The poet Gwendolyn Brooks, whose birthday is June 7, is celebrated in the CSO for Kids video "Exquisite."
“Poetry is life distilled,” declared the poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2003), one of the greatest exponents of that art form. Her legacy is celebrated in the picture book Exquisite, which showcases her determination to write poetry from an early age. Exquisite also is the focus of the latest CSO for Kids release, now streaming for free on CSOtv.
Written by Suzanne Slade and illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera, Exquisite follows Brooks from adolescence into adulthood as it explores the intersections of race, gender and socioeconomic status, all with a lyrical touch worthy of the subject.
Ahead of her birthday on June 7, here are some salient points to remember about the life and legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks:
A life of firsts: In 1950, Brooks became the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress — the first Black woman to hold that position. And she also was the first woman and Black author to serve as poet laureate of the State of Illinois, from 1968 until her death in 2000.
A citizen of Chicago: Though born in Topeka, Kan., Brooks considered the Windy City, where she moved as an infant with her parents, her home. "The innovation, strength, struggle and vision of [Chicago's] black residents gave her a backdrop and context for all that would interest her in her work," according to one early account of Brooks' poems. She titled her first collection of poems A Street in Bronzeville, after the South Side neighborhood that was so critical to her artistic development. A Chicago Tribune review hailed "the publication of A Street in Bronzeville [as] an exceptional event in the literary life of Chicago, for it is the first book of a solidly Chicago person.”
An early start: Brooks was 13 when her first published poem, “Eventide,” appeared in the magazine American Childhood; by the time she was 17, she was publishing poems regularly in the newspaper the Chicago Defender.
An advocate for social justice: Rooted in the African-American experience, her poems eloquently addressed the issues of social injustice and inequality. "Anything that I write," she once said, "is going to issue from a concern with and interest in blackness and its progress.”
A mentor for young artists: Throughout her career, Brooks championed the cause of childhood literacy. Her efforts had an impact on a young Kanye West, who calls the poet "one of his favorite writers." When he was in grade school, West met Brooks at a dinner for local students. "Gwendolyn Brooks was there, and everyone was reading their poems," the hip-hop star recalled in a 2015 interview with Complex magazine. Brooks asked West if he a poem to read. He told her no, "but I can write one real quick." He excused himself, wrote a poem and then read it for her and his fellow students.
A Day of Gwendolyn: During a memorable 1986 lecture at the Library of Congress, which the poet's daughter dubbed "A Day of Gwendolyn," Brooks set forth her philosophy of creativity. "There is no one way to write poetry, because there is no one kind of life, nor death, nor view, nor credit, nor debit, nor proof, nor pride," said Brooks, quoting the English poet Gerald Manley Hopkins. Then in her own words, she added: "I want my life and language involved with what delights and deepens, with what encourages with what astounds and angers and nourishes and offends and extends. I want images and sound in combinations that best evoke, extend, remind, decree."
Note: BrooksDay, the annual celebration of the poet's life and legacy will be conducted via social media on June 7, her birthday. Each year, the Guild Literary Complex, a Chicago-based non-profit group, usually hosts a reading of her works with students, writers and other artists from Chicago's literary community. Due to the pandemic, the event will be virtual again in 2021. For details, please visit the group's Facebook page.