The Chicago Poetry Group: African American Art and High Modernism at Midcentury

Article excerpt

Most popular accounts of African American literature gravitate toward two brilliant explosions: the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The decades between these two literary moments are conspicuous largely through their absence from the narrative of twentieth-century African American art. Though individual writers of the intervening years have been canonized, there is little sense of the type of literary community that might have existed among African American artists during the 1950s, for example. Yet it is implausible that such talents as Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks emerged fully formed from the ether. Surely they had literary compatriots and institutions, organs of publication that influenced the subjects and modes of their art. Recent work has begun to shed light on the literary happenings of these lost years, often placing the work of Richard Wright at the center of a "Chicago Renaissance" that developed through the 1940s and 1950s. Such a portrait privileges the novel and Wright's particular project of a "new realism" as the characterizing aesthetic of this latter Renaissance. Equally important to this period, however, were a variety of creative endeavors emanating from Chicago's South Side Community Art Center. Gwendolyn Brooks memorialized one such enterprise, the Chicago Poetry Group, in her autobiography, Report Jrom Part One. Brooks fondly recalls the workshop as an early stage in her development as a poet, and thus has it been dutifully invoked in many critical discussions of her work." As a pole of African American literary culture in the forties and fifties, however, the poetry group merits greater attention for what it can reveal about a lesser-known dimension of a little-known period.

The poetry group was more properly a poetry class, and only a drop in the bucket of classes taught at the South Side Community Art Center, most of which involved visual arts of some kind.' The center, born of the WPA's Federal Arts Project, matured into (and remains) a meeting place for community members interested in the arts, as well as a studio for up-and-coming black artists. The poetry classes were a natural extension of its focus on self-expression across media, including sculpture and painting. Taught by Inez Cunningham Stark, the Gold Coast art patron who sat on the board of Poetry magazine, the class was intended to "cultivate" poetic talent among the South Side's young black artists by training them in modernist aesthetics. Aside from Brooks, the student who arguably went on to make the most of her poetry instruction, participants included Margaret Burroughs, Robert Davis, William Couch, John Carlis, and Margaret Danner Cunningham. Though none of these figures achieved Brooks's level of fame, they all remained active in the arts throughout their lives. In the years immediately following the poetry class, almost all of its students were published, often in local African American publications such as Negro Story. Later in the 1950s, the members of the poetry group entered professional life, though not, in most cases, as poets. Margaret Burroughs, originally instrumental in founding the community center itself, went on to found the DuSable Museum of African American History. Though trained in sculpture and painting, she is best known as a printmaker whose work has been exhibited in many American museums. She also published several volumes of poetry over the course of her life (Mullen, 97). John Carlis became a noted painter and sculptor during the 1950s. Robert Davis, though he published only once-an autobiographical sketch in Negro Story-went on to a long career as a TV and film actor under the name Davis Roberts. William Couch published poetry regularly, though with little fanfare, in issue after issue of Negro Story in 1944 and 1945. He eventually taught college English and, in the 1960s, edited a volume of black playwrights. Taken together, the lifework of even the lesser-known participants in the poetry group represents a remarkably wide-ranging engagement across the artistic spectrum. …