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Poetry of America: Denise Levertov and Gwendolyn Brooks

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Here’s some good news for your Thursday: We’ve added two new recordings to our online “Poetry of America” series. Join Juan Felipe Herrera as he reads and discusses Denise Levertov’s poem “Making Peace,”  and Patricia Spears Jones as she reads and discusses Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell.”

The “Poetry of America” series asks contemporary American poets to choose a singular poem written by another American poet from any period in the nation’s history, record themselves reading the poem, and provide commentary that speaks to how the poem connects to, deepens, or re-imagines a sense of the nation. Additionally, we ask each participating poet to contribute a poem of their own that we include alongside the recording.

With that, let’s hear from Juan Felipe Herrera and Patricia Spears Jones themselves about their chosen American poems.

Juan Felipe Herrera reads and discusses Denise Levertov’s “Making Peace”

Denise Levertov (1923-1997)

“[Denise Levertov] spoke in her essays Light up the Cave, around the same decade or so when Breathing the Water came out, about the ‘outscape’ and the ‘inscape’ of the poem, writing about what’s out there and writing about our interiority and how they’re both related, interrelated. And in a way this poem does that too—talking about war and profit and power and talking about each act of living. And the ending of the poem, each word, she says, ‘a vibration of light—facets / of the forming crystal.’ Here is this new universe and it begins with these crystals. And these crystals have facets and these facets are acts of living.

I know this sounds like I’m reading these big pieces of thick wood or pasting them together and creating a statement about her writing, about this poem—that’s not really it. These are just the materials of this poem that you and I have to address and reflect on and find what being is, find what presence is, find what the absence of war is, find what making our lives is all about, and find what making peace is.”

Patricia Spears Jones reads and discusses Gwendolyn Brooks’ “my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell”

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

“‘my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell’ is an excellent introduction to Brooks’ ability to express the very complicated lives of black Americans. Written as part of a series of poems dedicated to black American servicemen who were about to enter military service in World War II, these poems—all sonnets—captured their plight. Here were black men who were daily discriminated against going off to fight fascism. The patriotism was strong, and their willingness to fight and die for this nation showed that love of this difficult country. But, more importantly, Brooks’ speaker wants to live—to return, to gain the ‘bread and honey’ that he will miss when he goes to war.

Gwendolyn Brooks is one of my poetry foremothers, and she represents what American poets should continue to be like. She worked on her craft, she deeply cared about the ways in which the ideals of this nation rarely served its citizens, and her work demanded that we attend to those ideals and create the environment to make them real, so that the ‘bread and honey’ would feed all of us.”