Inspiration Station: Life Distilled in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

To be a writer in Chicago is to be constantly reminded that you stand on the shoulders of giants. That the same romance and dynamism and grit that moves you, also moved the many great writers who came before you. It is a humbling experience. And an inspiring one.

Sinclair and Algren, Hansberry and Norris, Bellow and Wright, Dybek and Cisneros and so many more have each painted our City with their own brushstrokes. And our poets, too, have looked to the lake, concrete, and steel and blood and smoke rising from factories, and penned the lyricism of Chicago, the contradictions. The pain and the glory. The simple quotidian existence of the multitudes who came to build this place. Indeed, Chicago may be one of the few cities that takes a traceable moniker directly from one of its poet sons. Carl Sandburg named us “The City of the Big Shoulders” and it stuck.

I want to share one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, the first poet laureate of Illinois, first African-American author to win the Pulitzer, Chicago’s beloved Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). I could spend pages talking about the rawness and power of her poetry, of its subtlety and activism. I could talk about her incredible commitment to this city where she taught classes until her death. I could talk about her love of our public schools and our people. I could talk about her most anthologized poem, We Real Cool, but listen to her instead. I had the privilege of seeing her read and she was a wonder.

“Poetry is life distilled,” Ms. Brooks said at Chicago Poetry Day talk in 1990. Perhaps the poem that best reflects this simple, beautiful idea for me is when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story.

As a writer, what inspires me about this poem is the simplicity of its language and the depth of its meaning, how the speaker is “Hugged by the plain old wrapper of no-expectation” and how those everyday words make us feel, for that brief moment in time, what she feels, a comfort of happiness even as she questions it. This poem is about love and loss and resignation and remembrance and about the cobwebs of memory that we brush away, though tiny particles of dust still linger. I have a smile in my heart and a lump in my throat every time I read this poem. Unpacking the craft makes me realize what a master Brooks was– how she takes us through the anatomy of a relationship, its tenderness and demise in a single afternoon. In 217 words, life distilled beautifully, poignantly by a poet at the height of art.

when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story

—And when you have forgotten the bright bedclothes on a Wednesday and a Saturday,
And most especially when you have forgotten Sunday—
When you have forgotten Sunday halves in bed,
Or me sitting on the front-room radiator in the limping afternoon
Looking off down the long street
To nowhere,
Hugged by my plain old wrapper of no-expectation
And nothing-I-have-to-do and I’m-happy-why?
And if-Monday-never-had-to-come—
When you have forgotten that, I say,
And how you swore, if somebody beeped the bell,
And how my heart played hopscotch if the telephone rang;
And how we finally went in to Sunday dinner,
That is to say, went across the front room floor to the ink-spotted table in the southwest corner
To Sunday dinner, which was always chicken and noodles
Or chicken and rice
And salad and rye bread and tea
And chocolate chip cookies—
I say, when you have forgotten that,
When you have forgotten my little presentiment
That the war would be over before they got to you;
And how we finally undressed and whipped out the light and flowed into bed,
And lay loose-limbed for a moment in the week-end
Bright bedclothes,
Then gently folded into each other—
When you have, I say, forgotten all that,
Then you may tell,
Then I may believe
You have forgotten me well.

Source: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997)

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