Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
Gwendolyn Brooks and "We Real Cool"
"We Real Cool" is a poem about the identity of a group of black male teenagers playing pool in the Golden Shovel. They are said to be black, like the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, but the poem could be about any group of rebellious youngsters anywhere, be they white or female.
It was written in 1959 and first published in the 1960 volume The Bean Eaters. We Real Cool struck a chord and was instantly seen as a ground-breaking classic. It is still prevalent and causes many a debate amongst young people.
It's the daring combination of language and rhythm that sets this poem apart. It looks all too simple on paper, but when you go a bit deeper into the syntax and stress, this poem has much to offer.
- To get a better understanding of how the poem works it might be better to listen to the two people reciting the poem on the video at the end of this analysis. Note the difference in delivery and the tone. One is light, the other dark.
We Real Cool is skeletal in form yet has plenty of muscle. It poses many questions. For example, who are the 'we'? They surely must be young because they're cool, real cool, which means exactly what? Extremely chilled? Anti-establishment? Fashionable because they're outside the mainstream?
Gwendolyn Brooks thought the poem should be read softly, the 'We' being 'tiny, wispy, weakly argumentative' because the young men are not so certain of themselves. Interesting.
This is a poem that goes against the grain. Full of monosyllables and end stops its short lines are like a thumped drum, with two strong beats and a weak to follow, until the final couplet fades away into the dark, like a burnt-out comet.
"We Real Cool"
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
Analysis of We Real Cool
We Real Cool holds in its 8 lines the whole lives of a teenage gang, from their coolness to their demise. It could be a motto, it could be a song, a chant, a lyric rage against the powers that be.
It has end rhyme and internal rhyme which is technically full - cool/school, sin/gin, and the repetitive We; this is a rhyme that binds together and holds tight, suggestive of the brotherhood of the gang. The poem is not too long to induce monotony.
The tone is one of defiance and stubborn allegiance to the gang. This is a group of outsiders who prefer pool to school, dropping out to serious study. Late alcoholic nights out on the street seem much more preferable to dull nights in.
The line breaks - when a line reaches the end and a new one starts - are a good example of enjambment, when there is no punctuation and the sense is carried over from line to line. As the poem progresses, the reader becomes acutely aware of this special line break.
- And what about that ever-present We? In the words of the poet herself, she put the We at the ends of lines for emphasis 'so the reader could give them that little split-second's attention.'
- Gwendolyn Brooks thought the boys felt unwanted (by family and society) and so formed the poem with them in absolute focus.
- The natural pause after We does tend to make the reader's thoughts linger fractionally. This strengthens the bonds between the pool players and brings a sense of bravado and chest-beating.
The mix of long and short vowels brings an intense verbal experience for the reader. Just think of the title We Real Cool which is long and drawn out, then contrast this with thin gin and sing sin for example, before the last line again reverts to long vowels, We die soon.
What is the reader to make of these pool players who seem to take pride in the fact they have left school, escaping the tedium of education, perhaps risking unemployment and the chance to earn an honest dollar?
And the alliterative lurk late has negative connotations. If a gang of youths is lurking around the implication is that they will sooner or later end up in trouble, and become known to the law. They're wasting time, throwing their young lives away.
To strike straight is to hit the pool ball hard and true - innocent enough in a game of pool - but what about the strike of a fist, the direct punch, the no-nonsense jab, right hook? This poem brings with it a kind of ambiguity - the lifestyle of these players is questionable, to say the least.
And when they sing sin does this mean they are going against all the religious truths they were brought up with? Are they foul-mouthing, undermining the Christian faith?
They may be true to their own oaths and passions, they may be outsiders, not like the mass of the mainstream, but there is the notion too that they are a little pathetic.
More Analysis of We Real Cool
Pathos is one thing - based on the possibility that this gang, these cool pool players, are in fact empty jokers and have nothing substantial to say. So they thin gin which means they drink cheap alcohol, do what the adults do, and will probably go on doing whatever it takes to dodge normality.
- But the truth seems to be that they're relying on fate, and the speaker has their number, which is seven, the luckiest of all magical numbers don't they say? Plus, the place they frequent is named after a tool of the gravedigger, albeit made out of precious gold, the material associated with ultimate bling.
Their ability to Jazz June seems a sort of climax, for what follows is death, physical or spiritual, a definitive leaving behind. The word jazz suggests flashy, eccentric, stylish, abstract - and also spirit, energy, spunk - this is the macho world the gang have entered, willingly or not.
The last line is still shocking, the collective We almost proudly boasting of a premature demise which follows on logically from what has gone before.
So ends a dramatic poem that is, in 8 lines, a miniature tragedy: the seven players die young, too young, and all because of?
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
© 2017 Andrew Spacey
Andrew Oram from Arlington, Massachusetts on March 15, 2020:
Thanks for the thoughtful and many-faceted comments on this justly famous poem. I want to add a crucial element I see in the central word "We": it indicates that the sad fate of the young people is decreed by outside forces and applies to them regardless of the individual strengths or circumstances each has. In short, there is no hope for these people: they are condemned just by their presence in this place, with their race, with the social conditions around them.