Reading Guide

Reading Guide for Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks

Whether a novice or expert poetry reader, the best way to encounter and make meaning of poetry is to undertake a close reading of the poem to identify the topic, the details used by the poet, and the meaning that emerges from re-reading. Here are some resources and questions for you to use as you read closely from Brooks’ work.

kitchenette building

“What is the significance of the narrator speaking on behalf of a collective (“we are things…”)?

  • What various interpretations of this plural subject can you think of?

List the concrete images Brooks employs. How do these images contrast with the elusive, nondescript nature of the “dream” imagery?

  • How does this imagery connect to the dichotomy between “giddy” and “strong” on line 2?

Why are the living conditions the narrator describes “involuntary?”

  • Involunariness connotes a removal of agency or choice. How do you see the poem connecting involuntariness to dehumanization (for instance, the use of “Number Five” on line 12 or “things” in line 1)?
  • Gwendolyn Brooks reads “the mother”
  • “How Poetry Might Change the Pro-Life Debate,” by Karen Swallow Prior in Christianity Today

Why might the narrator abruptly start referring to “the dream” as “it” in the fourth stanza?

the mother

Why might Brooks have decided to leave the poem’s title uncapitalized?

Why does Brooks qualify “mother” with the definite article “the” as opposed to an indefinite article (“a mother”) or no article at all?

How does Brooks capture the regret and lament of a woman who did not become a mother. What is the significance of this tension?

  • How might Brooks be leveraging this tension to evoke images of motherhood?
  • How might this tension relate to the final stanza?

How would you characterize the narrator’s relationship to her children? Catalog the various (and conflicting) emotions the narrator expresses.

What is the narrator communicating through her repeated usage of the past tense of “loved” in the final stanza?

After reading Elizabeth Palmer’s brief essay on Brooks, consider how “The Mother” might be a example of Brooks’ attempts to describe what she saw and observed in her neighborhood.

  • In what ways would her poetic-prophetic voice be evident in this poem?
  • How is she bearing witness to the lived experiences of her community?

Reflect on your own response to reading a poem that captures raw and unsettling events. What does your reaction reveal to you?

Sadie and Maud

In what ways do both Sadie and Maud subvert societal expectations?

What are the similarities and differences between the respective expectations for Sadie and Maud? How do they relate to these mores similarly and differently?

How does defying these norms tangibly impact both Sadie and Maud?

What might Brooks be conveying about the experience of Black women in the 1940s through juxtaposition of Sadie and Maud?

What is Brooks communicating through the contrast between different metaphors for death (“nearly died of shame” in the third stanza and “said her last so-long” in the fourth stanza)?

What language does Brooks employ to portray Sadie’s happiness?

Does the poem indicate Maud is unhappy? If so, where? If not, what might Brooks be signaling?

 Gay Chaps at the Bar

What is the significance of the plural narrator?

How does the epigraph’s emotional dichotomy (“crying and trembling” / “gay chaps”) reflect the poem’s thematic tension?

What does the phrase “Knew white speech?” connote? Brooks positions the phrase “Knew white speech” in the eighth of fourteen lines. Is this central placement intentional? If so, how does this line connect to the entirety of the sonnet?

What might Brooks communicate through the casualness of the metaphor “chat with death” (line 12)?

How does the power depicted in the first half of the poem contrast with the powerlessness exemplified in the second? What does this juxtaposition represent about the broader themes of youth and war?

Negro Hero

What wars are the narrator waging?

The narrator expresses several—sometimes conflicting—motivations for his actions. What are they? How do they relate to his titular status as a “hero?”

Both the first and last stanzas include the phrase “I had to kick the law into their teeth” in conjunction with salvation. What does it mean? How are these instances connected? How are the contexts different?

Knife imagery occurs multiple times—the personification of democracy is described as armed with a knife (stanza 4), whereas (presumably white) citizens wield knives in the last stanza. What does the knife represent in both contexts?

What is the significance of the narrator switching from democracy holding a knife to the citizens “preferring” and “preserving” knives?

How is the “drowning men” idea used literally and figuratively in this poem?

What does the narrator’s frequent use of qualifiers (“however,” “but,” etc.) signify?

Children of the Poor

Commentators have described these five sonnets as “protest poems.” What is Brooks protesting?

How does the metaphor of death as a “university” intersect with the children’s requests (primarily in the second sonnet) and mother’s questioning?

What does Brooks mean by “For having first to civilize a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace” in the fourth sonnet? How does it pertain to the interrelated ends of creating art and pursuing justice?

The sonnets—especially the second—employ extensive biblical imagery (e.g., “lepers,” “the leastwise,” etc.). What is the significance of this?

What are some various interpretations of the third sonnet’s presentation of Christianity? Do you agree or disagree with these interpretations? Why?