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A Poet's Slant on South Africa : Gwendolyn Brooks Captures the Agony of Apartheid

November 06, 1987|PENELOPE MOFFET | Moffet is a local writer

. . . Tonight I walk with

a hundred of playmates to where

the hurt Black of our skin is forbidden.

There, in the dark that is our dark, there,

a-pulse across earth that is our earth, there,

there exulting, there Exactly, there redeeming,

there Roaring Up

(oh my Father)

we shall forge with the Fist-and-the-Fury:

we shall flail in the Hot Time:

we shall

we shall

--(From "The Near-Johannesburg Boy," by Gwendolyn Brooks, 1986)

Hearing a radio broadcast of two black South African boys asking each other, " 'Have you been detained yet? How many times have you been detained?' " spurred her to write "The Near-Johannesburg Boy" through the voice of a youth growing up outside the all-white town, said Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks.

"Of course, I have no way of knowing how accurate I might be, but when I was writing (the poem) I really felt I was there," said the 70-year-old poet, who won't visit South Africa while apartheid is its policy. "And there's no punctuation at the end of that (poem), because there's no punctuation in that situation as yet," she added.

Political Overtones

Presently, Brooks is writing a long poem addressed to Winnie Mandela, wife of the imprisoned African National Congress leader, Nelson Mandela. "I haven't been a heroine in South Africa, but I am a black woman, and I have had various degrees of the experience," through which Winnie Mandela and other South African blacks are passing, Brooks said.

Many of Brooks' poems have political overtones. However, "I don't think of myself as sitting down to write politically," she said. "I sit down (to write poetry) because I'm intensely moved by something. . . . I'm not afraid of the word inspirational . So I am inspired by many things. A show on TV, an expression on a face, may inspire a new poem."

A deep-voiced woman with a direct gaze, a gray-and-black Afro and a propensity for wearing neat but rather drab clothes, Brooks mixes grandmotherly advice with dryly witty comments when she talks to students and other young writers. Her opinions about the condition of poetry and the world are usually stated with clear force, but she sees herself as "very inarticulate" in person, she said.

"I have a hard time saying exactly what I'm feeling," she confessed at the end of her visit to Orange, just before boarding a train to San Francisco while she was in California to give readings. "I guess that's why I write, because I am an inarticulate person, who has a hard time spieling out" ideas.

The ideas Brooks expresses on paper have been published in 12 books of poetry, one novel and an autobiography over the last 42 years. From her first book ("A Street in Bronzeville") she's written about aspects of the black experience in America and elsewhere.

Books Hard to Find

Yet while Brooks is well-known among poets and literature professors, her work can be hard to find, as a September article in The Nation noted. "With all the interest in black and women's studies, (Brooks) is less known today than she was in the 1950s . . . even to sample (her later poetry) requires the resources of a college library and interlibrary loan," wrote Clara Claiborne Park, who also called Brooks "a master of her instrument."

In large part, the scarcity of Brooks' books results from a political transformation she underwent two decades ago. That transformation caused a dramatic change in her writing and in the ways in which her writing is published.

In younger years, Brooks often wrote in formal verse, particularly favoring sonnets, but in the last 20 years she's been "successfully escaping from close rhyme, because it just isn't natural," she said at Chapman College. "I've written hundreds and hundreds of sonnets, and I'll probably never write another one, because I don't feel this is a sonnet time. It seems to me it's a wild, raw, ragged free verse time."

The social upheaval of the 1960s caught up with Brooks in 1967. By then accustomed to honors, having long since won the Pulitzer (in 1950, for her second book, "Annie Allen"), Brooks attended a spring writers conference at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.

She expected to be greeted warmly at Fisk, Brooks wrote in her 1972 autobiography, "Report From Part One." Instead, she found the students were much more excited by ideas about the "New Black" expressed by poet Imamu Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones). "Up against the wall, white man! was the substance of the Baraka shout, at the evening reading he shared with fierce Ron Milner among intoxicating drum-beats, heady incense and organic underhumming," she wrote in "Report." "Up against the wall! And a pensive (until that moment) white man of 30 or 33 abruptly shot himself into the heavy air, screaming, 'Yeah! Yeah! Up against the wall, Brother! KILL 'EM ALL! KILL 'EM ALL!' I thought that was interesting."

'A Very Exciting Time'

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