Wednesday, June 27, 2012

People Watching: Gwendolyn Brooks & Robert Hayden

Elder couple eating dinner, 1942, photograph by Gordon Parks
 Among other functions, well-known poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden suggest that the two poets had done their fair share of people watching. They read about, studied, and likely spent considerable time staring at black folks.

In her poem "The Bean Eaters," first published in Poetry magazine in 1959, Brooks looks in on an old couple "As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes." Brooks's poem seems to peek into the window of the room where the two people sit having a meal in their low-income dwelling.

Hayden's "The Whipping" is basically about a speaker looking "across the way" as an old woman "is whipping the boy again / and shouting to the neighborhood  / her goodness and his wrongs." The poem allows us to stare along with the speaker and become witnesses to the painful scene, which can stir up "woundlike memories."

Brooks's "kitchenette building" is a persona poem but appears to be based on her close observations of people in her city as well. Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" is a touching retrospective reflection about the speaker's father, who "with cracked hands that ached /  from labor in the weekday weather," rose early to make a fire to warm the family's house.

Brooks's and Hayden's skills translating their people watching into poems are wonderful gifts. They provide us, their readers, with opportunities to observe seemingly isolated or private routines of everyday folk. The simple complexity of the pieces make them rewarding to read again and again.

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