Gwendolyn Brooks has many well-known poems, but if you were to choose one that most people identify with her work, it would be the infectious little ditty “We Real Cool,” wherein seven pool players at the Golden Shovel get their comeuppance in the form of not-so-cool future elegies.
Me, I prefer Brooks’ ode to teenage rebellion, where she uses the front and back yards (of all things) as metaphors for conformity and resistance. The voice of “We Real Cool” is motherly and ironic, a cool Cassandra calling it like it was, is, and ever shall be. But here the voice is more plaintive and imaginative. A bit less golden shovel, a bit more golden dreams — the type woven from the threads of boredom:
A Song in the Front Yard
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.
I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.
They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).
But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.
In L3 we see that the weeds are “hungry,” as is the speaker, who’s grown tired of the overly-nurtured flowers in the front yard (“A girl gets sick of a rose”). She’s hungry for a “good time” now, charity children or no. She senses that the authority figures in her life have been denying her both “wonderful things” and “wonderful fun.”
The speaker’s mother — a voice more in line with “We Real Cool” — simply sneers. She knows where “fun” lands the Johnnie Maes and Georges of the world. The young speaker tries to calm her down. She flat-out admits to herself that she’d like “to be a bad woman, too,” though Mom is certainly not getting that version.
And what exactly is a “bad woman,” anyway? You know. The kind who dons “brave stockings of night-black lace.” The kind who gets to “strut down the streets with paint on my face.”
Is that so bad, Ma?
James Dean and Marilyn Monroe would say no, not at all, a girl’s got to live. Like the Sirens in the back yard, they’d call, “Come on over, child. The back yard is life.”
In truth, some children grow up in and eventually cultivate their own front yards, while others light out for the unkept and less predictable back yards connecting to alleys and God knows what. The two plots of land — and the urges they represent — represent human nature.