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We Real Cool
by Gwendolyn Brooks
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
The subtitle over the poem above sets the scene for what follows by introducing our subjects and where they are to be found. The poem centers around seven men (most likely African American men given both the author and the subject matter) who are playing pool at an establishment called The Golden Shovel.
The name of the pool/billiards establishment is interesting. Golden implies riches or goodness or something perhaps ethereal. Shovel on the other hand implies hard work and labor. When we look at the name of the establishment combined with the last line of the poem, it is hard to avoid linking the two. Golden Shovel may refer to grave digging – either literally or more likely metaphorically. These men are hanging out somewhere that will lead to death.
With that in mind, the Speaker’s meaning becomes fuzzy. Is she critiquing the choices of these men, glamorizing them, or is it both? If it is both, then the element of criticism might shift from what they are doing to a society that led them in this direction. Perhaps they are praiseworthy in making the most of a bad situation.
This eight line poem is separated into four couplets. Six of the eight lines contain only three words. The exceptions are the first line which contained four words and the last which contains only two. The pattern of the poem is repeated three word sentences beginning with the word “we.” Each “we” leads creates enjambment with the next line until like 8 – which ends abruptly. This is effective in emphasizing the suddenness and totality of death.
Substantively, the poem describes the lives of seven pool players. The players are not part of established society. Instead they are not in school and they live their lives concerned only with the moment. The Speaker implies that they do this knowing that they will likely die young.
Line one begins with the seven pool players addressing the Reader. The other 8 lines follow that pattern.
- We real cool.
- We left school. (It is not clear whether that is a permanent decision or whether they have only done this for the day or for a while.)
- We lurk late. (This line begins our second couplet and the dangers and trouble facing the young men seem to grow here. “Lurk” is not usually a verb associated with someone who is up to something good.)
- We strike straight. (Strike straight is a pool reference. They hit the ball well. However, use of the word “strike” conveys a sense of danger associated with the young men as well.)
- We sing sin. (Here, the trouble associated with the young men becomes less ambiguous. To sing sin is to celebrate… well, sin (bad deeds.))
- We thin gin. (The young men are drinking watered down gin. This line follows the previous one which implies a connection between drinking alcohol and their celebration of sin.)
- We Jazz June. (The meaning here is unclear. The might refer to partying or more specifically to something sexual. Alternatively, it might be a reference to summer – or their treating whatever time of year that they find themselves in as though it is summer.)
- We die soon. (This is unambiguous and abrupt. As such, it is the only line that does not end with a “We.” The pool players – who are the Speakers – seem to be embracing a near-term death. The Reader is left in an uncomfortable silence as the poem ends – wondering how exactly we should feel.)
Who is Gwendolyn Brooks?
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks (June 7, 1917 – December 3, 2000) was an American poet, author, and teacher. Her work often dealt with the personal celebrations and struggles of ordinary people in her community. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry on May 1, 1950, for Annie Allen, making her the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize.
Throughout her prolific writing career, Brooks received many more honors. A lifelong resident of Chicago, she was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968, a position she held until her death 32 years later. She was also named the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress for the 1985–86 term. In 1976, she became the first African-American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.