‘We Real Cool’ is probably Gwendolyn Brooks’s best-known poem. Written in 1959 and published the following year in her poetry collection The Bean Eaters, it has been widely taught in schools and anthologised on many occasions. You can read ‘We Real Cool’ here before proceeding to our analysis of Brooks’s poem below.
In the 1920s, it was African-American poets like Langston Hughes who pioneered a new kind of poetry – drawing on jazz rhythms and African-American Vernacular – during the Harlem Renaissance. Gwendolyn Brooks built upon this new tradition for this 1959 poem, which was inspired by seeing a group of young boys in a pool hall rather than in school. How do they view themselves, she wonders? ‘We Real Cool’ gives them a voice – and in doing so, reflects the new phenomenon of the 1950s: the teenager.
The form of ‘We Real Cool’ is worth stopping to analyse, because it is integral to the poem’s rhythm and the way Brooks expertly captures the authentic ‘feel’ of the teenagers’ speech. The poem begins with the two lines in capital letters informing us who the ‘We’ of the poem’s title are: the seven pool players found at ‘The Golden Shovel’, a pool hall Brooks passed one afternoon. As Brooks herself later explained: ‘I wrote it because I was passing by a pool hall in my community one afternoon in school time. And I saw therein a whole bunch of boys – I say here in this poem seven – and they were shooting pool. But instead of asking myself, why aren’t they in school, I asked myself, I wonder how they feel about themselves.’
This statement itself has its own rhythm and poetry (‘they were shooting pool … why aren’t they in school’; ‘instead of asking myself … I asked myself … how they feel about themselves’) as well as its own recourse to pronouns – although not, of course, the collective first-person pronoun which is so essential to the poem itself. Not ‘we’ of ‘We Real Cool’, but ‘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, ‘I’ and ‘they’ pass back and forward, before Brooks slides into the italics of memory as they quotes herself as she recalls the circumstances of the poem’s inspiration.
But as Brooks makes clear here, rather than pass judgement on the boys, she tried to get into their minds, and ‘I’ and ‘they’ dissolve into ‘we’ in the poem, and ‘we’ concludes each line of the poem proper until we arrive at the very last line. Using enjambment, whereby the end of a line flows straight into the beginning of the next because the sentence or phrase continues (e.g. ‘We / Left school’), Brooks gives her poem a forward momentum which it would otherwise lack (just think how differently it would read if of the ‘We …’ statements was on a standalone line by itself, ended by a full stop).
One of the most notable things about the rhyme of ‘We Real Cool’ is that Brooks shifts it to the middle of her short lines rather than having it come at the end, and this means that she ensures ‘we’ is the last word of each line. So we get cool/school, late/straight, sin/gin, June/soon. But of course that final line of the poem does not end with a ‘we’: ‘we’ is the last word of every other line, but is not allowed to have the last word. Instead, the youth of these carefree teenagers, skiving off school to play pool and drink ‘thin’ (i.e. cheap) gin, is overshadowed by a sudden awareness of mortality and death (recalling 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 part of a gang, thus increasing their chances of an early death), as ‘die soon’ concludes the poem in a darker contrast to the carefree and affirmative opening of the poem (‘we real cool’).
But at the same time, it would make no sense for ‘we’ to conclude a poem when ‘we’ is the beginning of a statement, not the end of one; so this coming-down-to-earth at the end of the poem is not intended to undermine the rest of the poem, but instead join with it as a sort of natural culmination. After all, the poem’s collective ‘we’ seems to suggest, the reason we are bunking off school to play pool and listen to jazz and sing is precisely because we are aware of the brevity of life, or at least our lives at any rate, so we intend to eat, drink (cheap gin), and be merry before our lives, which seem to hold no great promise for us (an indirect reference to the lack of social mobility many young black Americans faced?), are over.
In the last analysis, although the tone and voice of ‘We Real Cool’ seems triumphant and self-assured, the teenagers’ collective statements mask a darker and more negative story, involving the many young black Americans who had left school for the life of gang warfare, with no jobs and no qualifications. The way Brooks presents both aspects of the poem simultaneously without comment is one of the triumphs of the poem: that the collective voice which speaks to us is at once triumphant and self-defeating.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.