“A Song in the Front Yard,” by Gwendolyn Brooks, is a famous anthology piece of great energy. The theme is danger, as in “The Steeple-Jack” or “The Armadillo,” but here the danger is deliberately courted by the speaker. She seems impelled by what Edgar Allan Poe called “The Imp of the Perverse.” Success, in her society, and particularly for a young woman, black, and middle-class (or at least with middle-class aspirations), depends on never putting a foot astray. But all the fun of life seems to consist in straying.
I continue to be amazed (because unless at some deep unconscious level, I didn’t plan it that way) that so many of these great poems depend on flower imagery or flower metaphor. In Brooks’s poem, weeds and roses become shorthand for back yard and front yard, danger and safety, libido and self-control. The binaries become a kind of system of metaphors, corresponding to one another, where to think about any of the pairs is to think about the rest.
The form of the poem is like that of Frost’s “After Apple-Picking”: lines of different lengths and rhythms, with frequent end-rhyme. But it’s also a colloquial poem. The speaker is educated; her native tongue is Standard English. But along with the stockings and the weeds and the back yard, she wants to play with a non-standard dialect that she finds more lively and exciting.
But does she really want to walk on the wild side, or does she merely want to play? “I’d like to be a bad woman,” she says, but the tone is still hypothetical. Poetry provides vicarious experience. Are most of our desires to pursue more dangerous experiences essentially vicarious? Maybe all poets, and lovers of poetry, are front-yard people longing for an evening “down the alley.”