Poetry is a very powerful gift. Written word can be powerful enough to inspire radically new ideas, influence revolutions, shift political consciousness, change the way we see ourselves as a people, and shake up the world. But with shaking of the world, controversy is invoked. Some writers, particularly poets, have used this power to do just that. Some have used their writings to shout out loud their feelings and thoughts unapologetically. Some have chosen to speak their truth while remaining politically neutral, and some have hidden behind their poetry, making the choice to silently scream their frustration. Regardless of these poet’s aesthetic appeals,and the controversies they evoked, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Gwendolyn Brooks relayed their message and the world had to listen.
Allen Ginsberg is regarded as one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century. He is also one of the most controversial. His carefree impenitent attitudes were apparent in his poetry. Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey. His rebellion was evident as he was one of the founders of the Beat Generation, a literary and social movement that glorified non-conformity, rejected standard values and materialism, sexual liberation, and the experimentation with psychedelic drugs. Ginsberg is most noted for his highly controversial poem, “Howl.” The opening lines set the tone for the poem, which was an anguished “howl,” a protest against the conformism of the era. The poem begins, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…” Ginsberg wrote “Howl” as a celebration of self expression, but to also come to terms with his sexuality. The poem depicts homosexual sex openly, but also during a time when homosexuality was regarded as an illness in itself and the act itself was criminalized in several states. Slate columnist Fred Kaplan points out, that Ginsberg, being both Jewish and gay, “was the first to come out, not just openly but brazenly, to make something of it, to make it central to his voice, his art.” This poem in all it’s glorious rebelliousness energized other artists to rebel also.
In stark contrast, to Ginsberg’s unabashed brazenness, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s writing style was considerably more passive in nature. Dunbar was one of the first black writers in American literature who was successfully commercial. His literary body includes novels, short stories, essays, and many poems written both in standard English and old negro dialect. He gathered the more fervent poems, those written in standard English, under the heading “Majors,” and he labeled the more superficial, works in dialect as “Minors.” Though Dunbar’s poems written in standard English counted for most of his poetry, they were mainly ignored. Instead, it was his works written in negro dialect that elevated him to the high level of commercial success and wide publication.
During those times, most of the reading public were whites who were amused by the exploitive and stereotypical representations of the language and lifestyle of African Americans. The popular preference for the dialect did not sit well with Dunbar, and it placed him in a peculiar position that required him to choose between maintaining the dignity of himself and the African American people, and in turn alienate his white readers, or to continue to please the broader audience and maintain his fame. He continued to straddle that fence and wrote many more works in dialect. Some have criticized Dunbar, feeling that he resorted to the cowardly approach and therefore sold his soul. Dunbar’s dialect primarily consisted of dialogs and monologues spoken by illiterate, dimwitted, lazy, and buffoonish characters, that shared similarities with the personas of many cartoons and television programs of the Jim Crow era. In essence, his dialect poetry was a minstrel act on paper. It should be noted that many of the speakers in Dunbar’s dialect, seemed hopeful for social change and possessed a level of self-awareness. Dunbar did not write “protest” poetry, however, he inserted a hidden agenda of hope and defiance in the messages of many of his works written in dialect.
In the poem, “Speakin’ At De Cou’t–House,” Dunbar funneled the message of African-Americans’ disdain and mistrust of white politicians and their agendas. “When Malindy Sings,” conveyed admiration for the natural talents of the African American singing voice. It is certain that these two messages would not be well received if they were undisguised and more explicit. Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” relays the pain that African Americans endure while hiding behind counterfeit grins or “masks,” and also signifies the irony that he was conscious of his concealment of his anger in his works. The poem is an attempt to unmask and reveal Dunbar’s true feelings about the plights of blacks without “stirring the pot.” Even the word “We” in the title is a generalized protest, as it can be utilized both generally and particularly as the reader wishes. This exemplifies yet another timid avoidance of backlash from his white counterparts. It is certain that the difficulty of getting his message across in a more upfront way would be more arduous because of the dynamics of the era, thus limiting his options, but he wasn’t deterred, and relayed his messages in spite of the obstacles.
In 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African-American to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, specifically for her poetry. Her style differed from both Ginsberg and Dunbar because while Ginsberg was unabashedly controversial, and Dunbar took a back seat approach, both who attracted negative criticism, Brooks had an uncanny gift of appealing to the masses. She utilized a colloquial style, writing mostly about everyday people with everyday problems which made her poems relatable in a way that was non- confrontational. One example of this is her poem, “the mother” which is a gritty, bold, intricate portrait of a particular woman’s experience with having multiple abortions. It is an emotional display of the pain and guilt of a woman who is struggling with her decision. Because the poem speaks negatively about her experience with abortions, and it appears as a warning to women who may be considering having an abortion, it is easy to conceive that “the mother” is an anti-abortion poem, but it is not.
There are many layers to this intricate poem. Like Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Brooks begins with a no holds barred opening line that shocks and draws the reader in. “Abortions will never let you forget. You remember the children you got that you did not get.” After that line, many readers whether pro-life or pro-choice defenders would instantly be taken aback and made to collect themselves and prepare for the ride. However, whatever tense feelings the readers has prior to delving further into the poem subside when it is realized that there are no fingers pointed in accusation. Brooks addresses the reader directly, specifically mothers who have also experienced abortions and those who were involved in any way even referring to the reader as “you,” which involves the reader but still refrains from implication. Brooks’ brilliant way to vividly depict her experience and emotions while remaining neutral on such a controversial topic was the most striking feature in the poem. It is fascinating that the poem cannot be categorized as pro- or anti-abortion. Surprisingly, anyone regardless of their stance on the issue can read the poem without offense.
The poem declines to take sides, but rather proposes an indirect, delicate and non-judgmental depiction of a woman who has had abortions. “the mother” gives us a reminder that the pro-life and pro-choice debate is more complex than two parties fighting. It gives us a unique vantage point from the inside. There is a woman with feelings, emotions, and love connected to each abortion- and “the mother” gracefully gives that woman a voice. In a Modern American Poetry article, Kenny Williams sums up Brooks’ aesthetic, “Although her poetic voice is objective, there is a strong sense that she–as an observer–is never far from her action. On one level, of course, Brooks is a protest poet; yet her protest evolves through suggestion rather than through a bludgeon. She sets forth the facts without embellishment or interpretation, but the simplicity of the facts makes it impossible for readers to come away unconvinced–despite whatever discomfort they may feel.”