The poem “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks is possibly her most well known. It was written in 1959 and included in her poetry collection The Bean Eaters the following year. They have extensively taught it in classrooms and included it in other anthologies. Before reading our study of Brooks’ poetry below, you may read ‘We Real Cool’ here.
During the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, African-American poets like Langston Hughes helped to establish a new genre of poetry that drew on jazz rhythms and African-American vernacular.
For this 1959 poem, Gwendolyn Brooks built on this new custom, which was motivated by observing a group of young boys at a pool hall rather than in school. She wonders how they see themselves.
It gave them a voice in “We Real Cool,” which also represents the emerging phenomena of the 1950s: the adolescent.
We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks
The poem’s pace and Brooks’ ability to perfectly convey the genuine “feel” of the teens’ conversation depend on its form, which is worth analyzing.
The poem’s opening two lines in capital letters tell us who the seven pool players discovered at “The Golden Shovel,” a billiard hall Brooks passed one day, are who the “We” of the poem’s title refers to.
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool.
We Left school.
We Lurk late.
We Strike straight.
We Sing sin.
We Thin gin.
We Jazz June.
We Die soon.
From Author: Gwendolyn Brooks
‘I composed it because I was passing past a pool hall in my village one afternoon during school time,’ Brooks later said. And I observed a large group of boys—I’ll say seven in this poem—playing pool there.
But rather than pondering why they aren’t in school, I thought to myself, “I wonder how they feel about themselves.”
It also makes use of pronouns, though not, of course, the collective first-person pronoun that is so crucial to the poem itself. Instead of “we” from “We Real Cool,” the author writes, “I wrote… I was… my community… I say… they were… myself, why aren’t they… I asked… I wonder… how they feel about themselves.”
Here, the pronouns “I” and “they” switch places before Brooks enters the italics of memory to quote herself as she recounts the events that led to the poem’s inspiration.
However, as Brooks makes clear, rather than passing judgment on the boys, she strove to understand their perspectives. In the poem, “I” and “they” merge into “we,” which ends each line of the poem’s body until the very final line.
A Brief Analysis
Because of enjambment, which occurs when a sentence or phrase continues from one line to the next (for example, “We left school”), Brooks’ poem has a forward momentum that it would not otherwise have.
Just imagine how the poem would read if each “We…” statement were on a separate line with a full stop at the end.
One of the most noticeable aspects of “We Real Cool’s” rhyme is that Brooks places it in the middle of her short lines rather than at the conclusion, making sure that the word “we” ends each line. Thus, we have June/soon, late/straight, sin/gin, and cool/school.
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Of course, the poem’s last line does not conclude with a “we” since, despite being the final word in every other line, “we” is not permitted to end lines.
Instead, the youth of these carefree teenagers who skip school to play pool and drink ‘thin’ (i.e., inexpensive) gin is overshadowed by a sudden awareness of mortality and death (reminding readers of the low life expectancy of young men among ‘black’ communities in many poorer areas of the United States – the reference to ‘lurk[ing] late’ reveals that these teenagers are members of a gang, increasing their chances of an early death.
“We Die Soon”
This coming down-to-earth at the end of the poem is not intended to undercut the rest of the poem, but to combine with it as a type of natural completion. However, it would make no sense for “we” to complete a poem when “we” is the beginning of a statement, not the end of one.
After all, the collective “we” of the poem seems to imply, the reason we are skipping school to play pool, listen to jazz, and sing is precisely because we are aware of the fleeting nature of life, or at least of our lives.
As a result, we intend to eat, drink (cheap gin), and be merry before our lives, which appear to hold little promise for us (perhaps an indirect allusion to the lack of social mobility many young black Americans experienced?), are over.
In the end, despite the song’s tone and voice seeming triumphant and self-assured, the teenagers’ collective statements conceal a darker and more unfavorable tale involving the many young Black Americans who had dropped out of school in favor of a life of gang warfare, having no jobs and no credentials.
One of the poem’s accomplishments is how Brooks conveys both sides of the poem simultaneously and without comment: that the voice that speaks to us collectively is both victorious and defeatist.