13 January 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/3

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

How would you know that the Golden Shovel is a pool hall, unless Brooks told you so in the head-note? You wouldn't. One of the things this poem is about is being cool, and thinking of yourself as cool, and that means excluding the non-cool, the ones without your knowledge, your style. What else do these young men have besides their coolness? Although Brooks doesn't explicitly state that they, like her, are African-Americans, that is generally the community she writes about, and the use of "jazz" as a sexual synonym, particularly in a poem from 1959, is also going to indicate their race. Although African-Americans had been struggling for full legal and social rights since the end of the Civil War, a young black man in 1959 faced a deeply (and often legally) segregated society. Cool comes in at the margins, outside the mainstream. Cool is compensation, a way of spiting exclusion.

This brief poem builds with astonishing rapidity, increasing with intensity in each off-kilter couplet, from dropping out of school and staying out late to shadow-market activities like bootlegging to the sudden but inevitable mention of early death. The words flow naturally, with a jazzy streetish sound (the use of "real" instead of "really"), but they are carefully patterned, and keep you off-balance the whole way, with heavy use of alliteration and strong internal rhymes, each rhyme followed by a syncopated beat, the "We" that starts the next brief sentence – in a poem of just 24 words, 8 of them, a third of all the words, is "We." What else do these young men have, besides their cool? They have "We" – their self-contained community, their gang. It's striking that the first seven lines (one for each player, perhaps) end with "We," until we get to the isolated eighth and final line, about death, because of course you die alone. What makes this line particularly poignant here is that this poem is the young men speaking about, conceiving of, themselves: they are very aware that an early death is their probable end. It adds a desperation, a fatalistic sadness, to what starts as a self-celebration of their own coolness. What else do they have? An early death. How far have we really come, for young men like these, from 1959?

I took this from the Selected Poems of Gwendolyn Brooks.


Lisa Hirsch said...

That is an utterly fantastic poem. Seems to me it is related to various vernacular African American speech styles, too.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Very glad you like it! And yes, I agree about its relation to African-American speech styles as well as musical styles -- I think Brooks like Langston Hughes was very interested in using those things in her art.

John Marcher said...

I agree it's a great poem- and a musical one, which you noted. 1959 was the year Miles Davis' Kind of Blue came out, and this poem could convincingly be set as lyrics to lead track, "So What."

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks, that's an interesting thought -- I'll have to check and see if I have Kind of Blue somewhere in the CD piles. Now I'm wondering if anyone has actually set this poem to music.

Unknown said...

What a much deeper take on a favorite poem of mine. I always thought it was kind of funny. That's because, as an 8th grade teacher for years, I often taught these young men (in my case, of all races), when they were deciding that this is the type of person they wanted to be. They made my job tougher, though I loved them, and so the final line, which comes as a shock, seemed a good reminder that the hard workers would win in the end. Your analysis has added such a poignancy to the poem, and I like it more than ever.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

It's the difference between having the choice of pretending you're street, and actually being street. The poem is about the latter.