by Gwendolyn Brooks
Stanza 1 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
- Holy cryptic opening line, Batman! Let's see what we can unpack from this opener. The first word "we" gives us a hint of the poem's point of view. It's likely going to be written from the first person plural point of view. So instead of the familiar "I" that we're used to seeing from so many poems, Brooks uses the more inclusive "we." We'll have to continue reading to find out exactly who "we" is.
- To say "we are things" is strange, though. The word "we" implies a human quality. But humans aren't things; they're people!
- To compare yourself (and your crew) to an object is kind of devaluing. Humans tend to think they're more important than mere objects. You've got more going on than, say, a rock, right?
- Brooks describes the hours as "dry." Dry in this sense probably doesn't mean not wet, but lacking zip—dull, unexciting.
- The "involuntary plan" sounds almost like an oxymoron. Plans are something we, well, plan to do—they take thought. When you think of the word "involuntary" you think of something that's done without conscious control. But when Brooks places these words next to each other, they take on a new meaning: the "involuntary plan" is something the people in this poem don't plan to do themselves, but kind of have to go along with.
- Especially coming after "dry hours," you start to get the sense of people who are living their lives on autopilot a bit—the duties of life are imposed on them and it's probably difficult, and tedious, and a little mind-numbing.
- The fact that this poem is titled "Kitchenette Building" now seems significant in understanding what all this feeling weighed down by daily life is all about. These kitchenette buildings were tiny, usually one-room, apartments that shared bathrooms and kitchens with several other families. Their emergence began alongside discriminatory housing practices in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. Many poor African-American families lived in these buildings, and they were cramped, difficult places to live. Bad times, gang.
Grayed in, and gray. "Dream" makes a giddy sound, not strong
- The first part of this line, "Grayed in, and gray," is a continuation of the sentence that started on the first line that talked about drudgery—dull, taxing stuff. In the poetry biz, that's what's known as an enjambment. The color gray, if it were to represent a feeling, would probably not represent a lively one. When we think of gray we think of dullness. After all, have you ever seen a gray firework?
- To say that the people in the poem are "grayed in" might mean they're being crushed by the day-to-day, bummed out to the max. To say that they themselves are "gray" could mean something similar: they're sapped of life, so they don't have a very vivacious appearance.
- The second part of the line introduces "dream," a word very different from "dry," "plan," and "gray," because it suggests energy and imagination, color even.
- "Giddy" has two meanings that make sense in this case. The first is having a whirling, dizzy sensation, like that feeling you get when you just step off a tilt-a-whirl at the fair. The second means super-excited (think a group of middle-school girls about to see a Justin Bieber concert after downing a few pixie stix).
- Brooks comes right out and says the word dream "makes a giddy sound." She's pointing out the contrast of what dream actually sounds like compared to the duller words, and we can't help but notice that what a dream is—exciting, creative, usually positive—appears in sharp contrast to "dry hours," "involuntary plans," and general grayness.
- Note, too, that "Dream" appears in quotes. Since the speaker is discussing the sound of the word here, we wonder if somebody is saying this word literally out loud. We'll have to keep reading to find out.
- The end of the line takes a little turn with "not strong." We can recall the first definition of "giddy" (feeling kind of dizzy), and this makes sense. It also introduces a negative aspect to the idea of dreams (something that's "not strong" is weak, and weakness is rarely viewed as a good thing), which we typically think of positively.
Like "rent," "feeding a wife," "satisfying a man"
- Ah, we get more enjambment here as the line 2 carries over into line 3. We know from the previous line that dreams are not strong, but according to the poem, these things—rent, feeding a wife, and satisfying a man—are.
- We should pay attention to the fact that these three phrases are also in quotation marks. Rather than spoken words, it seems that these are more ideas—the idea of a dream versus the reality of rent, grocery bills, and relationship drama. Further, the quotation marks suggest that Brooks wants to set them apart as someone else's ideas, not the speaker's. Have you ever borrowed a phrase that a parent or teacher repeats all the time (like "haste makes waste"), and used your fingers to make little air quotes? This is the same idea.
- These three things are in contrast to "dreams." According to the speaker, they're stronger than dreams. But how? Well, they are definitely more of-this-world. In other words, they're practical. Think about the first two lines. Brooks talked about "plans," and "dry hours"—the boring, tedious, practical stuff in life (ironing, flossing, brushing your hamsters, etc.). Now she's introduced rent and being a supportive spouse. These things are pretty practical, too. While dreams may be many awesome things (inspiring, creative, big), they aren't always practical to our daily life. Yawn.