Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart)

Poetry Koan #4: truth by Gwendolyn Brooks


And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?

Though we have wept for him,
Though we have prayed
All through the night-years—
What if we wake one shimmering morning to
Hear the fierce hammering
Of his firm knuckles
Hard on the door?

Shall we not shudder?—
Shall we not flee
Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter
Of the familiar
Propitious haze?

Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.

The dark hangs heavily
Over the eyes.

Gwendolyn Brook’s “truth” is an early poem. It appears in her second book of poetry Annie Allen, published in 1949 when Brooks was 32 years old. This was the book that won her the Pulitzer in 1950 where Wallace Stevens allegedly whispered that infamous racist comment, a comment that has followed the two of them down through the years in various forms. I have yet to find a definitive account of that quote or how it was delivered, but such is the nature of hearsay. It has served its purpose though. Whatever the nature of Stevens’ racism, I have no doubt it was present to some degree. How could it not be? Racism is a psychological defence mechanism, and there is not a human mind on this planet that is not defending itself. 

I am grateful though for this uncomfortable yoking of Brooks and Stevens as I probably would not have read Brooks’ poetry had Stevens not inadvertently turned me onto it. Brooks mainly writes portrait poems and social poems which are not usually my bag.

It is perhaps not surprising then that the poems I respond to are her most Stevensonian, although I think she (Gwen) had a better ear than Wallace. There is a deliciousness to the music and rhythm of “truth” (the title of the poem is usually not presented in caps) that makes it a delight to learn by heart whereas Stevens’ poetry is a more sober undertaking: the mind is stimulated, but the body hardly ever feels included in the enterprise.

To talk of Brooks’ poetry in this way though is to invite approbation, least of not from her:

“There is indeed a new black today,” she writes in her 1972 biography Report from Part One, though the words that follow might have come from a Black Lives Matter writers of the last five years.  “He is different from any the world has known. He’s a tall-walker. Almost firm. By many of his brothers he’s not understood. And he is understood by no white. Not the wise white; not the Schooled white; not the Kind white. Your least pre-requisite toward an understanding of the new black is an exceptional Doctorate which can be conferred only upon those with the proper properties of bitter birth and intrinsic sorrow. I know this is infuriating, especially to those professional Negro-understanders, some of them so very kind, with special portfolio, special savvy. But I cannot say anything other, because nothing other is the truth. (p85-86, Report from Part One)”

There doesn’t really seem to be a category of whiteness that gets off the hook here. “Don’t talk or write about my poetry as a means to understanding it,” she seems to be saying to everyone bearing my skin colour. As much as it hurts to be excluded, I understand that she is only passing on the exclusion she herself felt in being barred from participating in those Communities of Understanding: academia and literature. Schools and Universities were still for the most part segregated in 1950s America.

I also recognise that to give “truth” a purely psychological or spiritual reading here, for want of a better word, is probably to fall even deeper into this kind of  unavoidable and wholly necessary backlash (dialectical backlashing, always a good thing). Here the backlash is to me being that (hopefully) schooled, (hopefully) kind, at least attempting to be humanistically wise, self-contained, self-referential reader, which is the only reader I’m really interested in being. It is also the only reading I’m interested in doing. I get the sense from the above passage that Brooks would have little time for this kind of reading of her work from me or for me. So be it.

In literary criticism circles this self-contained, self-referential reading held sway all through the first half of the 20th century, but was forcefully interrogated by the poststructuralist, feminist, anti-racist, Marxist, postcolonial, new historicist, and queer critics of the 1960s and 70s onwards.

If anything, this backlash burst on the scene exactly as sun does in the poem, with a “fierce hammering / …hard on the door”. Was it the “truth” we were all needing? Richard North in his book Literary Criticism: A Political History suggests not, as it paradoxically took engagement with literary texts even further away from the common reader: you and me picking up a book in a bookshop or a library which interested us.

We were the people it was supposedly championing but ironically it did so in a language that even my brain, steeped in academia for years on end, still struggles to understand. I’d rather read a page of a novel in a language I barely understand, dictionary to hand, than try and make my way through some of the jargon-filled nonsense that sits on most literary criticism library shelves. But that is not a truth or non-truth I’m going to interrogate here.

The truth that most interests me in this poem is the more paradoxical, slippery truth of how much truth we can actually bear (“Though we have wept for him, / Though we have prayed”), especially if that truth it is at odds with our own. The academic term for this is of course Confirmation Bias.

If I am a white business owner in the 50s who benefits financially and in some ego-shoring, identity-confirming way of my own whiteness by being able to see myself as superior to and thus discriminate amongst my employees on the basis of sex and race and religion, it’s somewhat unlikely that I’m going to be in favour of the tenets underlying the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with its focus on desegregation and the prevention of my own discrimination. It need not just be political or economic gains I’m protecting however. A recent Radio 4 programme got two millenials from opposite ends of the political spectrum to step out of their social media echo chamber and read each other’s Twitter feeds for one week. The experiment showed just how recalcitrant each was in accepting even to the smallest degree any other point of view but their own.

But why do we shudder, why do flee “into the shelter, the dear thick shelter / Of the familiar / Propitious haze?” 

We need not blame ourselves for doing this: we’re not being pig-headed or deliberately, obtuse or narrow-minded (although narrow-minded is also what we are being). As with so many things in life, the issue boils down to a simple psychological “law” which the poem presents in those three lovely lilting, rockabye-baby lines: “Sweet is it, sweet is it / To sleep in the coolness / Of snug unawareness.”

The sweetness, linked also to sweet, comes from energy conservation. Changing our minds about something is an incredibly costly activity. Perhaps dollars and pounds costly, as when a company has to withdraw a product that is not up to scratch from the market and refund, re-produce and re-instigate the faulty good. But this works equally with ideas about ourselves and the world. If I have built, often painstakingly my whole identity, and many of my social ties around a particular “truth”, whatever that is, just watch how fiercely I will defend that truth if someone else calls it into question. Racial identity itself is one of these truths.

Here’s a little thought experiment. Take anything you don’t like about yourself or your life at the moment. Now trace back the reason for why you think you are in this situation. Now imagine someone coming along and telling you that the reason you’ve given yourself is mistaken, perhaps even deluded, and the main reason why things are as they are is This New Perfectly Reasonable Truth. Now notice your own shuddering and urge to flee back into the familiar propitious haze of what you already know and have agreed upon.

One of the few places where we can let go of that struggle to protect my truth versus your truth is of course in a poem.

A great poem imparts a greater psychic balance to readers,” writes Timothy Aubry in homage to I.A. Richards “practical criticism”, “training their minds to accommodate and harmonize a multitude of competing urges [also competing truths?], making them at once more sensitive and more self-possessed.”

Gwendolyn Brooks’ “truth” is an early poem in her oeuvre, but I think it’s a great poem because it does just that.

But only, I would assert, if you learn it by heart. If not, you might as well lick the sucrose off the pill, but never take the medicine. That’s my truth, but if you decide to learn the poem and then find it doesn’t give you the psychic balance, sensitivity and self-possession that I think we all yearn for, I will happily refund you all the time it took to memorise and practice it until you could speak it from the heart.