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Monday, 6 April 2015

We Real Cool

We Real Cool is a brilliant short poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, an African-American lady who lived in Chicago and wrote poems about urban life there. This poem, written in 1959, is small and exquisite like a jewel. The piece supports endless worthwhile analysis of its meaning but beware – its simplicity is deceptive!
Gwendolyn Brooks 1917-2000
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.

The sub-title, "The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel" sets the scene just like, say, a Shakespearean stage instruction such as "Outside the Castle. Enter a Servant." It carries a lot of information for the reader and is the only really specific information in the poem. The poet has painted a picture; there are seven young guys playing pool. The number seven is often associated with gambling and the name 'The Golden Shovel' is very ironic. Pool halls are dingy, badly-lit places and 'Golden' implies sunlight, wealth and health - all absent from the scene. A shovel implies manual labour (also absent!) and hints at grave-digging which may be a signal for that punch-in-the-face moment of the last sentence.
The poem only consists of a couple of dozen words, all of a single syllable but it is laden with meaning. The poet is imagining what she thinks the young men are thinking. "We real cool. We left school." speaks volumes and we may infer that if they didn't leave or skip school they may have been saying "We are real cool. "We lurk late" hints at various possibilities of misdemeanour's. "Striking straight" implies a long time spent playing pool.
"Sing sin" hints, again at possible anti-social activities. And "We thin gin" refers to the practice among young guys in the 50s to add water to Gin, the most popular spirit at that time. In the final stanza the word Jazz is used,  like the first word of the previous four lines, as an adjective. There are many differing versions of what that means, some of them unsavoury. The poetess has coyly let people make there own interpretation of it - I will do the same! So we have a bunch of school-age kids, possibly gambling, drinking and getting up to no good but we should be careful of rushing to judgement. It may all be a show of bravado.....
In the final sentence, "We die soon" Gwendolyn Brooks has probably switched to what she thinks they should be thinking or she fears may be their destiny.
The achievement of this poem is to paint a picture as powerful as a realist painting by Edward Hopper (look him up!) but with far less brush-stokes.
Listening to Clean Up Woman by Betty Wright. It has wonderful guitar and bass playing. Just try not tapping you foot to it! Listen here.


14 comments:

loverofwords said...

When I was an English teacher, eons ago, my student loved Gwendolyn Brooks. There is also a beat to her poems. I taught in a high school that had some gang kids so they related to her words. We had some great discussions about Gwen.

bazza said...

Hi Natasha. This poet and this work are not well known in the UK. I would imagine they have a higher profile in the US. I reckon you could have a long and interesting discussion using We Real Cool as a starting point!

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

When I read the poem, I interpreted it as, "boys gone bad". Thanks to your post, I understand and appreciate it more. You saw more in each word, and that is a gift.

bazza said...

Hi Arleen. Isn't it amazing just how much there is in each word! I do a lot of research for a post like this so I learn more than I did at the start too. I don't think your initial interpretation is too far off the mark though.

All Consuming said...

Interesting stuff bazza, and well described on your part too. I enjoyed that! *smiles*.

bazza said...

Hi AC. Did you know that 'smiles' is the longest word because there's a mile between the first and the last letter. I have probably been waiting twenty years for the opportunity to use that remark! Thank you so much.

David said...

Hi bazza,
A good poem, with some fascinating insights into its meaning.
I think I should probably know more about Gwendolyn Brooks because I wrote my university dissertation on African-American literature!
Anyway, perhaps you're also aware that there's a Nick Cave song entitled, "We Real Cool", from the album "Push the Sky Away".
Thanks bazza. Always a pleasure to visit your blog.
Best Wishes,
David.

All Consuming said...

Hahahaha, I like that, and you're very welcome bazza! *smiles for miles*

bazza said...

Hi David. I think you can be excused - there is rather a lot of Afro-American literature. (I wrote my dissertation on Strawberry Fields compared with Penny Lane).
I didn't know that song but I like most of Nick Cave's work and just listened to it on You Tube. I'm sure the title isn't just a coincidence - he must be a fan!

bazza said...

Hi AC: Readers here will have to visit your Blog to understand that remark!

Sherry Ellis said...

A lot is packed into the poem. I think the author does a great job of getting her point across.

bazza said...

Hi Sherry. Yes, she does that very well and it's all the better because of the economy of words and the way she disguises the point of the poem until the very end.

klahanie said...

Hey Bazza,

Now that's my kinda' poetry, old chap. Trust you to come up with that old joke about "smiles"! The metric police are on their way.

Gazza aka Gary...

bazza said...

Hi Gary. All of my alleged witty remarks are old!