Gwendolyn Brooks Poems
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).