Gwendolyn Brooks

The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honouring Gwendolyn Brooks

Edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar, and Patricia Smith                                                                                               

Tonight, at the British Library, eighteen poets will read their tributes to the former Poet Laureate of Illinois, Gwendolyn Brooks. Their work, along with that of dozens of other poets, has been commissioned and collected in the Golden Shovel Anthology, edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar, and Patricia Smith. 

This collection of experimental poetry is an example of formal restriction leading to creative innovation. As the editors of the collection explain ‘the last words of each line in a golden shovel poem are, in order, words from a line or lines taken from a [Gwendolyn] Brooks poem. The poems are, in a way, secretly encoded to enable both a horizontal reading of the new poem and a vertical reading down the right-hand margin of Brooks’s original’. This form was developed by Terrance Hayes, author of the foreword to the collection, when he took one of Brooks’s most well-known poems ‘We Real Cool’ and forged a new poem titled ‘The Golden Shovel’. 

Gwendolyn Brooks was Poet Laureate of Illinois from 1969 until her death in 2000, and she was the first black writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize, which she received for her book Annie Allen in 1950. This collection honours Brooks's achievements through direct engagement with her poetry. Brooks’s poetry is a plastic, capacious source for new material, and this formally inventive collection shows the styles and voices of dozens of poets including Nii Ayikweii Parkes, Eileen Myles, Joyelle McSweeney, Leontia Flynn, Sharon Olds, and Malika Booker amongst many, many others, yet each of these poets is in direct conversation with Gwendolyn Brooks.

There are some poems that feel so cerebral as to be a form of ‘verbal sudoku’ as Ravi Shankar suggests in the introduction. As there are dozens of poems and poets here, the collection is necessarily uneven, but this does not detract from the overall impression of a generous palimpsestic conversation between the writers and Brooks.

There are many standout poems, including Jaswinder Bolina’s ‘Jessie Mitchell’s Father’ that employs partial lines, gaps, and italics to conjure miniature stories:


            Ashes         flowers 

           reeking        perfume

           gunmetal     petals


Danielle Cadena Duelen’s gorgeous ‘Medics’, which uses enjambment to devastating effect:


            The torn limbs, the sinew-song in           

            the tender throat. Let us mend the


            punctured lung,


And Sharon G. Flake’s short but powerful poem ‘she never saw life as hard’ is devastating in its briefness:


            she never saw life as hard

            no long black walk or trudge

            for them willing to work with

            no complaint or fainting

            but then the storms pulled off her bandaging

            bloodying her assets and

            showing scabs that long ago warned of death.


This beautiful, terrible poem begs the reader to return to the source material and to Brooks’s own words in her original poem ‘To Black Women’:


          It has been a

          hard trudge, with fainting, bandaging and death.

          There have been startling confrontations.

          There have been tramplings. Tramplings

          of monarchs and of other men.

          But there remain large countries in your eyes.

          Shrewd sun.

          The civil balance.

          The listening secrets.

          And you create and train your flowers still.


Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry haunts this collection; in the margins and the hollows of each new poem her presence is felt.