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Gwendolyn Brooks' "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

Kathi Ruth (2019-07-02)

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id="mod_41582630">Introduction and Text of Poem
In Gwendolyn Brooks' Innovative or American sonnet, "Gay Chaps at the Bar," there is no overt rime-scheme, but vague echoes of sight-rime and near-rime hover in the second quatrain and first tercet.

The sonnet features an account from a soldier who served in World War II, offering the marked contrast between how he and his fellow soldiers felt as they pursued their leisure-time activities and their battlefield experiences.

Gay Chaps at the Bar
...and guys I knew in the States, young officers, return from the front
crying and trembling. Gay chaps at the bar in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York...
—Lt. William Couch in the South Pacific

We knew how to order. Just the dash
Necessary. The length of gaiety in good taste.
Whether the raillery should be slightly iced
And given green, or served up hot and lush.
And we knew beautifully how to give to women
The summer spread, the tropics of our love.
When to persist, or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech. How to make a look an omen.
But nothing ever taught us to be islands.
And smart, athletic language for this hour
Was not in the curriculum. No stout
Lesson showed how to chat with death. We brought
No brass fortissimo, among our talents,
To holler down the lions in this air.

Commentary
This poem is an American sonnet, based on the Petrarchan style octave of two quatrains and a sestet composed of two tercets.

First Quatrain: A Letter from a Soldier

We knew how to order. Just the dash
Necessary. The length of gaiety in good taste.
Whether the raillery should be slightly iced
And given green, or served up hot and lush.

The poem features the following epigraph: "… and guys I knew in the States, young officers, return from the front crying and trembling. Gay chaps at the bar in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York . . . —Lt. William Couch in the South Pacific."

Brooks explains regarding the poem's title and epigraph: "I wrote it because of a letter I got from a soldier who included that phrase in what he was telling me." The speaker of the poem is a soldier looking back at his experience, including recreation time, during the war.

The speaker uses a restaurant metaphor to report how he and his buddies knew how to have a good time. They "knew how to order. / Just the dash / Necessary." They knew how to be as rowdy as "good taste" would allow.

Second Quatrain: "And we knew beautifully how to give to women"

And we knew beautifully how to give to women
The summer spread, the tropics of our love.
When to persist, or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech. How to make a look an omen.

The soldiers were also quite adept with the women who partied with them; they "knew beautifully how to give to women." They knew how to be warm and inviting, to offer "the tropics, of our love."

They also knew when "to persist" and also when to slow down. They "knew white speech," and they also became very proficient at bringing about the outcomes they desired just by a skilled look.

First Tercet: The Seriousness of War

But nothing ever taught us to be islands.
And smart, athletic language for this hour
Was not in the curriculum. No stout

While the octave of the sonnet reports the skills of the soldier and his buddies at having a good time, the sestet returns to the seriousness of war. They learned much about behavior overseas, and it worked fairly well for their R and R activities, but they were never "taught to be islands." They could play on the islands, but they could become them.

No lessons could teach them how to feel about a different culture, even if they knew enough protocol to function reasonably. They did not have the ability to acquire the precise language that makes a soldier comfortable with actually fighting the war. The speaker explains, "smart athletic language for this hour / Was not in the curriculum."

Second Tercet: Comfortable Conversant


Lesson showed how to chat with death. We brought
No brass fortissimo, among our talents,
To holler down the lions in this air.

The soldier/speaker continues and avers, "No stout / / Lesson showed how to chat with death." While they became quite comfortably conversant with the women in the bars and at parties, they never felt that same ease on the battlefield. As he explains, "We brought / No brass fortissimo, among our talents, / To holler down the lions in this air."

They brought their machismo and other social skills, but as soldiers of war, fighting on the battlefield, their party voices could not charm the enemy into capitulation. This soldier's report dramatizes the experience that all soldiers during all of history must have felt.

Bronze Bust of Gwendolyn Brooks
Source Life Sketch of Gwendolyn Brooks
Gwendolyn Brooks was born June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, to David and Keziah Brooks. Her family relocated to Chicago shortly after her birth. She attended three different high schools: Hyde Park, Wendell Phillips, and Englewood.

Brooks graduated from Wilson Junior College in 1936. In 1930, her first published poem, "Eventide," appeared in American Childhood Magazine, when she was only thirteen years old. She had the good fortune to meet James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, both of whom encouraged her writing.

Brooks continued to study poetry and write. She married Henry Blakely in 1938 and gave birth to two children, Henry, Jr, in 1940 and Nora in 1951. Living on the Southside of Chicago, she engaged with the group of writers associated with Harriet Monroe's Poetry, the most prestigious magazine in American poetry.

Brooks' first volume of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, appeared in 1945, published by Harper and Row. Her second book, Annie Allen was awarded the Eunice Tiejens Prize, offered by the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry. In addition to poetry, Brooks wrote a novel titled Maud Martha in the early '50s, as well as her autobiography Report from Part One (1972) and Report from Part Two (1995).

Brooks has won numerous awards and fellowships including the Guggenheim and the Academy of American Poets. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, becoming the first African American woman to win that prize.

Brooks began a teaching career in 1963, conducting poetry workshops at Chicago's Columbia College. She has also taught poetry writing at Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, and the University of Wisconsin.

At the age of 83, Gwendolyn Brooks succumbed to cancer on December 3, 2000. She died quietly at her home in Chicago, where she had resided on the Southside for most of her life. She is interred in Blue Island, Illinois, at Lincoln Cemetery.

Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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