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Tarvin 1

GWENDOLYN BROOKS (1917-2000) This handout was prepared by Dr. William Tarvin, a retired professor of literature. Please visit my free website www.tarvinlit.com. Over 500 works of American and British literature are analyzed there for free. I. "SADIE AND MAUD" 1. Summarize what happens to the two sisters, Sadie and Maud. Sadie stayed home and had two _____________ out of wedlock. Maud went to college and never _______________. Sadie's life stressed the physical; Maud's, the ______________. 2. With which of the two sisters does the poem mainly deal? Why? It principally deals with Sadie. Only ____________ of the 20 lines deal with Maud (1, 11, 17-20). The speaker may be suggesting that Sadies fate is more typical of the ___________ in her society. 3. Of what two types of women may Sadie and Maud be symbols? Sadie may symbolize the uneducated woman, who can survive only by letting her __________ be misused. Maud may symbolize the educated woman, whose mental achievement isolates her from (or intimidates) the men in her society, since Maud winds up an old maid: "a thin brown _____________" "living all ____________" (18-19). The speaker implies that the alternatives Sadie and Maud represent are both undesirable; a woman should be able to express herself both ______________ and physically, not one or the other, a major theme in other of Brooks's poems. An Explication of Gwendolyn Brookss Sadie and Maud Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O'Clair in The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (3rd ed.) write that Gwendolyn Brooks in her poetry depicts the everyday lives of African American city dwellers, especially women (2:141). They continue that in one of her poems, Sadie and Maud, Brooks shows that

Tarvin 2 [s]he prefers wild girls [Sadie] to safe ones [Maud] (2:141). My explication of this poem will challenge this interpretation by showing that Brooksfar from prefer[ring] the life style of either womancriticizes both options available to African American women at that time. I will concentrate on the following points: (1) theme, structure, and symbolism; (2) diction (including imagery and figures of speech) and syntax; and (3) sound devices and metrics. The theme of Sadie and Maud is reinforced by its structure and symbolism. The theme is a protest against the limited opportunities available to African American women in the society presented. A narrative poem of four quatrain stanzas and one sestet stanza, it tells the story of two sisters, portraying them as typical of the women in this society: Sadie lived at home, had two children out of wedlock, and died young. However, Maud went to college and came back to this society to live her life as an old maid, a thin brown mouse / . . . living all alone / In this old house (19-22). The poem employs a structure which moves from one sister to the other: Maud went to college. / Sadie stayed at home (1-2). However, sixteen of the twenty-two lines of the poem concentrate on Sadie, thus suggesting that her fate was more typical of African American women in her society. Both sisters are symbolic: Sadiethe word sad occurs in her namesymbolizes the uneducated woman who can survive only by letting her body be misused. Maudthe name suggests madsymbolizes the educated woman, whose mental achievement isolates her from society to the extent that, presumably intimidated by her, no African American man marries her. Neither woman, trapped in a stereotype, is allowed to achieve physical and mental unity and fulfillment. Theirs is a world of this or that, not of both this and that. Thus structure and symbolism reinforce the theme of the poem.

Tarvin 3 Diction, imagery, figures of speech, and syntax also convey a realistic portrayal of the lives of the two sisters. Slang dialect is particularly used in reference to Sadie: the livingest chit (7) and her last so-long (15). Most of the diction is concrete, but abstract words are found in life (3), shame (12), and heritage (17). Various types of realistic imagery are used: Sight in thin and brown (20); sound in Sadie said her last so-long (13); and touch in Sadie scraped life / With a fine-tooth comb (3-4). No similes are used, but one metaphor is employed for each sister: Maud is called a thin brown mouse (20), and Sadies experiencing of life is compared with a Comb moving through hair (3-6). Hyperbole is seen in livingest (7) and Nearly died of shame (12). Concerning syntax, there are twelve sentences in the 93-word poem; thus the average sentence length is around eight words per sentence. The short sentences may symbolize the shortness of Sadies life or the few options available to African American women at that time. None of the lines are enjambed, the heavy endstop of each perhaps also being an indication of the sisters dead-end lives. These techniques of diction and syntax point to the sound and metrical devices of the poem. In its five stanzas, Sadie and Maud uses the rhyme scheme of back in its quatrain stanzas 1, 2, 4, and 5. In stanza 3 (its sestet stanza), the rhyme scheme is abcbdb. All rhymes are perfect, masculine in type, and occur at the end of a line: home / comb, strand / land, name / shame, home / comb (repeated), and mouse / house. Alliteration is used in the poem, particularly the s in referring to Sadie: Sadie stayed, Sadie scraped, strand, shame, and so-long (3, 4, 6, 14, 15). Assonance is seen in the use of the o sound, especially in the first and last stanzas: college, home, fine-toothed comb, college, brown mouse, alone, and old house (1-4; 19-22). Metrically, the major line patterns are the dimeter and

Tarvin 4 the trimeter, which are used in all lines of stanzas 1, 3, and 5, and in the second and fourth lines of stanzas 2 and 4. The other lines use either tetrameter (5, 15, and 17) or pentameter (7). Concerning feet, lines 8 and 11 are perfect iambic, but most lines employ a variety of feet: Lines 9-12 are basically trochaic, and a spondee is used in line 2 (scraped life). The only caesura occurs in line 19. A scansion of stanza 5 reveals this varied metrical pattern, which may symbolize the helter-skelter of Sadie and Mauds wrecked lives: Maud, who went to college, Is a thin brown mouse. She is living all alone In this old house. In conclusion, Sadie and Maud shows Brooks examining symbolically the disappointing lives of two radically different sisters. Thematically, her poem is a protest against the stereotypes into which the sisters lives fall: Neither is ever allowed to be a complete woman, one who, having united the physical and the mental, has control of both her body and her mind. The poems diction, figures of speech, syntax, sound devices, and metrics convey the sisters divergence of life styles and even their hopelessness. Only such a close analysis, running almost 900 words, can bring out the brilliance which Brooks has brought to Sadie and Maud, which, after all, has only 93 words.

Tarvin 5

II. "WE REAL COOL" 1. THEME: The tragedy of young people who drop out of school and how this decision can destroy their lives, leading to _______ (5), drinking, cheating, and finally death. The youths think these actions make them real ___________ (1), but the poet probably believes they are not cool. 2. ALLITERATION/CONSONANCE: l = real, cool, left, school, lurk, late j = Jazz, June s = school, strike, straight, sing, sin, soon 3. ASSONANCE: 0 = Lines 1-2 and 7-8: cool, school, June, soon. 4. RHYME: Rhyme scheme: aa bb cc dd (couplets). All end rhymes are perfect. In line 6, thin is an Internal Rhyme for _________. 5. The following is an explication of this poem: An Explication of Brookss We Real Cool L. G. Kirszner and S. R. Mandell in Literature (3rd ed.) write that Gwendolyn Brooks shows "a remarkable ability to blend elements of traditional and modernist poetry with the language and rhythms of African-American life" (1073). An explication of Brooks's short poem "We Real Cool" will show this "blend[ing]" of poetic elements with realistic experiences. My analysis will concentrate on the following points: (1) theme and structure, (2) diction, syntax, and sound devices, and (3) metrics. The theme of "We Real Cool" is reinforced by its structure. The theme involves the peer pressure of being in a gang or any such group where, if you follow the crowd, you're "in" or "_______" (1), and if you don't, you're "out" or "not cool." This gang mentality is suggested by the speaker's use of the first person plural pronoun "_____." A lyric poem in four couplet stanzas, the structure of "We Real Cool" moves from the various personae dropping out of school, starting to hang out at a pool hall, leading to encountering criminal elements, to their final fate, an early death: "We / Left __________. / . . . We / Strike __________ [a pool stick term]. We / Sing ________. We / Thin _________. We / . . . Die soon" (1-2, 3-6, 7-8). Thus the structure, which shows the step-by-step downfall of the speaker, reinforces the theme of the "not-cool" consequences of being in a gang.

Tarvin 6 Diction, syntax and sound devices also convey life on the street. The opening line suggests a slang dialect, since "we real cool," grammatically should be "we're ______________ cool"; all of the words are one syllable. Sentences are also kept short, each containing only three words; the simple syntax gives the poem a hurried pace, just as the young man seem to be hurrying their lives to its end. Various types of imagery are used: Sight in "________ late" (3), Sound in "_________ sin" (5) and "__________ June" (7), and Taste in "Thin _______" (6). Abstract words are found in the first and last lines: "________ cool" and "_________ soon." While there are no similes in the poem, Sing sin (5) and Jazz June (7) are metaphors, as is the use of the name of the pool hall given in the subtitle, The Golden __________, a subtle indication that the young men are digging a grave for themselves. The poem is rhymed in the closed traditional form, following the scheme of aa bb cc dd. Much alliteration is used in the poem, particularly the l, s, and j consonants: "Left (2), Lurk ______" (3), "_________ straight (4), Sing ________ (5), ________" (8), and "Jazz ________" (7). Assonance is seen in the use of the o sound of "cool" and "soon," thus joining key words from the first with the last line. These sound devices point to the rhythm of the poem, which will now be discussed. Metrically, "We Real Cool" uses many stressed words. In fact, all of the words seem to be stressed, except for the pronoun "we," which is used eight times. Thus the major foot pattern is the spondee, which is seen in the first foot of lines 2-8. An unstressed half-foot closes out each line from 1-7. The shattered lives of the young gang-members is indicated by the use of a caesura in each line, which places the grammatical subject ("we") at the end of one line and its verb at the start of the next line. Thus there are 1 and 1/2 feet per line (monometer) excluding the first line which has two feet and the last which has one foot. A possible scansion of the first four lines is as follows: We real cool. We Left school. We Lurk late. We Strike straight. All in all, "We Real Cool" shows Brooks blending standard poetic devices with a realistic subject which many might consider unpoetic: the lives of some school dropouts. Thematically, her poem is a protest against lives being wasted because the young pool-players have been given a definition of "coolness" which can only lead to an early death. In its diction, syntax, and sound devices, the monosyllabic words, the short sentences, and the heavy alliteration convey that the young men's lives are disjointed. This idea is also contained in the poem's metrics through the many stressed words and the caesuras. Using only eight lines and 24 words, Brookss poem manages to capture a lost, not-so-cool generation.

Tarvin 7 III. "A SONG IN THE FRONT YARD" 1. Although this is one of Brooks's early poems, it shows her innate identity with her African heritage. 2. The poem sets up a contrast between what the speaker's parents want for the young girl--to behave like whites--and what the speaker wants--to associate with members of her Black culture: "I want to go in the _________ yard now / And maybe down the ___________" (5-6). 3. Symbolically, the "front yard" represents the facade of imitating ___________ culture, while the "back yard" heralds a return to her ________________ heritage. 4. The rhyme scheme is novel: abcc, until the last stanza, which becomes aabb.