How Shall We Greet the Sun? Form and Truth in Gwendolyn Brooks's Annie Allen

By Parrott, Jill M. | Style, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

How Shall We Greet the Sun? Form and Truth in Gwendolyn Brooks's Annie Allen


Parrott, Jill M., Style


Gwendolyn Brooks's Pulitzer Prize winning poetry collection Annie Allen (1949) presents glimpses of individuals who have been institutionally lied to: you are not good enough, you are not smart enough, and you are not worthy of the human rights to which the rest of us are accustomed. Written in the time immediately before the Civil Rights push of the 1950s and 60s, Annie Allen rejects the dehumanization of Blacks in America by paradoxically alluding to Plato and the Western thought that he represents and that has upheld oppression tacitly (and sometimes overtly) for centuries. Plato's "Myth of the Cave" sets the parameters for human fulfillment as an aggressive pursuit of Truth. Under this definition, dehumanization is an individual, collective, or institutional act that prohibits another from this aggressive pursuit. Gwendolyn Brooks uses rhetorical form in Annie Allen to challenge this tenuous relationship between dehumanization and Western ideology; alluding to Plato allows her to condemn those who would glorify the pursuit of Truth and fulfillment for themselves while systematically denying it for others.

Rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke provides useful parameters of form to strengthen this thesis. In "The Nature of Form" Burke suggests that "form in literature is an arousing and fulfillment of desires. A work has form in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence" (183). Therefore, rhetorical form relies heavily on the creation and fulfillment of readers' desires, and the desire for fulfillment in reading literature cannot be extrapolated from form. He categorizes the different kinds of form as follows: syllogistic progression, qualitative progression, repetitive form, conventional form, and minor or incidental forms. Syllogistic progression is a "perfectly conducted argument" as one might find in a mystery or detective story. In qualitative progression, "one incident of plot [prepares] us for some other possible incident of plot" or "the presence of one quality prepares us for the introduction of another." Qualitative progression, then, relies heavily on the state of mind into which the reader is placed. Repetitive form is "the restatement of the same thing in different ways"; Burke provides the example of Swift's constant reminders that the Lilliputians are small in comparison to Gulliver (184). Greek tragedies or fairy tales offer examples of authorial use of conventional forms, or forms that the reader has come to recognize or expect, while the study of minor forms includes analyzing "metaphor, paradox, disclosure, reversal, contraction, expansion, pathos, apostrophe, series, chiasmus" or other incidentals that work together to create the whole (185).

By utilizing these definitions, one can see qualitative progression in Annie Allen in that the poem "truth" places the reader in a state of mind that necessitates intellectual inquiry, beginning with the minor form of its title and then driven by the poem's inextricable allusion to the "Myth of the Cave." By not capitalizing "truth," Brooks suggests subjectivity; "Truth" capitalized as a proper noun would indicate the absolute objectivity of Plato. Further, the presence of the rhetorical question in "truth" suggests a relationship between reader and author as Brooks is not speaking merely at the reader but directly to him and demanding answers. This relationship sets the framework for the next poem in which Brooks uses the implicit second person to address the reader as "you." Therefore, seeing rhetorical form as the creation and fulfillment of desire, "truth" creates an expectation for further discussion on the nature of truth and inquiry and other poems fulfill that expectation; the reader is "gratified by the sequence" (Burke 183). Although the poem was accepted for publication on its own (but never appeared) for Common Ground several years before the collection was published, reading the work in its entirety reveals the qualitative relationships between sections, poems, and minor forms and a consistent overall form that meets expectations for a criticism of any Truth that excludes and dehumanizes others (Kent 64). …

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