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 poem We Real Cool, suggested for inclusion in our Summer Issue by Kay Lynn, was written by Gwendolyn Brooks in 1959 and published in her 3rd collection The Bean Eaters in 1960. The poem has been featured on broadsides, re-printed in literature textbooks and is widely studied in literature classes. It is cited as ‘one of the most celebrated examples of jazz poetry’. Its beauty, strength, and power are rooted in its effective use of breaks. The author’ strategic choice of line breaks affects virtually every aspect of the poem: its pace, rhythm, mood, tone, characters, sound, and meaning.
In an interview the poet stated that her inspiration came from her walking in her community and passing a pool hall full of teenage boys. When considering this she thought to herself ‘I wonder how they feel about themselves?’ Instead of wondering about why they were not in school, Brooks captured this scene and turned it into the seven pool players at the Golden Shovel.
We Real Cool consistently acknowledges the costs associated with its speakers’ rebellious lifestyles. They may lead glamorous, pleasurable lives, but they are also in danger as a direct result of their behaviour. At the heart of the poem, then, is a question about whether the sacrifices the speakers make are worthwhile. The poem doesn’t answer this question directly, and it’s definitely possible to read the poem as a condemnation of the speakers. But it’s also possible to look at their acts of rebellion as a direct and necessary challenge to authority and social complacency. This is especially true when considering the moment when the poem was written, at the height of the American Civil Rights movement. The last lines of the poem, ‘We / Die soon,’ indicate the climax, which comes as a surprise to the boasts that have been made previously. It also suggests a moment of self-awareness about the choices that the players have made.
(Poetry Foundation; https://www.poetryfoundation.org/play/75640)
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks (1917 – 2000) was an American poet, author, and teacher. A lifelong resident of Chicago, her work often dealt with the personal celebrations and struggles of ordinary people in her community. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950, for Annie Allen, making her the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Throughout her prolific writing career, Brooks received many more honours, and in 1976, she became the first African-American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Many of her works display a political consciousness. ‘Not only has she combined a strong commitment to racial identity and equality with a mastery of poetic techniques, but she has also managed to bridge the gap between the academic poets of her generation in the 1940s and the young Black militant writers of the 1960s’ (G. E. Kent)