Sunday, October 21, 2012

The curse & blessing of "We Real Cool"

"We Real Cool," Gwendolyn Brooks's most well-known poem, could be considered a curse or blessing depending on your perspective. Some would consider it unfortunate that a writer who produced hundreds of poems during her lifetime is known primarily for one. On the other hand, of the hundreds of thousands, no, of the millions of poems out there in the world, it's rare and honorable to have any of one's work become widely known.    

Poets who produce large numbers of works certainly do not want to be recognized by one, especially one written fairly early in their careers. Brooks's famous poem first appeared in the September 1959 issue of Poetry magazine, and the poem began regularly appearing in anthologies during the height of the black arts era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the time students arrive to my courses,  "We Real Cool" is the one and only poem that all of them know already.  

It's a blessing, not to mention a tremendous feat, to have one's poem known, recited, and beloved by so millions of people. But then, what does it mean if that single poem overshadows so many others you've written? People knowledgeable about poetry are aware of Brooks's other poems, and thankfully "We Real Cool" leads many curious and interested general readers to the broader body of her works.

Among the vast majority of poets whose works remain largely unknown, getting substantial attention for even a single work is important. However, within the class of poets who receive regular attention, there can be some setbacks to having only an individual work stand out in such an extraordinary way, especially if that single poem is so short and not necessarily representative. For some established poets, having editors and then general readers concentrate so much on only a single work probably felt like something of a curse or a blessing with mixed results at best.

Brooks has other popular poems of course such as "a song in the front yard," "kitchenette building," "the mother," and "The Bean Eaters" among others. But for better and worse, most general readers remain wed to "We Real Cool." There's a strong desire among many poets to become prominent and widely recognized for their works, and yet there's perhaps some fear when they consider the lack of control they might have in the reception of their own works.

I can certainly sympathize. I've written hundreds of blog entries about poetry, and I'm pleased that people might read and enjoy what I've written. At the same time though, I become somewhat nervous when I consider that it's possible I could become recognized (or even infamous?) for only one short entry.  

From Gwendolyn Brooks to Chief Keef 

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