‘Speech to the Young’, full title ‘Speech to the Young: Speech to the Progress-Toward’, is a poem by the American poet Gwendolyn Brooks, included in her 1970 collection Family Pictures as well as several subsequent collections. The poem is dedicated to Brooks’ two children, Nora Brooks Blakely and Henry Blakely III, although in a sense the poem is addressed to all young people.
Below, we offer a summary and analysis of Brooks’ poem.
‘Speech to the Young’: summary
This short lyric poem (a poem in which a speaker discusses their thoughts and feelings) comprises just two stanzas. In the first stanza, Brooks urges young people to push for change, even in the face of resistance from those people who would attempt to keep them down. In a memorable image, Brooks likens such naysayers (or ‘sun-slappers’, as she describes them) to people who are reluctant for it to be daytime and want it to remain night.
Brooks tells the young that they will be proved right if they persevere and bring about the change they wish to see in the world. It is hard, but – in an image drawn from the game of baseball – she says it will be a ‘home-run’. A home run in baseball is when a batter hits a fair ball and scores, without being put out. Brooks is telling the young that they can achieve what they set out to do and emerge triumphant, like a better scoring a home run.
In the poem’s second, shorter stanza, Brooks tells the young not to rest on their laurels, or the laurels of those generations who have gone before. In other words, don’t think that society has reached a point where all battles worth fighting have already been won and there is no more progress to be made.
Instead of living with only the end-goal in focus, they should enjoy the process of bringing about change: the struggle, the fight, the friendships forged along the way, the gradual shift towards a better world. She likens this, memorably, to living ‘in the along’: that is, living from one day to the next, and living in the moment and for the moment.
‘Speech to the Young’: analysis
As the note at the head of the poem makes clear, ‘Speech to the Young’ was originally written for Gwendolyn Brooks’ own children, Henry Lowington Blakely III, and Nora Brooks Blakely. The poem is on one level, then, a mother passing on some words of advice to her children. In some respects, we might draw a comparison between ‘Speech to the Young’ and Langston Hughes’ earlier poem, ‘Mother to Son’, which also sees a mother advising her young black son about life.
Brooks’ advice is direct: she adopts the imperative mood right from her short poem’s opening line. She is being firm and decisive because she doesn’t want her children – and, by extension, the next generation – to waver or lose heart as they struggle to bring about social and political change.
Each of the compound nouns Brooks lists between line two and five of the first stanza requires closer analysis to unpack its meaning. The first one is easy enough: down-keepers are those who would keep people down and preserve the status quo because it serves themselves.
We might think of rich people wishing to keep things as they are because keeping the poor poor and the rich (i.e., themselves) rich clearly works in their favour.
The second one is more cryptic, but the image of slapping the sun suggests people who not only keep people down but bring the mood down: those naysayers who will tell the youth that they will never succeed in bringing about the change they wish to see. Such negativity, for Brooks, is tantamount to slapping aside the sun as though wanting it to stop shining. Of course, such an image also reinforces the idea that such negative people are swimming against the tide: you cannot stand in the way of progress, and may as well hope to knock the sun out of the sky – an obviously impossible act.
These people soil themselves not only because they sully their own good name and reputation by being so downbeat about what young people are struggling to achieve: the image also carries the unpleasant suggestion of someone who has fouled themselves, perhaps through fear or a failure of nerve. This no-nonsense image reveals the wit behind Brooks’ message to her children.
Finally, such people would seek to ‘hush’ or arrest the sense of togetherness and harmony that young people foster in order to work together to create a better society. Again, they would criticise and ridicule their attempts to organise themselves into a movement. The harsh aspirates of the alliterative ‘h’ sounds in this phrase help to make it more memorable but also more stark.
Although ‘Speech to the Young’ is written in free verse – because it lacks any rhyme scheme or regular metre or rhythm – Brooks makes effective use of syntax to create a poem that has the force of a chant, a mantra, or even an incantation. Chief among these syntactical devices is anaphora, a rhetorical device whereby the same word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of successive clauses.
So, in the first stanza of ‘Speech to the Young’, after repeating the word ‘Say’ at the start of the first two lines, Brooks then uses the same formation (‘the’ followed by each of those compound nouns already analysed) for lines 3-5. And in the poem’s second stanza, ‘Live not’, repeated in lines 10-11, becomes ‘Live in’ in the poem’s final line, turning a negative – and, by extension, all of that negativity rejected in the first stanza – into a positive commandment.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.