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Gay Chaps at the Bar -- Gwendolyn Brooks

Guest poem sent in by Mark Penney

[Typography note:  the inscription is right-justified in my copy; I've
tried to reproduce this by tabbing over twice.]
(Poem #1651) 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.
-- Gwendolyn Brooks
Leading off with the form, since it's so arresting:  This is a sonnet,
the first (and title) poem in a sequence of twelve sonnets Brooks wrote
based on letters she received from black American soldiers during the
Second World War.  (The other eleven are just as remarkable.)  The poem
doesn't scan in places, and it uses off-rhyme rather than true rhyme,
but more on these features later.  The rhyme scheme is a slight
variation on the Petrarchian pattern, abba cddc efggef.  The break
between the octet and sestet is not only preserved, but used by Brooks
to tremendous effect.  The octet is a brilliant, wry evocation of the
familiar life of the "gay chaps at the bar," where they are absolute
masters of their world.  But then, in the sestet, we see how totally
unprepared they are and unnerved they are by -- war.  This is a poem
about disjuncture, about a world gone crazy.

The imperfect scansion and off-rhyme help emphasize this, in a
way--they're emblematic of a struggle to make experiences that defy
rationality obey rational rules.  "Islands" and "talents," let's face
it, don't rhyme, just as a bar in Manhattan doesn't "rhyme" with a
firefight in Guadalcanal.  But still somehow, you have to make it hold
together.  Does that make sense?

I love the line "But nothing ever taught us to be islands."  Of course
it's a reference to John Donne's Meditation 17.  It's also a reference
to the nature of America's war.  (If you were a Marine in 1943, chances
are your life consisted of island after bitter deadly island in an
endless chain off beyond the horizon to your death.)  Nothing ever
taught these men to detach themselves from humanity, which the war is
forcing them to do.  And likewise, nothing ever taught them what they
need to fight such an alien and unforgiving war, to kill and die on hot,
malarial islands on the opposite side of the world.  On that note,
consider also the contrast between "raillery . . . served up hot and
lush" (or "the hot tropics of our love") and the real tropics and hot,
lush jungles of the islands on which there's no way at all to "holler
down the lions in this air."


Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000).  The poem I sent in a few weeks ago was
the first by Brooks that Minstrels had run.  But I forgot to give
biographical info.

There's a very good biography and tons of criticism, including of this
poem, at

There's another biography that's not quite as extensive but is less
likely to go away, at
[broken link]


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