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The poet Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950 and is best known for her poem We Real Cool, written in 1966. Born in Chicago, Gwendolyn Brooks received numerous other honors over the course of her career, including being named the Poet Laureate for the state of Illinois.
We Real Cool coincided with a shift in Gwendolyn Brooks’s style of writing from her earlier work. She began her career writing complex verse in a highly intellectual and scholarly style that was suited more to the academic milieu. However when We Real Cool was written Gwendolyn Brooks had made the shift to a more direct writing style that allowed her themes to come to the forefront rather than stay buried under academic language. Critics attribute the change in style to the politically charged times that We Real Cool was written in, and the poem also includes a more generous sprinkling of the vernacular that made her work more accessible to lay audiences.
Over the years the poem We Real Cool has come to signify a particularly poignant vision of disaffected young urban males – men that age extremely rapidly and seem largely inured to the brief violent tenor of their lives. This essay interprets the poem We Real Cool and devotes special attention to the meter that Gwendolyn Brooks used to set the poem. The essay will argue that this meter effectively creates a paradoxical psychological movement within the poem which explains why it remains popular and often quoted nearly 50 years after its appearance in print.
The basic narrative of the poem We Real Cool centers on a group of seven young men playing pool rather than attending classes. Gwendolyn Brooks described these seven young men as having “no pretensions to any glamor” (Stavros 72). The poet explains that they are “supposedly dropouts, or at least they’re in the poolroom when they should possibly be in school since they’re probably young enough, or at least those I saw were when I looked in a poolroom” (Stavros 72).
The young men feel a certain pride in their act of defiance, and consider it bucking the system, as evidenced by the lines “We real cool. We Left school” (Brooks 1). The word “Left” is capitalized to illustrate the young men’s satisfaction in getting away with skipping school (Brooks 1). The poem goes on to give simple yet penetrating glimpses into the rest of these young men’s lives: “We Lurk late. We Strike straight. We Sing sin. We Thin gin. We Jazz June” (Brooks 1).
In these lines the reader learns a good deal about the young men and their attitudes toward their future; they stay up late, they cut classes, they drink underage and they listen to jazz. Notable is the word “Lurk,” also capitalized, which suggests vaguely nefarious late-night excursions into possible criminal behavior. Though the narrative is disarmingly simple and direct it is nonetheless expansive and offers a full picture of the lives of its subjects.
The emotional tone of the poem rests in melancholy. This sadness occurs because of the disaffected and resigned nature of the final line: “We die soon” (Brooks 1). In the final line, the reader sees that the indifference that the young men feign is a front for despair; they behave this way because they are already dead, and so the time spent in the pool hall is simply marking time until the inevitable occurs. Essentially these young men have given up on their lives before they have even begun; in their minds, life will be short, so why bother?
The central image in the poem appears in the following line: “We Sing sin” (Brooks 1). This one line stands out from the other dark lines that express resignation and hopelessness because it betrays a zest for life. The fact that the young men “Sing sin” means that they are capable of experiencing pleasure, and in experiencing pleasure they experience life (Brooks 1). The reader understands this because “Sing” has been capitalized (Brooks 1).
This one line gives the reader a penetrating insight into how much these young men actually do want to live. The effect of this line then changes the experience of the poem; at this point in the point, the reader begins to see that the poem itself may be bluster, and perhaps the truth is that these young men desire a long and eventful future as much as anyone else.
The physical or psychological movement of the poem remains its most compelling feature. Despite the swagger and braggadocio implicit in the young men’s portrayal, Gwendolyn Brooks stresses that “they’re a little uncertain of the strength of their identity” (Stavros 72).
In his analysis of the poem critic, Gary Smith calls attention to the fact that Gwendolyn Brooks “stresses their existential freedom in the poem’s antibacchius meter, the epigraph that frames the poem, and the players’ self-conscious wordplay” (Smith 49). Given that Gwendolyn Brooks explained that the psychological space that the poem inhabits was informed by “my feeling about these boys, these young men,” the meter successfully creates the paradoxical experience of seeing the young men simultaneously as indifferent delinquents and innocent victims of socioeconomic conditions beyond their control (Stavros 72). In critic Gary Smith’s words:
Technically, the poem is composed of eight lines of four couplets. The exclusive use of monosyllabic words captures the essence of personae’s simple desperation and abbreviated lives. This rare antibacchius metrical pattern is the antithesis of the bacchius foot used in ancient Greek drinking songs and verses devoted to the god Bacchus. Therefore the meter counters the carpe diem theme in the poem and deflates the spirit of cool adventure that the personae try to convey” (Smith 49).
The poem’s meter works against the image that the young men attempt to portray and rather than convince the reader of the indifference of these young men, the meter makes it clear to the reader that underneath the boastful, arrogant bluff of the young pool players lies a broken heart.
In the years since its publication the poem We Real Cool has come to denote a moving picture of disenfranchised urban youth. We Real Cool speaks of a group of young men that accept death and seem largely resigned to the short and violent nature of their lives. Gwendolyn Brooks successfully employs meter to set the poem at odds with its subject. The result is a paradoxical psychological experience of the poem which elucidates the hopelessness of urban poverty and explains the appeal of the poem nearly 50 years after its initial publication.
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Brooks, Gwendolyn. “We Real Cool.” Reading for English 2. Mark Connelley and Joseph Trimmer, eds. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
Smith, Gary. “Brooks’s We Real Cool.” Explicator. 43. 2 (1985): 49-51. Web.
Stavros, George. “An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks.” Contemporary Literature 11.1: (1970). 72. Print.