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Gwendolyn Brooks' "Gay Chaps at the Bar"
Gay Chaps at the Bar
… and guys I knew in the States, young officers, return from the front crying
and trembling. Gay chaps at the bar in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York …
—Lt. William Couch in the South Pacific
We knew how to order. Just the dash
Necessary. The length of gaiety in good taste.
Whether the raillery should be slightly iced
And given green, or served up hot and lush.
And we knew beautifully how to give to women
The summer spread, the tropics of our love.
When to persist, or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech. How to make a look an omen.
But nothing ever taught us to be islands.
And smart, athletic language for this hour
Was not in the curriculum. No stout
Lesson showed how to chat with death. We brought
No brass fortissimo, among our talents,
To holler down the lions in this air.
Commentary on Brooks' "Gay Chaps at the Bar"
Gwendolyn Brooks' poem, "Gay Chaps at the Bar," is an American sonnet, based on the Petrarchan style octave of two quatrains and a sestet composed of two tercets.
In Gwendolyn Brooks' Innovative or American sonnet, "Gay Chaps at the Bar," there is no overt rime-scheme, but vague echoes of sight-rime and near-rime hover in the second quatrain and first tercet.
The sonnet features an account from a soldier who served in World War II, offering the marked contrast between how he and his fellow soldiers felt as they pursued their leisure-time activities and their battlefield experiences.
First Quatrain: "We knew how to order. Just the dash"
The poem features the following epigraph: "… and guys I knew in the States, young officers, return from the front crying and trembling. Gay chaps at the bar in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York . . . —Lt. William Couch in the South Pacific."
Brooks explains regarding the poem's title and epigraph: "I wrote it because of a letter I got from a soldier who included that phrase in what he was telling me." The speaker of the poem is a soldier looking back at his experience, including recreation time, during the war.
The speaker uses a restaurant metaphor to report how he and his buddies knew how to have a good time. They "knew how to order. / Just the dash / Necessary." They knew how to be as rowdy as "good taste" would allow.
Second Quatrain: "And we knew beautifully how to give to women"
The soldiers were also quite adept with the women who partied with them; they "knew beautifully how to give to women." They knew how to be warm and inviting, to offer "the tropics, of our love."
They also knew when "to persist" and also when to slow down. They "knew white speech," and they also became very proficient at bringing about the outcomes they desired just by a skilled look.
First Tercet: "But nothing ever taught us to be islands"
While the octave of the sonnet reports the skills of the soldier and his buddies at having a good time, the sestet returns to the seriousness of war. They learned much about behavior overseas, and it worked fairly well for their R and R activities, but they were never "taught to be islands." They could play on the islands, but they could become them.
No lessons could teach them how to feel about a different culture, even if they knew enough protocol to function reasonably. They did not have the ability to acquire the precise language that makes a soldier comfortable with actually fighting the war. The speaker explains, "smart athletic language for this hour / Was not in the curriculum."
Second Tercet: "Lesson showed how to chat with death. We brought"
The soldier/speaker continues and avers, "No stout / / Lesson showed how to chat with death." While they became quite comfortably conversant with the women in the bars and at parties, they never felt that same ease on the battlefield. As he explains, "We brought / No brass fortissimo, among our talents, / To holler down the lions in this air."
They brought their machismo and other social skills, but as soldiers of war, fighting on the battlefield, their party voices could not charm the enemy into capitulation.
This soldier's report dramatizes the experience that all soldiers during all of history must have felt.
Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes