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Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool" and "The Bean Eaters"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Portrait of Gwendolyn Brooks

Portrait of Gwendolyn Brooks

Overview of Poems

The following clever poems by former poet laureate, Gwendolyn Brooks, offer slices of life as only that observant poet could do. Brooks was a keen observer of life, a deep thinker, and her life’s experiences and observations afforded her the important materials with which to craft her fine dramatic pieces.

"We Real Cool" offers a catchy refrain of the simple word "we." And the obnoxious behavior of "we" finds the chickens coming home to roost in the final line. The jazz notes demonstrate the poet’s attuned ear for language and music that enliven and inform her poetic utterances.

"The Bean Eaters" portrays the quiet, dignified love and behavior of an elderly couple. Their shabby surroundings cannot mar the beauty of the affection they hold for each other.

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
Die soon.

One of Brooks' most anthologized poems is "We Real Cool"; about that poem, Brooks has said, "The WEs in 'We Real Cool' are tiny, wispy, weakly argumentative 'Kilroy-is-here' announcements. The boys have no accented sense of themselves, yet they are aware of a semi-defined personal importance. Say the We' softly."

The poem's lengthy subtitle is "The Pool Players. / Seven at the Golden Shovel." The poet's comment about the poem thoroughly elucidates its impact. The poem is a fine example of irony, which demonstrates the poet's marvelous and versatile ability to craft fine little dramas.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

The Bean Eaters

Gwendolyn Brooks’ "The Bean Eaters" is an American (innovative) sonnet; it includes elements of the Elizabethan (English) and Petrarchan (Italian) sonnets, with a rime scheme, AABA CDCD EFGHF. This rime scheme is similar to the English sonnet with its two rimed quatrains; however, it resembles the Italian which employs an octave and sestet, but Brooks reduces the sestet to a cinquain.

Also, as the Petrarchan sonnet's rime scheme usually permits a wider variation than the Shakespearean sonnet does, the American (or innovative sonnet) offers even wider variety for the poet's choices; therefore, Brooks' American sonnet is displayed in an especially innovative manner.

Brooks' most significant innovation is in reducing the traditional 14-line sonnet to a 13-line form—quite logically a move to correspond to the poverty theme dramatized in the sonnet. The aged couple eat very simply—"beans mostly"— while their living quarters implies a meagre income.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Bean Eaters

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
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.

Commentary

The speaker is essentially describing the love relationship between the two people who form the "old yellow pair," living simply in quiet dignity.

First Movement: Nothing Fancy

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

In the first movement, old couple sit at their dinner table partaking of their simple meal of "beans mostly." The meal remains informal; by calling their meal "a casual affair," speaker implies a contrast between the manner in which this old couple dines and a more elegant, richly appointed couple whose dinner might be a formal affair. Instead of some fancy kind of wooden table, theirs is a "plain and creaking wood."

The poet’s speaker has cleverly coined the term "chipware," revealing the low economic status of the old couple. Instead of fancy, expensive china, the couple dines on "chipware," demonstrating that they have been using those same plates and platters so long that have pieces broken off.

The speaker reports that the old couple uses "tin flatware," instead of "silverware," as they consume their "beans." Tin is a much less expensive metal than silver. The speaker thus has demonstrated with these two terms describing the eating equipment that the old couple lives without luxury with their well-worn utensils. There is no fancy china on starched table clothes for this old pair.

Second Movement: Nourishing Lives With Spirit

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

This fascinating old couple is "[m]ostly Good," which suggests that they have a harmonious relationships with each other, and they function within the laws of their community. They likely nourish their spiritual lives as well as their mental and spiritual lives.

As no one else other than the old couple appears in the poem, readers will infer that the couple has likely outlived most of their friends and relatives, and if they raised children, those children are living their own lives. The couple demonstrates a strength of character in their daily persistence; they get up each morning, dress themselves, go through their day, and keep their home tidied. This "old yellow pair" does not demonstrate any boredom with what might seem to be a shabby existence.

Third Movement: Sharing Sacred Memories

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
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.

As the two eat their beans, behave in a morally acceptable way, continue to put on their clothes every day, and put their belongings in their proper place, they enjoy their memories. They continue to share with each other their sacred memories as they consume their simple fare of beans. Their possessions in their "rented back room" signal the nature of the memories they continue to cherish and about which they likely engage in pleasant conversation: "beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, / tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes." "Beads" symbolize an enthusiasm for color and beauty. Those beads likely still hang on a necklace or bracelet, presented to his wife by her husband on birthdays or other special occasions.

"Receipts" imply that the couple has always behaved responsibly with their money and other finances. "Dolls" hint that they likely did raise children. The "cloths" imply material for sewing the doll clothes and also rags with which to dust and/or clean their meagre possessions. "Tobacco crumbs" imply the smoking of a pipe or other materials. "Vases" which are often used as containers for flowers again signal a love of beauty. Also suggesting a love of beauty are the "fringes" that would drape down from the covers on beds and/or chairs.

Upon first encounter, the life of the "old yellow pair" may seem unrewarding; however, after further consideration readers come to realize that this old couple's drama is shown to be not only interesting, but also filled with love, strength, peace, and blessedness—and all of that is accomplished through a description of the items that surround them—which perfectly exemplifies the dictum of William Carlos Willians that there are "no ideas but in things."

Bust of Gwendolyn Brooks

Bust of Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks - Tombstone

Gwendolyn Brooks - Tombstone

An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 25, 2016:

Brooks has written some fascinating poems, for sure. Interesting woman.

Welcoming those angels! Blessings!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on November 25, 2016:

Simple, sriaghtforward, eloquent. Will find her works and take some time to peruse them.

Angels are headed your way this morning ps

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