Before America had an official poet laureate, the functions of that office were performed by the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Gwendolyn Brooks became the twenty-ninth poetry consultant.
Her tenure at the Library of Congress was a success; she defined the work of the poet laureate. She was an activist poetry consultant, welcoming people from the surrounding area to the library, even instituting informal brown-bag readings at lunchtime. Her Mondays and Tuesdays were filled with activities from nine in the morning until deep into the night. Wednesdays she played catch-up, answering correspondence and welcoming guests. She saw visitors from Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and one from Africa.
She was ably assisted by a team of librarians from the consultant’s office. Their efficiency, which she greatly valued, and warmth not only sustained Gwendolyn for that period but the friendship of some of them lasted through the years in correspondence. These were John Broderick, Nancy Galbraith, Daniel Boorstin, and Jenny Rutland. She describes the library and poetry staff: “Semi-saint John Broderick, assistant librarian for research services, has labored mightily and graciously to get the people here whom I wanted to introduce to you. Cheery, expert cooperative, friendly, self-effacing, John ‘Communications’ Sullivan! Poetry associate Nancy Galbraith—not only brilliant and knowledgeable in an assortment of areas, but the magnificent wheel-oiler. Upstairs . . . Jenny Rutland, our second poetry associate—new-penny bright, reliable, hard-working, genial and generous.” Gwendolyn found the vast Library of Congress warm and welcoming, filled with smiling people, researchers, clerks, pages.
Once her assistants had gotten her in touch with the poets and writers she had selected to read under the bright lights in the dark, solemn Coolidge Auditorium, Gwendolyn had only to write an introduction for each. Then she would present said poet or writer to the attentive crowd gathered. Needless to say, her introductions were little poems about each reader.
In the course of the year, she called forth celebrated writers like James Baldwin, Joyce Carol Oates, William Golding, Doris Grumbach, Keri Hulme, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Haki Madhubuti, Grace Schuman, Louis Simpson, Michael Harper, Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans, Michael Anania, Garrison Keillor, David Ignatow, Donald Hall, Sandra Cisneros, Galway Kinnell, and Barbara Guest. And she presented less well known, at the time, poets and writers: Luis Omar Salinas, Alberto Rios, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Etheridge Knight, Kofi Awoonor, Patricia McConel, Les Murray, W. D. Wetherell, John Tagliabue, Michael Benedict, and a very grateful Angela Jackson. Not only did Gwendolyn present this multicultural array of poets and writers. She also took her poetry to the schools and colleges of DC, Virginia, and Maryland. And she read and led workshops at the Maryland Correctional Facility and Lorton Prison in Virginia.
Gwendolyn’s visits to schools and prisons did not begin with her poetry consultancy. She had for many years been visiting these institutions. In addition, in Chicago she made annual visits to Cook County Hospital, where she gave a reading to patients and employees in the auditorium there. Later she read at the bedsides of bed-bound patients. These kind acts were a part of her identity and had been cultivated in her upbringing.
Gwendolyn carried her personality and habits into the office of the poetry consultant of the Library of Congress. Besides her standards of long hours and hard work, Gwendolyn changed the faces of the poets and writers she presented. Before the word “diversity” was fashionable, her reading series was diverse in racial, cultural, and stylistic composition. This intensely literate and humane poet lifted up the face of the real America.
In the decade and a half after her 1985–1986 year as the poetry consultant for the Library of Congress, in which she transformed that office, Gwendolyn continued to keep her promise to be “a voice and speaking eyes” and to “prevail against the editors of the world.” She trained her garden well, and she planted and tended widely. She offered poetic sacrament and a seal of approval. She never let up.
Excerpted from A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks (Beacon Press, 2017). On Sale May 30th, 2017. Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.
Angela Jackson is an award-winning poet, playwright, and novelist. She is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including the National Book Award–nominated And All These Roads Be Luminous: Poems Selected and New. Her novel Where I Must Go won the American Book Award in 2009. Its sequel, Roads, Where There Are No Roads, was published in 2017. Additionally, Jackson was longlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and a longlist finalist for the PEN Open Book Award for her 2015 poetry collection, It Seems Like a Mighty Long Time. Other honors include a Pushcart Prize, Academy of American Poets Prize, TriQuarterly’s Daniel Curley Award, and the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award. Jackson lives in Chicago.
The American Writers Museum will be hosting several events this summer in celebration of Gwendolyn Brooks’ hundredth birthday. See our Calendar of Events for more information.