Two Poems Inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks

Two Poems Inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks


Childhood Conversations

Here is Julie with her tangled brown hair.
Here lies Julie with her scared brown eyes.
Poor Julie with her Portuguese words.
And Julie with her hesitant byes.

Words whirl by on the classroom TV
And nothing seems to make sense.
She turns around to look at her peers
And then, she sees it commence.

Laughter at jokes that seem to play on.
Frowns when something goes wrong.
But to Julie it’s noise after noise after noise.
Oh, it goes on for too long! 

And then the bell blares for recess.
And the kids all scurry along.
Words twirl and dance between their lips
But to Julie, it’s not like a song. 

It’s not like a song as the words are just words.
There’s no meaning behind what they say.
And so Julie watches, a faraway ghost.
And she cries and she cries as they play.

Give Me

Give me the red
rose. The purple
prose. The blooming

Give me cracking
cakes. The stellar
shakes. The smoky

Give me the milky
moon. The jigsaw
June. The silver

Give me diamond
dreams. Some candy
cream. The starry

On Writing “Childhood Conversations” and “Give Me”

“Childhood Conversations” and “Give Me” are inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks’s poems, especially those focused on childhood and growing up, including “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie,” “a song in the front yard,” and “We Real Cool.” I find it notable that many of Brooks’s poems are works of portraiture, with rhyme schemes and musicality that push forward her characters’ emotions and are pleasing to listen to. I wrote “Childhood Conversations” and “Give Me” based on these characteristics, focusing not only on the stories I was telling, but also on how they sounded.

The first poem I wrote, “Childhood Conversations,” is heavily inspired by Brooks’ “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie.” In the poem, I write about Julie (who is a child, just like Mabbie) and her experiences in a classroom filled with students that don’t speak the same language as she does; I focus my poem on Julie’s sadness regarding her ostracization and how her classmates’ words are not songs to her but sources of confusion. Throughout the poem, I focus on a single scene that Julie is a part of rather than giving any background information on her as a character. This singular focus is inspired by Brooks’s ballad; I find that by focusing on one person, I have more freedom to highlight the character’s feelings and thoughts, which readers may relate to.

When writing my poem, I mirrored the ballad structure and ABCB rhyme scheme of “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie.” I find this poem’s structure striking, as it makes the lines musical to read; the reader can anticipate the rhyme scheme, thus giving the poem a heartbeat. Each stanza in the ballad also has exactly four lines, each with around the same number of syllables; this adds to the musicality of the poem, as it creates a consistent visual and auditory structure. The reader also does not have to rush certain words to follow the poem’s pulse, as each line already has an established pattern.

The poem’s ABCB rhyme scheme also reflects that of nursery rhymes, building on the poem’s theme of innocence; this relates to specific lines of the poem, such as “Mabbie thought life was heaven” and “[t]he grammar school gates were the pearly gates.”1 Since Mabbie is an innocent girl and the form matches her characteristics, the reader can imagine they are reading the poem to Mabbie herself or to children like her. This is striking, as the actual content of the poem is not innocent; Mabbie’s crush chooses to walk out with someone who has lighter skin than her. 

The hurt caused by this racially-motivated rejection is disguised in the poem’s innocent-sounding structure and rhyme scheme. This parallels the experience of being a child; children often, in their innocence, see the world as being rosy and perfect (again, emphasized through descriptions of how Mabbie admired Willie and saw the school’s gates as pearly), and are thus unable to see the world’s dangers. A child’s view of the world, then, is trusting to the point that it becomes misleading, just as the poem’s structure suggests a light-hearted story that is not there.

Regarding the theme of childhood innocence, I also gained inspiration from “a song in the front yard,” in which Brooks writes about a young girl who sees children playing in backyards and alleys. To the girl, the kids have more fun than she does, with no curfews or limitations. In the poem, Brooks employs phrases like “good time,” “wonderful fun,” and “bad woman.”2 These words signify a black and white view of the world; the speaker cannot see the fun she can have in her own front yard or the difficulties the other children may be undergoing. This feels like a childlike perspective, as the speaker’s views of the other children relate more to her own desires (the grass is greener on the other side) rather than the reality of her and the other kids’ situations.

I wanted to reflect a similar sentiment in my poem, and chose phrases like “her scared brown eyes” (line 2), “it’s noise after noise” (line 11), and “the words are just words” (line 17). I hope to show that through Julie’s eyes, there are no positive aspects associated with the words or actions of her peers. It does not cross her mind that her school situation could be enjoyable if she were to focus on other aspects, such as the images playing on the television or the free time she’ll have during recess; instead, Julie’s thoughts, just like Mabbie’s and that of the speaker of “a song in the front yard,” fixate on specific all-good and all-bad aspects of her experience. 

In my poem, I also wanted to pursue the idea of childhood innocence and how it may veil a child from the harshness of life. Like “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie,” my poem focuses on some of the hardships of childhood, like the challenges of fitting in. Similar to Brooks’s ballad, I wanted the structure of “Childhood Conversations” to mimic a nursery rhyme. This not only parallels the innocence of a child’s mind, but also creates irony. Nursery rhymes are often sung to children for educational purposes, with the rhyming words acting as anchors for children to learn the patterns and sounds of words; this is ironic in my poem, as Julie views words outside of the Portuguese language to be meaningless words that are nothing like songs. 

I furthered this irony through the use of alliteration, which is present in “words whirl” (line 5), “noise after noise after noise” (line 11), “bell blares” (line 13), and “cries and cries” (line 20). This alliteration, as well as the anaphoras in the first two lines and in lines 13 and 14, make the poem pleasant to read and bring music to the language. The dissonance between the sound of the language and their meaning emphasizes Julie’s pain. The words’ sounds, though they may blend together to create a beautiful harmony, are still paired with descriptions of words whirling (which may relate to the whirling of a storm), bells blaring, and noises that go on for too long. Julie is the main character in “Childhood Conversations,” yet if the reader were to recite the poem to her, she would likely be confused and feel further isolated. Julie’s ostracization is also created through the third-person point of view, since we only know her feelings through an outside narrator. 

Though Julie is further isolated through the poem’s form, I still wanted to create a sense of empathy for the character. I do this by using words such as “scared brown eyes” (line 2) and “poor Julie” (line 3). On line 12, I also write “Oh, it goes on for too long!” This remark is inspired by line 13 of “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie,” in which Brooks writes “[o]h, warm is the waiting for joys, my dears!” In that line, the exclamation point seems to emphasize Mabbie’s hopefulness; similarly, I added an exclamation mark on line 12 of my poem to show Julie’s strong emotions, like her frustration and craving for silence.

“Give Me” features a single speaker talking about everything she desires. For this poem, I wanted to reflect the character’s youthfulness and childlike view of the world, in which everything seems sweet. I also wanted to paint a picture of a child having a tantrum, so I repeated the words “give me” and also gave the poem that title. Through this repetition, I hope that the word “me” becomes prevalent and pushes forward the image of a young child saying “me, me, me” and talking about all the new things she wants. This idea was inspired by Brooks’ “a song in the front yard,” as the speaker of that poem also talks mostly about her desires, focusing only on what she wishes over what she already has. 

As for its form, my poem was influenced by Brooks’ “We Real Cool.” In my poem, I challenged myself to focus more on the sounds of the words and their rhythms rather than their meaning, as I had done in “Childhood Conversations.” As I was writing “Give Me,” I would go back to the beginning and recite what I had done so far, really listening to how the words sounded rather than focusing on the story they might be telling. This was difficult, as I tend to view language primarily as an intelligible form, thinking about its auditory form afterward. Reading my poem and “We Real Cool” aloud helped, as I took the pressure off of myself to create a traditional story with a rising and falling action, a climax, and characters.

In “We Real Cool,” Brooks utilizes enjambment in every line and stanza, ending each with, “We,” the first word of each next sentence. I have rarely seen such constant use of this device and find that it gives the stanzas a clear rhythm. Because of how the lines are structured, I feel inclined to pause after saying “we,” which creates a constant beat in the poem. This is also caused by each line (except for the first and last) having three syllables, again enforcing the pulse of the poem.

In “Give Me,” I mirrored the enjambments and constant number of syllables used by Brooks; I end all of my lines (except for the last in each stanza) in the middle of a sentence, and most lines have four syllables. I also employ alliteration in phrases throughout my poem, such as “purple prose” (lines 2-3), “smokey steaks” (lines 7-8), and “candy cream” (lines 14-15). This was influenced by “We Real Cool,” in which Brooks writes words like “Lurk late,”  “Strike straight,” and “Jazz June.”3 Brooks’s alliteration is enjoyable to say and encourages the reader to listen to the poem’s sounds rather than only focusing on its message. I hope that this is the case with my poem as well, as I want to link the harmony of the words to the eagerness of a child. 

I was also inspired by the way that Brooks does not name any characters in “We Real Cool,” yet she still creates a feeling of friendship and unity. I get this sense through the repetition of the word “we” and the fact that the enjambments in the poem bring extra attention to that word. The repetition of “we,” then, seems to parallel the members of the group, who are individual yet stand together. I find that the ambiguity of the characters also opens the poem up for readers to relate to: instead of picturing specific people, for example, the readers can instead picture themselves being part of the group. I wanted to mirror this idea, so I also did not name my speaker. Since my poem only has one main character, the reader may then be able to relate to that one speaker’s desires or may imagine someone who reminds them of the character. 

In “Give Me,” I also use many sensory details, such as “smoky” (line 7), “milky” (line 9), and “starry” (line 15). This was inspired by “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie,” as Brooks includes words like “bubble” and “saucily,” which remind me of melting chocolate and may describe Mabbie’s skin tone.4 In that poem, Brooks also describes the girl that Mabbie’s crush comes out with as a “lemon-hued lynx”; this may relate to Mabbie’s bitter feelings after seeing her crush with someone else. Brooks’ use of sensory imagery, then, both invites the reader to feel specific sensations and relates these feelings to the story.

I wanted to echo this by using details with positive connotations: I describe shakes, candy, and cakes, for example, to invite the reader to imagine tasting their sweetness. These words also remind me of childhood, as kids often eat sweets without hesitations or regrets. I also write about a rose, a stream, and a diamond. These words, as well as others I use, invite the reader to combine their senses (they may imagine the smell of a rose, the babbling of a stream, and the shimmering of a diamond). I aim to merge these details to bring the reader into the speaker’s longing; just like the child, they also vividly imagine the desires. 

Reading Brooks’s poems closely and working on my own poems was eye-opening, as I got firsthand experience with the musical nature of poetry. When writing both poems, I would stop and read specific words out loud, honing in on certain letters and how they sounded together. I was inspired by Brooks to craft profiles, specifically of children, with structures and sounds that do not stand alone but that are themselves a pivotal part of the stories. Through studying and listening to Brooks’ poems carefully as well as listening to my own works, I realize the music that exists in poetry.

  1. Gwendolyn Brooks, “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie,” 4, 5.
  2. Gwendolyn Brooks, “a song in the front yard,” The Poetry Foundation, reprinted from Selected Poems (Harper & Row, 1963), 8, 10,  14, 18.
  3. Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool,” The Poetry Foundation, reprinted from Selected Poems (Harper & Row, 1963), 3, 4, 7.
  4. Brooks, “the ballad of chocolate Mabbie,” 16, 17.
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