The Poem Asked for Their Attention

Excerpt from "Words That Shimmer," an On Being conversation with Elizabeth Alexander (January 6, 2011): 

I went to a Quaker high school in Washington, Sidwell Friends School, and we had meeting for worship once a week. It was, I don't know, 45 minutes or something like that of sitting together in silence and, when moved to speak, people would speak. It didn't happen very often. And then around graduation, everyone would get up and cry and that was the speaking.

There was always one teacher who spoke and, as slightly cynical teenagers, we weren't going to speak. But nonetheless, the quiet was very important. I even understood that then. But more importantly, the perhaps three minutes of silence with which we began the day, I cherished that then. That overrode all teenage restless silliness. I knew that that moment of inner listening would have analogs throughout the day, if you know what I mean.

That sort of chunk — and right now you can't see me because we're on the radio, but I'm holding my fingers together in a little rectangle. You know, so like, that chunk that smaller than a brick-sized chunk of contemplative silence with which to simply listen and take stock would be something that I would need to call on throughout the day. I think that's a very, very important way to be able to go through life. And I think that poetry can provide those kinds of chunks.

You know, right before the inaugural, the day before, there was a sound check and the sound guy asked me to — you know, the microphone. Oh, my goodness, just this amazing instrument, this finely calibrated, you know, kind of the Hope diamond of microphones — so he said, "OK, why don't you say some poetry" — that was his phrase, say some poetry — "so we can see how it works on the mic." And the day before, Washington was full of people. People were already coming to the inaugural and the mall was quite full with lots of folks, and it was just me up on the stage and no one was looking at me. And I recited one of my favorite poems, Gwendolyn Brooks' "Kitchenette Building," which starts out:

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. "Dream" makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like "rent," "feeding a wife," "satisfying a man."

And then I continued with the poem which asks about could a dream rise up through onion fumes and yesterday's garbage ripening in the halls? It's extraordinary, beautiful, tiny, tiny sonnet. And let me tell you, hundreds of people literally stopped in their tracks to hear this unknown-to-them person recite a poem by someone unknown no doubt to most of them. And these hundreds of people, I watched them sort of gather in a darkening sort of cluster and then, when the poem was over, they clapped. In other words, they knew it was something about the form of the poem, right?

I didn't say who I was or what I was doing or ask for their attention. The poem asked for their attention inherently. And the poem is about people in Chicago. She's describing poor people in the 1940s living in these kitchenette apartments, under really difficult circumstances trying to find a way to imagine something else, something beautiful. It's about a very important topic that transcends time and space. You know, how can the imagination and the spirit lift us above our quotidian difficulties.

Kitchennette Building
by Gwendolyn Brooks

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan, 
Grayed in, and gray. "Dream" mate, a giddy sound, not strong 
Like "rent", "feeding a wife", "satisfying a man". 

But could a dream sent up through onion fumes 
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes 
And yesterday's garbage ripening in the hall, 
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms, 

Even if we were willing to let it in, 
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean, 
Anticipate a message, let it begin? 

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute! 
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now, 
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it. 

We Real Cool
by Gwendolyn Brooks

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.  

[More poems by Gwendolyn Brooks]