JACKI LYDEN, host:
Our April poetry series continues now with another visit to the archives of Henry Lyman. For nearly 20 years, Lyman hosted a radio program called "Poems to a Listener" out of WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. He interviewed leading contemporary poets of the day, including a woman born in 1917 whose work took on a new life late in life.
(Soundbite of archived radio clip)
HENRY LYMAN: Today, I'd like to pay tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks. When I met her in the spring of 1980, I was in awe of her. She was, after all, the Gwendolyn Brooks - a legendary poet and the first African-American to have won a Pulitzer. But she soon put me at ease with her sparkling eyes, her laughter, and her way of lifting her chin delightedly as she reminisced about the poetic and political actions of the late '60s and the camaraderie she shared with other younger poets of the time.
Ms. GWENDOLYN BROOKS (Pulitzer-prize winning poet): The young poets that I met then had as a motto: Black poetry is poetry written by blacks about blacks to blacks. And we went out in the park and recited our poetry, and we went to the city jail. And the most exciting thing we did was to just walk into a tavern, some seven or eight of us, and someone like Haki Mahubuti would say: Look folks, we got a life of poetry on you.
And they returned from their drinks temporarily and listened to poetry, which they had not come into the tavern to hear, of course. And a poem like my own short "We Real Cool" would be the kind of thing that I could read in such an atmosphere.
(Reading) We real cool. The pool players. Seven at the Golden Shovel. We real cool. We left school. We lurk late. We strike straight. We sing sin. We thin gin. We jazz June. We die soon.
Well, they'd listen to that.
Mr. LYMAN: Over time, they'd listen to that a lot more. Gwendolyn Brooks became a strong voice for black identity, for liberation from the kind of self-doubt lurking in those young pool players. And her poems became increasingly urgent, with phrases like: Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.
But I still confessed a fondness for her earlier, more traditional poems. Here's Gwendolyn Brooks introducing a sonnet she published in 1950, written after the death of her cousin, Vit.
Ms. BROOKS: Vit was really named Virly(ph), and she was so full of life, so full of grit and spice and daring that it was hard to imagine her really leaving. So this is my impression as I attended her funeral, when her casket was being carried out. "The Rites for Cousin Vit."
(Reading) Carried her unprotesting out the door. Kicked back the casket-stand. But it can't hold her, that stuff and satin aiming to enfold her. The lid's contrition nor the bolts before. Oh oh. Too much. Too much. Even now, surmise, she rises in the sunshine. There she goes back to the bars she knew and the repose in love-rooms and the things in people's eyes. Too vital and too squeaking. Must emerge. Even now, she does the snake-hips with a hiss. Slops the bad wine across her shantung, talks of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework, walks in parks or alleys, comes haply on the verge of happiness, haply hysterics. Is.
Mr. LYMAN: Cousin Vit just refuses to be put down in that coffin, and I guess the same could be said for Gwendolyn Brooks herself. She died in 2000 at the age of 83, surrounded by friends and family, one of whom placed a pen in her hand. Yes, she died; but like Cousin Vit, she is.
LYDEN: To hear more of our series with Henry Lyman go to our Web site, npr.org.