• Stanzas: Gwendolyn Brooks

    Kathleen Ossip


    For our Stanzas web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite poets by way of a handful of poetic lines. This week, Kathleen Ossip, whose poems “On First Reading Susan Wheeler and “On First Meeting Roddy Lumsden appear in our Fall 2019 issue, examines a stanza by Gwendolyn Brooks. 

    This dense little quatrain, one of my very favorite stanzas in all of poetry, appears in the middle of Gwendolyn Brooks’s virtuosic “A Light and Diplomatic Bird,” published in 1949 in her second book, Annie Allen, when Brooks was thirty-two. The following year she would win the Pulitzer Prize.

    In the poem, the heartsore speaker watches a bird in the branches of a tree outside her window. She contrasts his (the bird is gendered male) “twist and tact” with her own sense of futility. In this stanza, her admiration of the bird reaches its height, and her vocabulary is properly elevated too:

      He can abash his barmecides;

    The fantoccini of his range

    Pass over. Vast and secular

    And apt and admirably strange.

    I’ll save you some googles: “barmecides” is a reference to a tale from The Arabian Nights in which a prince promises a beggar a lavish feast only to show him to a table full of empty plates; “fantoccini” are puppets operated by strings or wires. In the first two-and-a-half lines, the speaker praises the bird for (literally) rising above the humiliations and pettinesses of his sphere, a transcendence she feels herself incapable of. In the final line and a half, her emotion accelerates as she lists four qualities the bird possesses that she does not.

    I admire the compression, the chunkiness of this stanza; it feels good in the mouth. I admire even more the aplomb with which Brooks casually wields the dictionary words, the quickness of her thought. These elements, together with her smooth iambic tetrameter and end-rhymes, always make me feel like she’s saying, coolly, in this poem (and indeed in the whole book) “I, a young black American woman, stake my claim on this elevated, white European male tradition. I think you’ll agree I succeed.” The poem is her argument and allows no rebuttal. I take special delight in the self-reflexiveness of those four final adjectives, which also describe the poem.

    Kathleen Ossip is the author of The Do-Over, a New York Times Editors' Choice. She was a 2016-2017 fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and she teaches at The New School in New York. 

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