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We Real Cool -- Gwendolyn Brooks

Guest poem submitted by Mark Penney:
(Poem #1626) 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.
-- Gwendolyn Brooks
"We Real Cool" is virtually ubiquitous in American schoolbooks, and when I
was an American who read schoolbooks, I was unimpressed.  I pretty much
didn't get what was so wonderful.  I mean, there's nothing TO get, right?
Well now I'm older, and I know ever so much better.

First things first: It's an extremely economical group portrait of these
seven young men.  Without really telling you anything about them, this poem
tells you everything about them: their fears, their ambitions, who they
think they are versus who they really are.  (How did I know they were young
men?  It doesn't say that.  Yet you know.)  The repeated "We" at the end of
each line simultaneously displays a certain bravado and a distinct
uncertainty about the group identity (or even, as an example of protesting
too much, whether there's a group identity at all.  Who is this We they're
so insistent about?)  Repeated as it is, the We gets smaller and
smaller--the poet has in fact said that the "we" is supposed to be read in a
small and uncertain way.

Oh, and if you ever run into someone who tells you that lineation and
punctuation in a poem doesn't matter, point to this poem to set them
straight.  If the "we" went at the beginning of each line, this would be a
much worse poem, wouldn't it?  It would devolve simply into a list.  With
the "we" at the end, and unpunctuated, that word becomes sort of a question
as well as a refrain.

Also, if there's ever any doubt that rhythm can add meaning to a poem, again
point here.  The jazzy, syncopated rhythm of this poem is a huge part of the
portrait of these guys.  You can picture them thinking these thoughts, to
the tune of whatever beat is in their heads.

Brooks got a little flak for the juxtaposition of "left school" and "die
soon," as some thought of this as the then middle-aged poet passing judgment
on her subject (and thus her community).  But I don't think so.  I think
that these are just components of this swaggering yet fragile group identity
that masks the individual fear and uncertainty that is nevertheless still
present.

My comments are now longer than the poem by about a factor of fifty, so I'll
shut up now.

--Mark

58 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

LynnWagner said...

Ah, but stanzas count too.

I agree with Mark the "if you ever run into someone who tells you that lineation
and punctuation in a poem doesn't matter, point to this poem to set them
straight." but we also get a further syncopation and anticipation based on the
poem's true lineation. To wit:

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

You can delete my comments, but please fix the poem.

Lynn Wagner

Penney Mark said...

Yeah-in my defense, I sent it in the right way, but the whitespace got
lost in the translation somewhere.

--M.

Frances Sussna said...

Can anyone tell me what "Jazz June" means?

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