“Magnitude and bond”

For this month’s Famous People poem, Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Paul Robeson” and “Of Robert Frost” (because just one Gwendolyn Brooks poem at a time isn’t enough. Also I’ve missed a few of this supposed-to-be monthly series).

I had to wake up super early last Sunday morning, which I wasn’t that thrilled about, but when my radio came on it happened to wake me up with the sound of Gwendolyn Brooks’ amazing voice, and then I didn’t mind so much. (A BBC show not currently available online, alas). Her delightful presence and dynamic reading voice even on old somewhat scratchy recordings is just phenomenal—I would have loved to hear her in person.

Here she is reading her most-anthologized poem “We Real Cool” (and explaining that she sort of wishes she were also known for writing other poems) so you have a taste.

Brooks wrote about regular people (“Gay Chaps at the Bar“, “The Bean Eaters” for e.g.) with great compassion and insight, and she wrote about some famous people too with her remarkable precision and verve. Here are two, “Paul Robeson” and “Of Robert Frost“. They’re both short portraits, focused, the Frost poem’s lines lines long but with short, blunt sentences, with the wonderful detail of his eyebrows “neither too far up nor down.” The Robeson lines and sentences contract and swell, and wind up on one of my favorite phrases in Brooks’ poems, “we are each others’ / magnitude and bond.”

(After reading “Paul Robeson” you will undoubtedly want to revel in his famous voice a while. Here he is singing for workers at the in-progress Sydney Opera House, and here being interviewed about civil rights.)

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