I’ve stayed in the back yard all my life | poem after Gwendolyn Brooks

Do you get Poets & Writers magazine?

I’ve found some surprising and helpful insights in Poets & Writers, especially in the first-person essays on writing.  One very memorable example is (Jan/Feb 2016)  Tom Spanbauer’s “Dangerous Writing:  Go to Your Battlefield”.  – More on that another time!  Plus: the P&W website has its own writing prompts on a webpage called The Time Is Now, with different prompts for nonfiction, fiction, or poetry.  Check it out if you’re looking for something new to write!

This month I found an intriguing article on poet Gwendolyn Brooks‘s award in 1950, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.  Brooks was the first African-American poet to receive the Pulitzer, and the article provides an intriguing analysis of the circumstances and forces leading to her receiving the award (“Anatomy of a Pulitzer Prize Letter”).

After I read the P&W article, I wanted to read some of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry.  What was the poetry in her book Annie Allen that caught the imagination of the poetry establishment?  So, I checked out Gwendolyn Brooks’s first two books from the library, Annie Allen (1950) and A Street in Bronzeville (1945).   In her first book I found the poem “a song in the front yard.”  It called to me, as though inviting me to write my own poem after hers; here is an excerpt of Brooks’s poem:

a song in the front yard
Gwendolyn Brooks

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose. . . .

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Chaotic Noise Marching Band 3 by Peter Lee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

If you have ever been tantalized by the idea of writing a poem like another poet’s work, you’ll know what I mean about being drawn in by the language, by the emotion, of the poem – so much that you want to try it yourself.

Here is my poem, after “a song in the front yard.”

a song in the back yard
(after Gwendolyn Brooks)
Theresa Barker

I’ve stayed in the back yard all my life.
I want a peek at the front
Where it’s bold and lively and the world rolls by.
A girl gets tired of the weeds.

I want to go in the front yard now
And maybe waltz down the sidewalk to the corner
To where the street buskers sing
I want a good time today.

They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My family sneers but I say it’s okay
How they sing a song that makes me say
My mother, she has a beautiful smile
My father, he keeps us safe a long while
That I am both and neither of them at the same time
On account of I am my own.

When I hear that song at the street corner
And see the world going by
I’d like to be there when the light catches fire
And wear the brave face of artist gone wild.

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In my poem I take the opposite view to the one in Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem – she wanted to be in the back yard, in the rough and untended world – while I wanted to be in the front yard, where everything happens on the street.  Isn’t it interesting that, in both of our poems, the narrator wants to go and see more of life?

Are you a back-yard person or a front-yard person?  Do you long to be in the front yard, where things are orderly and formal, where everything you do is visible to passersby?  Or do you prefer going into the back yard, sheltered from public eyes, where you can play to your imagination’s delight and no one passes judgment on you?

16 thoughts on “I’ve stayed in the back yard all my life | poem after Gwendolyn Brooks

  1. It is lovely to hear about the poet Gwendolyn Brooks. It sounds like she has accomplished lots with her writing, and I see she inspired you as well 🙂 I’m more of a backyard person, preferring to linger and watch what’s going on out there. Sure, there are times when I long to be a part of the action but then again, I also feel there is a lot to learn from observing Love that last line ‘artist gone wild’. I feel like that when I’m with my writing – days and days I will ponder over a story or a piece of writing, refusing to share it because it is just not right. And then there will be the days where I will feel incredibly inspired and go into a somewhat mad frenzy trying to put the piece together and finish it – like staying up until 2am to do that 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mabel, I love your thoughts about Gwendolyn Brooks. It’s interesting that her poetry was selected back in 1950 partly because it was not more “militant” about the U.S. black slavery experience, although they did laud her ability to write “from within” the “Negro” experience. Times change! I read that in about 1968, she became “transformed” about civil rights issues and her work became much more activist and political at that point. She also fostered black literature and supported small presses that brought out that work. :).

      I’m excited to hear to hear that you will go at a piece sometimes until 2 am! I am that way, too. My husband will be like, “What were you working on so late?” and it was something I was writing.

      I can see you in the back yard! Exploring the tall grass, watching the hummingbirds or butterflies, hanging around the garden. 🙂

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      1. Yes, times to change and good on her for doing what she does – when someone does what they do so honestly, it touches others more I suppose. Good on her for taking opportunities later on. The status quo is a tricky thing, and at a certain point in time things will go our way, sometimes not so.

        Haha. There will be times when I will wake up and hate what I wrote at 2am. Hope that hasn’t happened to you 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      2. oh! how we thought in the 1940s-1960s that blacks and minorities (and women) just needed to be like “mainstream” (whites, males)) to be successful. Aurgh, it makes me cringe to think of it. Perhaps, though, she was able to be even more effective in her militancy coming from a place of depth in the literary establishment. (One hopes!)
        I know about the 2am “goggle eyes” writers bit. Like, sometimes I write something and I think, “wow! that was great!” and in the morning I re-read it. Ouch. And other times I write something and think, “that was awful” and the next day, it’s not so bad as I had thought. Strange. 🙂

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      3. I still think that kind of sentiment still exists today…at least here in Australia. But the world has come a long way since then. Funny how acceptance and respect can take so many years and even decades to build.

        Haha. Lately I have many of those ‘Wow, this is great!’ and the next day, ‘Maybe not so great….’ 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Ah, Mabel, you are absolutely right. Those in majority sometimes “think” they know what it’s like to be one of the minority … and then they don’t take the time to find out what it’s really like, by talking to those in the minority. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited by finding your blog. Your sharing your experience addresses this. !!! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Anne! I was thinking when I started writing it, what would be interesting about being in the front yard? Brooks’s original poem is about wanting to go out and play with the rough untutored kids in the alley, but that her parents wanted her to stay in the front yard and be respectable. And then I thought: Oh! you can see everything that goes by and you can run down to the corner where even more is happening. Thanks again! 💖

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your poem (and Brooks) and especially the fact that you were inspired by her poem 🙂 Interestingly just yesterday I saw Hidden Figures. Have you seen it? It’s about three amazing first African American women. Do watch it if you havent. Everyone should!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hidden Figures! I have seen about 1/2 of it on an airline flight recently. I decided to wait for the rest until I can see it in our local movie theater. It is really good, isn’t it? The actresses are amazing in their roles.
      Thank you for telling me you enjoyed my poem! It feels so nice to hear! :>)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read Poets and Writers from front to back, frequently more than once because I learn so much in every edition. I love all the different writing pointers and suggestions, featured authors and the writing prompts. I agree Brook’s poetry rocks.
    Your tribute was excellent. I enjoyed your take on the front yard and wanting to see more than the weeds. I’m guilty of wanting the sanctuary of my backyard more than the busyness of the front here in Jersey. I think it depends on what point in life we are. My imagination loves the sound of the birds chirping and smell of my flowers the best.
    Thanks Theresa for another enjoyable visit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lyn! I love that you are more comfortable in the back yard. I never thought about the imagery of front yard vs. back yard before. But it is so easy to connect to, isn’t it? And I imagine many of us poet/writers prefer to be out of the public eye, we don’t seek publicity or notoriety, we hate being put on the spot. So, the back yard is great.
      I was not familiar with Brooks’s poetry until I saw the P&W article about her Pulitzer letter. Now, I’m glad I looked into it more.
      At times I feel I have this wide net that casts about, sometimes at P&W magazine, sometimes on “Writer’s Almanac” with Garrison Keillor, sometimes on books I’m reading, or settings I find myself in, or quips people say. I guess that’s writing, huh?
      “My imagination loves the sound of the birds chirping and smell of my flowers the best.” – so nice. Thanks, Lyn!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. When I was younger I thought the front yard was where I wanted/needed to be – now with some life experience behind me – it’s the back yard that I feel most comfortable. I enjoyed your take on the poetry style – That I am both and neither of them at the same time
    On account of I am my own. – is the line that really sang to me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh! Tami, thank you for your engaging comment. I love that you felt you belonged in the “front yard” and now you embrace the “back yard.” So like the core of Brooks’s poem! And thank you for telling me you connected with the line about being both and neither of my parents. Me too. :0). Have a really great day.

      Liked by 1 person

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