To the Young Who Want to Die: Roxane Gay Reads Gwendolyn Brooks’s Lifeline of a Poem

“The gun will wait. The lake will also wait. The tall gall in the small seductive vial will wait will wait.”

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” Albert Camus wrote in one of the most provocative opening sentences in all of literature, unspooling into one of the most daring works of philosophy. “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards.”

Camus proved to be both right and wrong in a way that only great minds can. The fundamentals for philosophy are after the foundations of physics, but not before.

Art by Valerio Vidali from The Shadow Elephant by Nadine Robert — a soulful illustrated fable about depression and how the will for light returns

Before we are able to answer the question “Is it worth living?”, there is a lot that has been done for us. Each of us cannot choose which bodies, brains, neurochemistries, and times we’re born into. We also can’t decide what parents to raise us in or how we will be educated. Any choice that we may have, however, is already saturated by these chance inheritances. James Baldwin wisely noted, it is part illusion, part vanity.

And yet live we must, with the cards we have been dealt, daily answering Camus’s question with our pre-answered fundaments of chaos and chance.

When we feel so helpless and hopeless, when our circumstances are beyond control, it is tempting to give up. This is how it works. Gwendolyn Brooks (June 7, 1917–December 3, 2000) realized over breakfast at a hotel one day in her late sixties, when the young waiter met her simple bright “Good morning!” with a gasp on the verge of tears: “Oh, thank you, thank you!”

It was hard to imagine what kind of life he might be going through. (One such smile had saved Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s life half a century earlier.)

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s 1920 illustrations for old French fairy tales. This image is also available as a printed copy.

Out of that compassionate wonderment came Brooks’s lifeline of a poem “To the Young Who Want to Die,” which appeared in her 1987 collection The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Other Poems (public library), dedicated to the students of the Gwendolyn Brooks Junior High School, published by the imprint she had founded and named after her father, the janitor of a music company.

The 2022 Universe In Verse is themed Is Life a Story of Experience?, Roxane GayThe poem was brought to life by a personal reflection that she shared about the tragic loss of her brother.

by Gwendolyn Brooks

Sit down. Inhale. Exhale.
The gun will be patient. The lake will be patient.
In the tiny, seductive vial is the tall gall
We will not wait
Will wait for a week.
This is not the end of the world.
You will be able to enjoy the afterlife.
You can be sure that death is not coming. The end is near.
This takes up a lot time. It is possible to die
Tomorrow? Next week. Or next week.
Just down the street, is your most helpful neighbor
We are available to meet with you at any time.

You need not die today.
Stay here — through pout or pain or peskyness.
Continue reading. Find out what tomorrow’s news will be.

Graves cannot grow greener than you can use.
Remember, green’s your color. It’s spring.

Complement with Galway Kinnell’s kindred poem “Wait,” composed to keep a young friend from taking his own life, then revisit Gwendolyn Brooks on the vivifying power of books and Audre Lorde, in a wonderful anthology edited by Roxane Gay, on poetry as an instrument of change and courage.

Giving = Being Loving

Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.


MarginalianReceive a weekly free newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Related Posts