Gwendolyn Brooks: “The Lovers of the Poor”

Oh my. Oh my — slap in the face — goodness.

I went looking for an Easter poem, hoping to find one that also discusses race. This poem, “The Lovers of the Poor,” which is presented in all it’s terrible glory on the Poetry Foundation website, is such a poem. You can read it there, and also hear it read — I hope by the poet, although I am not sure. Listening to the poem, recited at a fast clip, is magical — the poem is full of rhythm and sounds that surge with a forward momentum, with words I don’t recognize and some made up, I expect. I had to read the poem several times through before I could catch all the meanings, the details, the depths.

I can’t possible explain the poem as well as the poem itself explains itself. So, please read it, or listen to it being read. Then notice details, such as these:

The pink paint on the innocence of fear; 

(What an amazing way to describe the faces of white women visiting the black neighborhood)

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Their guild is giving money to the poor.
The worthy poor. The very very worthy
And beautiful poor. Perhaps just not too swarthy?
perhaps just not too dirty nor too dim
Nor—passionate. In truth, what they could wish
Is—something less than derelict or dull.
Not staunch enough to stab, though, gaze for gaze!
God shield them sharply from the beggar-bold!
The noxious needy ones whose battle’s bald
Nonetheless for being voiceless, hits one down.

(God protect the white women from the passion of the poor! The sounds in this section pound and gouge like clubs or knives…)

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They …
Buy the right books in the best bindings; saunter
On Michigan, Easter mornings, in sun or wind.
Oh Squalor! This sick four-story hulk, this fibre
With fissures everywhere! Why, what are bringings
Of loathe-love largesse? What shall peril hungers
So old old, what shall flatter the desolate?
Tin can, blocked fire escape and chitterling
And swaggering seeking youth and the puzzled wreckage
Of the middle passage, and urine and stale shames
And, again, the porridges of the underslung
And children children children. Heavens! That
Was a rat, surely, off there, in the shadows? Long
And long-tailed? Gray? The Ladies from the Ladies’
Betterment League agree it will be better
To achieve the outer air that rights and steadies,
To hie to a house that does not holler, to ring
Bells elsetime, better presently to cater
To no more Possibilities, to get
Away. Perhaps the money can be posted.

(What happens to you when you see the word saunter followed so closely by squalor — and then swagger and then shadows … ?)

I had to think a long time before I understood the term “loathe-love largesse” — I think Brooks is describing the hate behind the faux love that presents itself as generosity — how the women who come to the slums love to feel their generosity, but hate the people (dirt, rats, noise, passion) they must be generous towards. What a beautiful sonorous name for something so ugly.

The mastery of language is amazing and humbling to me. The content of the poem slaps me in the face. I am ashamed of the times I’ve been afraid, and even more ashamed to remember how I hoped that my fear might not have been noticed.

One thought on “Gwendolyn Brooks: “The Lovers of the Poor”

  1. John Unger Zussman says:

    Wow. Bowled me over too. I love the near-rhyme of worthy and swarthy, to pick just one example. Thanks for posting.

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