Gwendolyn Brooks Poems
To Dream of Something More: Friedan, Brooks, and the Place of Women
Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique created a social revolution in the 1960s by addressing the role of women in society and its effects on their emotional and mental health. Her words opened the eyes of many American housewives who felt incomplete and lost. Friedan helped these women empathize and associate with what she called “the problem that has no name,” and the only way to resolve this problem was to work or live a “meaningful” life. Often, this problem comes from a yearning for something more than being a mother or a wife. For some women, this means a purposeful career or making a mark in this world: women at the time felt trapped and suffocated by life in the home. This problem in many ways is similar to the conditions diagnosed in Gwendolyn Brooks’s kitchenette building in that the realities of life contradict the dream of finding something more fulfilling. Brooks’s poem relates to this problem as it too deals with the struggle of carrying an empty dream, particularly among those stuck in the domestic or social system. However, the specific audience each text targets within domestic life is different, so that although the concepts being brought up are similar, the realities of wanting something more complicate the relationship between these two works. The two audiences for these authors face different living conditions and have different backgrounds which prove important to understanding the depths and significance of their dreams. Although similar in ideology, the “giddy sound, not strong” of a dream evokes more of a helpless feeling while, in contrast, “the problem that has no name” offers tangible solutions that evoke a sense of real control and optimism.
Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique deals with the internal conflict between the typical white woman’s realities of daily life and the dream of a more purposeful or meaningful life. She calls this phenomenon “the problem that has no name” and interviews many women who feel this type of emotional emptiness. This famous phrase recalls Brooks’s ideas of the condition of people living in kitchenette buildings; they are also trapped, just like the suburban women of Friedan’s book. The theme of dreaming of something more is consistent between these two texts, as Brooks’s people long for a vision of better living conditions. Although they have accepted their state of life, there is always that lingering feeling of hoping that something better will come. One woman Friedan interviewed said, “The problem is always being the children’s mommy, or the minister’s wife, and never being myself” (Friedan 28). This relates back to Brooks’s poem in that specific women are stuck in a system society placed them in, and are having a tough time breaking out of it and overcoming important social or economic barriers.
Brooks’ poem kitchenette building brings to mind some of the concepts presented in The Feminine Mystique in that the poem talks about people with no clear path in life or little control over their lives. The poem by Brooks starts with the words, “We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan, grayed in, and gray” (Brooks 1). The use of the word “we” sets a more inclusive tone and makes the reader wonder why Brooks is saying these humans are things and not people. It gives the reader a hint that these people must be undervalued in society. This narrative voice further sets a gloomy and eerie tone to the poem. The use of “gray,” “dry hours,” and “involuntary plan” implies that Brooks’s people are feeling weary about their lives and maybe even about their potential dreams, an idea that directly relates to Friedan’s perspective on the problem that has no name. Friedan writes, “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.’” (Friedan 32). Here, Friedan is also talking about people who feel trapped by home life. The difference is that Brooks is talking about kitchenettes, which were cramped series of small rooms, while Friedan is talking about the typical white suburban home. This leads us to the question of whether these two texts can be compared any further due to their completely different audiences and distinct perspectives on the dangers of domesticity.
Arguably, the realities of daily life cannot really be compared between African Americans living in kitchenettes and privileged middle- to upper-class white women of American suburbia. Brooks writes, “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong” (Brooks 2). She suggests that dreams for the people she is writing about are far fetched and far away, not strong enough to create something real. The state of dreaming is fruitless because living under such adverse real conditions is complicated, as there are more crucial things to overcome and think about than passing dreams. Instead of dreams, the smell of “yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall” pervades the air (Brooks 6). Brooks implies that dreams cannot be easily fulfilled in a kitchenette building, or even survive amid racism, poverty, and unsanitary living conditions. Yet Friedan’s tone is much more optimistic. She gives a solution to the problem and is sure that women can conquer it if they do certain things. For example, her solution is to break out of “the domestic routine of the housewife.” (Friedan 30). The act of being a wife, a mother, a caregiver puts strain on these women and creates tiredness. Her solutions are somewhat absolute in nature. Women should focus on their careers, put marriage and children second, and feel empowered. In contrast, Brooks offers no solution and no happy ending. The events of Brooks’s poem are much more vague in this regard, and her tone can be described as one of hopelessness. There is no solution other than living roughly the same day over and over again. She even ends the poem by depicting an unsettling image of person number five hoping to get into “the lukewarm communal bathwater” (Brooks 13).
The Feminine Mystique, therefore, has many racist and classist undertones and refuses to acknowledge the future and hardships of the non-white women living in the “kitchenette buildings.” Friedan targets a completely different, less marginalized audience. She writes of the dreams of women who live in pleasant homes and who, most importantly, have the ability and leisure to dream. For these women, social and creative dreams are much more realistic, much easier to attain. The people in Brooks’s poem are too busy worrying about paying their bills and keeping their children clothed and fed to spend time nourishing their dreams and thinking about all that is missing from their lives. Their attention is needed elsewhere because of their economic state and role in society. Friedan’s solution to the “problem that has no name” is very much one size fits all. She only focuses on the conditions of white, college educated, upper and middle class married American women living in suburban homes, while completely ignoring those who are not nearly as privileged. Friedan, thus, fails to advocate for all women. She avoids discussing the consequences of her solution and how it would affect other groups of women struggling with systematic oppression. For example, what would happen when privileged white women decide to focus on their careers? Who would be called in to be a nanny for the kids or a maid for the house? How would this create new problems for those other care-giving women? These questions address the needs of women who don’t have children, a college education, a career, a husband to depend on, or a sanitary living environment.
Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Brooks’s kitchenette building focus on the idea that the voices of some groups in society are not being heard and, thus, that these people are trapped by societal constraints. The problem that has no name is a real issue among women homemakers: they want more out of life than simply taking care of kids and husbands. This sense of longing is also described in Brooks’s poem. The main difference is that this longing is more of a pleasant and distant afterthought for the people living in the kitchenette building. The dream is just a far-off “giddy sound,” a hopeless vision for a better reality. For the white women in Friedan’s piece, the dream is “a hunger that food cannot fulfill,” something that can be achieved if women try hard enough. For Brooks’s people living in the horrid and inescapable environment of a kitchenette building, “the giddy sound” of a dream is just that, a dream. The unfortunate reality is that to dream of something more has different consequences for different populations.
What We Ain’t Got
In the poem “a song in the front yard,” Gwendolyn Brooks uses denotation and connotation to depict underlying meanings of specific words and phrases that add to the significance of the poem as a whole. Brooks uses denotation to refer to the reality of the speaker’s situation at hand, and connotation to express the comparison between the poem and her view about life.
The setting and title both have specific denotation and connotation. It opens with the line “I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life” (Brooks line 1). The denotation is a literal front yard with a young girl playing. She plays within the confinement of the boundaries that her mother sets for her. The denotation also functions to lead to imagery. For example, a picture of a little blonde girl in a soft pink dress and bows in her hair comes to mind. The connotation of the yard depicts a way of life that is monotonous and safe. The interpretation of their yard in this way sets the tone for the rest of what is going to happen and expresses the attitude of the speaker about her life.
The first stanza is full of a variety of connotations that immediately show the speaker’s feelings toward her surroundings. The line that states, “A girl gets sick of a rose” (line 4) has a denotation that suggests the front yard may have flowers or a well-kept garden. A rose is commonly tied with elegance, beauty, and true love. The connotation of the rose alludes to the innocence and simplicity of the life the speaker is living right now. The connotation also shows the hatred that the speaker feels about her simple life that is meant to be beautiful. She desires more than living simply and being a lady. The speaker has an adventurous side that is being hindered by the limitations set for her. In contrast to the lovely front yard, there is a back yard that is “untended and hungry” (line 3). It is a wild place where the speaker is not allowed to play. The denotation of hunger is a feeling of weakness caused by lack of food. Weeds do not have literal hunger, though. The speaker uses this word to show how ravenous the weeds are in taking over the back yard. The speaker is filled with discontentment and feels trapped inside the front yard. The connotation of the back yard shows the uncertainty and dangers of life that her mother wants to protect her from. The hungry weed is a representation of a rampant, messy, and avid life. Though her mother wants to protect her, the speaker is extraordinarily fascinated by this different way of life, and she desires “a peek at the back” (line 2). In the second stanza, the speaker made it evident which socioeconomic class she belongs to in order to give background information to other aspects of what will occur: “I want to go in the back yard now And maybe down the alley, To where the charity children play. I want a good time today” (lines 5-8). Calling the other kids “charity children” (line 7) shows that the speaker belongs to a higher class. This point is made in order to hint to the connotations of everything that the mother says to the speaker in the third stanza. The speaker always addresses her mom as “My mother” (line 11, 13). The denotation of mother is a woman in relation to a child to whom she has given birth. The connotation of choosing to call her “mother” shows that the speaker is white. Terms like “ma” or “mama” are often used with an African-American speaker as opposed to the more formal address given by this speaker. The mother shows her disdain for the other children by sneering at the speakers desire to play with them: “My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine” (line 11). The denotation of sneer suggests a condescending outlook on the situation, but knowing the socioeconomic class and race of the mother, it suggests more. This sneer represents that the mother is racist and has true hate for the neighboring children. It is meant to show how much she deeply disapproves of them.
The denotation of the bad woman with the “stockings of night-black lace” (line 19) indicates that she is a prostitute. The connotation behind the woman expresses more about the speaker than the actual prostitute. The speaker makes light of this by calling the stockings “brave” (line 19). The use of the word brave shows that the speaker somewhat aspires to become like the woman wearing the stockings. The speaker views the woman as powerful. She portrays wearing the stockings as a good thing because of the freedom that woman who wears them has.
Much of the meaning of this poem derives from Brock’s use of denotation and connotation. “A song in the front yard” gives the reader a view into what it was like living as a high-class white child during the time when racism was still evident. The speaker of this poem did not have the same prejudices that her mother did, therefore she deeply desired what she was not able to have.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. “a song in the front yard.” Perrines Literature: Structure, Sound & Sense Tenth ed. Eds. Thomas, R. Arp and Johnson, Greg. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009. 948. Print.
Lorde and Brooks: Poetry and Its Radical Emotion
Audre Lorde’s 1985 essay Poetry is Not a Luxury makes several arguments about the purpose and power of poetry, particularly for marginalized groups like women and people of color. Her explanation of how poetry serves us—as a tool to turn radical emotions into rational and liberating ideas—is mirrored in Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1967 poem Boy Breaking Glass. Brooks’ poem about oppression within the African American community is heavily riddled with intense emotion, emotion that the poet focuses in the images and themes of the poem to reveal a rational idea about equality. In this way, Brooks’ poem shows that poetry can “give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless” (Lorde).
Both Brooks and Lorde view emotion, and the poetry that comes out of it, as a way of resisting oppressive norms. Throughout her essay, Lorde speaks about “the white fathers” who try to suppress the emotions of black women. When black women become more in touch with their “ancient, black, non-European view of living . . . [they] learn more and more to cherish [their] own feelings” (Lorde). Lorde explains that emotion and poetry “forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action” (Lorde). Lorde’s argument that poetry can formulate ideas that spark resistance and change is exemplified in Boy Breaking Glass, where Gwendolyn Brooks sympathizes with a boy committing an act of vandalism, and even goes as for as to call the vandalism a work of art. Brooks’ focuses her anger about being systematically oppressed into the language of her poetry and the result is several radical and envelope-pushing ideas about race.
One of the ideas that comes to fruition in the poem is a justification of black anger. The first few lines of the poem, “whose broken window is a cry of art” clearly marks a comparison between angry, purposeful, destruction, and art (Brooks, 1). This act of vandalism represents a furious shout from the African American community as if to say Look at Us! We Matter! We Deserve Equality!, a defiant and radical expression from the point of view of the “white fathers” who control society and set the standards for intellectual expression (Lorde). The poem goes on to call this act of destruction a “(success, that winks aware/ as elegance, as a treasonable faith)” (Brooks 2-3). In these two lines, Brooks argues that although this vandalism may be “treasonable” or forbidden by white society, it is still successful, and “elegant” (Brooks 2-3). That is to say, just because white people may not believe that black anger is justified, doesn’t mean that it isn’t. Just because white people may disapprove of the Civil Rights Movement, doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. Her sympathy toward this destructive boy, and her confidence in calling his vandalism a “cry of art” signifies how emotions “become sanctuaries, and fortresses, and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas” (Brooks 1, Lorde). Poetry allows Brooks to communicate her own rational—but still revolutionary—ideas, as opposed to listening to the western ideas of white society. Brooks “feels therefore [she] can be free,” and breaks from the chains of western thinking (Lorde). As Lorde says, “poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary awareness and demand” (Lorde). With poetry, Brooks and Lorde are able to contribute to ground breaking and equality bearing movements.
Brooks’ sympathy for the boy and her justification of black anger continues in the final two stanzas. In the seventh stanza, the boy is angry that his name has been thrown away, a dehumanizing act touched on in the title of the poem as well as the first sentence, where the subject of the poem is only referred to as “boy” and “whose” and denied a name or any identifying features (Brooks 1). She justifies his anger, and makes the reader sympathetic for him by making the final stanza a list of the privileges that the boy lives without, like “congress, lobster, love, luau, the Regency Room, the Statue of Liberty” (Brooks 22-23). Brooks portrays the boy as a victim, showing his struggle as a result of living without privileges that white people are commonly afforded. Making the readers view the boy as an underprivileged child, instead of an unjustifiably angry criminal, upturns western modes of thinking so as to escape the “structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization” in which “our feelings were not meant to survive” (Lorde). Once again, Lorde and Brooks move away from the ideals set up by the “white fathers” and move toward a more “ancient, black, non-European view of living” by using their poetry to turn their emotions and feelings into ideas (Lorde).
Another instance in which Brooks topples the traditional western canon using poetry is in her references to colonialism. Brooks uses the normally oppressive theme of colonialism—using images like “pepper,” “salt,” and “cargoes”—and turns it into an empowering theme with the intentional reversal of the order of the words pepper and salt (Brooks, 9-10). Whereas you would normally refer to the two seasonings as “salt and pepper,” Brooks uses “pepper,” a black seasoning, before “salt,” a white seasoning, attacking the common association of whiteness as the default race, while blackness remains “racially other.” Also, she pairs “pepper” with light and “Salt” with night, challenging the common association of whiteness with light and purity and drawing from an “ancient, black, non-European way of living” (Lorde). Lorde would argue that Brooks wouldn’t have come to these defiant and radical themes and images if it weren’t for the poem itself, for Lorde believes that “we can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to discipline (transpose) them into a language that matches those feelings so that they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it” (Lorde).
Lorde’s 1985 essay about how poetry is not simply a luxury to women of color argues that emotions and poetry make up the “skeleton architecture” of the lives of oppressed groups like women and people of color (Lorde). Poetry translates emotions into ideas that can be used as weapons against resistance. Lorde’s ideas are mirrored in Gwendolyn Brooks’ earlier 1967 poem Boy Breaking Glass in which Brooks focuses her emotion to create ideas that subvert the traditional western narrative of anti-blackness and colonialism. Where revolutionary or change-making language “does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it” (Lorde).