What’s in a reading: on hearing Gwendolyn Brooks

I’ve heard several recordings of Brooks reading “We Real Cool” over the years. Yesterday, in class, I played her again. This after having a student read the poem out loud. The student did a great job of reading, but when I played the Brooks there was silence, and then a visceral, pre-linguistic reaction. This is an introduction to poetry class, so early days in terms of reading, discussing, encountering, and in early days it seems to me one wants to pay attention to the syllables, the way one can compact sound and meaning into such heavily charged explosives.

Try reading the poem yourself:

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Did it sound anything like this?

Shivers, right? The recording I played was from my iTunes and I can’t seem to embed it here. It is similar in quality to the one above, with some preamble that turns up on many recordings of the poem in various ways. I’ve heard the poem many times, but every time I do it lingers, digging deep into my pscyhe and replaying for days on end. Not when I read it, necessarily, but when I hear Brooks’ reading it. She has such a muscular journey through the poem. You feel you’re strutting across a street that may or may not be friendly enough to ensure you get to the other side. There is, in her voice, especially the recording on my laptop, a sense of the risk, not only of the seven, but of the stripped and sharp words she builds the entire poem on.

Digging around for other recordings though I realize it’s not always as charged. Or to my mind it isn’t anyhow. I wonder what I would have made of the poem if this recording, found on the Poetry Foundation website, was the first one I heard? Is it me, or is there is something lost in this recording? It’s the same poem, same basic approach (hard to read it any other way!), and yet perhaps it’s just the sterility of the space or occasion of the reading, but it seems less charged. I’m not sure either when or where it was recorded. Her voice sounds young, without the rich, deep timbre it has in later recordings. It seems to be in a studio. The version ripped onto the youtube video above seems to be from a public event. Here’s one, at Poets.Org that is from the Guggenheim, May 83. The Guggenheim version has similar gloss on the poem, and more here, via NPR where she talks about walking into a tavern and saying, “Look folks, we’re going to lay some poetry on you…”

On that NPR recording you’ll hear her read “The Rites for Cousin Vit.” Marilyn Hacker offers a reading of that sonnet, and its elaborate syntax, on an early How Poems Work on Lemon Hound. Now, interestingly, hearing Brooks’ reading of Cousin Vit was not at all what I either imagined, or want to hear. And only when I hear Brooks read did I realize how intimately that sonnet existed in my mind not as a read poem, but as sound. So where did I find that sound? Until today I’ve never heard the recording of Brooks’ reading Cousin Vit…

But I digress. It’s “We Real Cool” that I’m interested in, and sadly I suppose, because as you’ll hear, Brooks’ and those who love Brooks’ lament the over-anthologizing of that poem. It IS Brooks. Vintage Brooks. No doubt that is true. It’s the one poem she is known for, and it’s so supremely crafted it will always be anthologized. It does so much, so well. Four, very slender couplets, that I’m sure it will always be anthologized.

Here’s a more rigorous podcast on Brooks, via Poetry Foundation, that attempts to unpack some of the problematic apparatus around Brooks and her reputation. Yes, the irritating term “minor poet” vs “major poet” raises its head, but it raises other issues too, about the tides of poetry, the racist and classist attitudes about gathering in the canon. There’s also the matter of the perspective of the poet: she’s a lot more fun to read than Robert Lowell, and yes, when you read Brooks you get a line into the streets, and houses, and landscape of Chicago, not so much the inner working of Brooks (though the looking out tells us a good deal, doesn’t it?) but the observations, and then the kneading of those observations into such heavily, musically, and emotionally charged lines.

(And wow, ya, that NPR podcast has a stinky ending.)
Sina Queyras