The most striking quality of Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Bean Eaters” is a sharpness fused with the poetic. The three stanzas present a point of view that is pointed and hard, even as the poet finally embraces the lyrical. The hardness exists through approach and tone; it is as though Brooks is literally informing someone next to her of a strange thing she has seen, and one that demands inquiry. This is a poem capturing experience from a distance, and experience that is remarkably plain. The facts are basic: an old couple has their usual meal of beans, they live in a rented room, and they live as well on memories. Brooks’s tone then suggests spying, and a need to understand meaning in what appears to be meaningless. With that understanding, however, comes the real beauty of her scene.
To begin, Brooks “reports” the content of the poem in a way that is both mechanical and poetic. The mechanical is in place through dry observation, and from the opening line: “They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair” (L 1). It is in fact difficult to conceive of a poem beginning in a more flat and uninterested way. If there is no direct judgment made, there is an implication of criticism; the couple does not even merit being described as old, for example, and instead are only “yellow.” The reporting of the choice of meal is equally dull and the remainder of the first stanza reinforces pragmatic fact only: “Dinner is a casual affair./ Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,/ Tin flatware” (ll 2-4). The punctuation is abrupt, with the second short sentence emphasizing how plainly the couple lives through its basic and brief form. There is even a sense that the description of the scene, in terms of table and items, barely deserves mentioning; Brooks tosses these words out in a way reflecting the dullness of them.
At the same time, there is a poetic quality to this stanza because its simplicity triggers interest. More exactly, the question comes to mind before more is read: why are we here, given how this scene does not even excite the poet to be descriptive? This suspense is increased with the second stanza, which takes the hard viewpoint into another dimension. In four short lines, the mystery expands and the brevity of the lines, along with the lack of detail or explanation, works to this effect: “Two who are Mostly Good./ Two who have lived their day” (ll 5-6). It is here reinforced that the couple is old, and there is as well an infusion of perspective. The choice to capitalize “Mostly Good” is the first deviation from the reporting tone. It is a kind of wry commentary and says a great deal in two words.
The couple is good, in other words, as good is perceived generally; they live by the codes of their time and place, and the suggestion is that faith is their foundation. The qualification implies how this goodness based on faith is not always in place, as is true for most. More powerful is the segue from this: “But keep on putting on their clothes/ And putting things away” (ll 7-8). The “But” in fact changes the voice. It expresses something out of place, and that Brooks presents this immediately as the ordinary action of dressing is challenging on several levels. On one, there is an anger to it, as though this old couple has no business moving through routine behaviors any longer. On another, it is possible to read a trace of wonder in this reality itself. In all of this, the hard and the poetic are coming together in a more forceful way. The hardness dominates, but the mystery implied creates a feeling of poetic interest, even if the words themselves remain flat.
This mystery explodes in the final stanza, and the poetic suddenly dominates. In a dramatic shift of tone and perspective, Brooks writes: “And remembering . . .” (L 9). The conjunction introducing the stanza acts like a curtain going up on a scene. This is true in a figurative sense because, for the first time, internal life is presented. The narrator or poet now somehow sees beyond the surface reality. It is possible that the meaning goes to further observation; the poet may be listening as well as watching. Within a few words, however, it is clear that this is not the case, and because Brooks expands the poem to reflect the expansion of the couple. She repeats “remembering” and she becomes lyrical: “Remembering, with twinklings and twinges” (L 10). The double alliteration is set against the word repetition and there is now a sense of real wonder attached to the scene. Something fantastic is occurring here, as the alliterative word sounds suggest motion and light. Finally, the pragmatic and the poetic merge completely with the true substance of the couple’s lives revealed: “As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that/ is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,/ tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes” (ll 11-13). A simple rhyme sets off a cascade of images, and a universe of rich experience is revealed. In this entire unique approach of the sharp and the lyrical, Brooks makes her “bean eaters” come to vibrant life.