in a divided society.
Published April 19, 2017