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Poet Gwendolyn Brooks pays homage to King

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Poet Gwendolyn Brooks pays homage to King


Though she spoke barely 40 minutes, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks managed to hold a jam-packed audience totally in thrall yesterday afternoon at the Michigan Union Ballroom.

Speaking at the University’s Diversity Day Symposium in conjunction with Martin Luther King’s birthday, the 71-year-old Brooks told her listeners she intended to read poems that “Martin Luther King might have empathized with — though nobody really knows. I suspect he wouldn’t have too serious a problem with these selections.”

Promising her audience a journey through “love, light, loss, liberty, lunacy and laceration,” Brooks proceeded to recite — mostly from memory — some half-dozen of her poems. Included were an homage to the martyred King (“His words still burn the center of the sun”); a searing condemnation of 19th-century American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who freely pirated black music into his own (“He rode across you black beauties/He stole your art”); and an elegy to murdered child Elizabeth Steinberg (“She is to be precious/She is for ice cream cones...We should listen, listen”).

Acknowledged as the greatest black poet of her generation, Brooks has been the recipient of some 50 honorary doctoral degrees at various universities. In 1950 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book of poetry “Annie Allen,” and last fall she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in New York.

Simultaneous with her literary career, Brooks has remained in the forefront of black activism from the early days of the civil rights movement to the present. Speaking yesterday, she prefaced her most famous “political” poem, “We Real Cool” by conceding that "Most young people who know me at all know only this poem:”

“We real cool. We/Left school. We/Lurk late. We/Strike straight. We/Sing sin. We/Thin gin. We/Jazz June. We/Die soon.”

Other readings included Brooks’ meditation on youthful suicide, “To the Young Who Want to Die” (“I assure you death will wait...You need not die today”), with the added exhortation, “Be brave and hold on.” The poet also recited “When You have Forgotten Sunday,” which she called “the backyard of the adolescence of my marriage" (still going strong after half a century), plus an excerpt from a just-completed book of poems, “Winnie,” named for South African activist Winnie Mandela.

Brooks promised her audience a journey through 'love, light, loss, liberty, lunacy and laceration.'