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The poem “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks can be considered a form of sarcastic personal commentary wherein it showcases the “cool” aspect (i.e. traits that make a person popular) in such a way that it reveals how “coolness” evolves into an escalating series of activities resulting in a person’s death. The reason why “We Real Cool” is being described as a type of sarcastic personal commentary is due to the type of language is utilized wherein the inflection seen in the sentences and the types of terminology that are implemented mirror that of the “cool” language that is emphasized in present-day pop culture as being part of African American slang language.
The poem as a form of social criticism
“We Real Cool” criticizes the act of trying to be cool by showing that the path to “coolness” always ends in disaster. Brooks shows how acts that are at times considered “cool” by students such as skipping school often escalate resulting in that individual going out late, drinking and inevitably performing other activities that are considered “cool” by everyone else. It reaches a point wherein the pursuit of being cool they do not see the end result of their actions resulting in their potential death.
When examining the poem, it becomes immediately evident that it follows the AABB meter as evidenced by the first and second stanza and the succeeding 4th and 5th stanzas respectively. It is not overly complicated and can be easily understood upon an initial overview. What is interesting about the poem is that the tonal quality takes an abrupt turn at the very last line of the poem wherein the first few lines are generally happy and pleasant with the last placing a decidedly dark emphasis on the act of “being cool”. For me, this makes the poem quite interesting since it compels the reader to read through the poem once more in order to better understand the message that the author is attempting to convey. It should be noted though that the poem possesses a certain degree of intentional grammatical incorrectness in order to better depict the pop culture slangs of “cool” activities.
For example, the very title of the poem “We Real Cool” is grammatically incorrect since following grammar rules it should state “We are really cool”. By removing the modifiers in the sentence, the poem follows the method of sentence creation commonly utilized by the African American culture which eschews sentence modifiers in favor of utilizing a more direct “subject-adjective” form of sentence construction. Examples of this can be seen in the stylistic elements of rap music which follow the same rules in sentence creation. Since rap music is considered “cool” by the standards of the present day generation of teens, utilizing the same sentence creation rules as rap music helps to enhance the association between the poem and activities that are considered “cool”. This leads the reader to imagine the “voice” of the poem as someone coming from an African American background given the sentence construction rules that are commonly associated with this particular demographic.
Negative aspects of the poem
The one aspect I dislike about the poem is its use of terminologies that are not immediately apparent to the reader. For example, terminologies such as “Jazz June”, “Sing Sin”, “Thin Gin” and “Strike Straight” are not easily understood without an underlying understanding of the pop culture dynamic in which such terms are utilized. This makes the poem far from timeless since a few generations from now it is unlikely that anyone would be able to discern what the essence of the poem is about given different pop culture phrases and terminologies in the future that would effectively erase what is present today. This level of confusion over what the poem is trying to say based on terminologies alone detracts from its overall quality since a poem is supposed to be succinct and effective in relaying its intended message without having to rely on external sources of data in order to help the reader understand it. This is not to stay that the poem is not good, in fact, it is a masterpiece, in my opinion, rather it is necessary to state that the need to understand the cultural and phrasal origins of the terminologies just detracts from its overall quality since not everyone will be able to understand it immediately.
What makes a good poem?
For me, a good poem is something that draws readers into the stanzas wherein instead of reading the words in your own “mental voice” it causes you to change the “voice” that reads it into that of the subject being detailed. In my case, when I read “We Real Cool” for the second time, I no longer “heard it”, so to speak, in my own mental voice, instead, I heard the voice of a young African American female teenager who attempted to describe what it was like to be cool.
In the case of other poems, you may “hear it” in the voice of an old man, a young child, an arrogant man, a sad and depressed orphan or even someone who has had his heart broken. Truly great poetry speaks to the heart and makes you think and imagine about the person or situation that the poem is telling you about. If you were to read a poem and “hear it” in your own voice, despite repeated readings, this just means that the poem does not stir your imagination; it does not cause you to consider the situation of the one who wrote it and is more likely than not a subpar piece of literature that was created simply for the sake of writing. Poems like those by Robert Frost speak to us on an intrinsic level. While somewhat depressing, they help people come to terms with pain and anguish and to help them realize that there is a bright ray of hope despite the darkness that surrounds them. A poem must “speak to you”; it must compel you to read it over and over again since it relates to who you are as a person in some way. Without such qualities, a poem can be considered nothing more than a collection of words that have no life in them.
Overall, it can be stated that “We Real Cool” is a poem that attempts to showcase the result of the path towards coolness. It starts in the same way that we all think is cool is like. Namely, it being exciting, happy, and pleasant. However, just as the poem ends abruptly on a sad note, so too does the path to being cool end abruptly, sometimes even tragically, as the culmination of one’s actions comes back to haunt them.