‘We Real Cool’ Poem by Gwendolyn Brooks – Poem, Meaning, Summary, and Poem Analysis

About Gwendolyn Brooks and the poem ‘We Real Cool’

Gwendolyn Brooks was a Twentieth Century American writer. A recipient of several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, her works are well-known for their honest and direct representation of the life of common people in society. ‘We Real Cool’ is one such poem that juxtaposes youth with social conventions.

Brooks first published ‘We Real Cool’ in 1960 as a part of her book ‘The Bean Eaters’. The setting of the poem is a pool hall, a place that was conventionally assumed as uncouth during that period. It narrates the conscience of a group of teenagers who are playing pool there late at night.

Brooks has made an attempt to provoke the readers’ thoughts on whether society’s dictation of right and wrong is truly authentic. The poem tries to make us

understand what the so-called wrong-doers may feel about their actions, thereby speculating the prospective reasons for, and consequences of, the same.

The poem ‘We Real Cool’ 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   Die soon.

Stanza-wise summary of the poem ‘We Real Cool’

The poem ‘We Real Cool’ begins with an introductory line that provides the setting for the situation that is happening. The characters here are seven pool players, understandably teenagers, who are playing pool in a hall named ‘Golden Shovel’. The poem is narrated from their perspective.

In the first stanza, they claim that they are ‘Real cool’ because they have defied conventional norms by quitting school, thereby going against what is generally accepted to be the right path. Next, they boast that they are lurking around in public late at night and that they are good at their game.

In the third stanza, they say that although there is sin in their every action, they do it with self-praise and pride. They are consuming alcohol as well, diluting it with water as is the common practice.

The last stanza says that they are ‘Jazzing’, or enjoying their time by breaking rules in ‘June‘, which is a season of holidays and freedom. They acknowledge the fact that their actions could lead only to a bad end, but they carry on nevertheless.

Themes in the poem ‘We Real Cool’

The Central theme

Conscience

The main theme of the poem ‘We Real Cool’ is the conscience of the pool players. The poet, by narrating the event from their perspective, has made an attempt to make understand what the mindset and attitude of such people may be in the moment. This is done by stressing the word we in almost every line as if the characters are introspecting their actions.

In the first three stanzas, we can observe that the youth are proud and smug about being unconventional. They claim to be real cool and are unashamed of committing sins. This is testimony to their attitude towards the system.

However, in the end, they accept the fact that they will soon pay for such behavior as if admitting that they are at fault and are guilty, but it is too late for any change. This can be interpreted as their conscience kicking in, making them doubt the morality of their actions and leading to self-apprehension.

Other themes

Social conventions

The first theme in the poem ‘We Real Cool’ is social conventions. The actions being done by the main characters are considered wrong because society at that time regarded those as wrong.

Pool halls, alcohol, partying late, etc. were collectively disreputable topics in society, and the youth engaging in exactly that is a counter to such a system.

Conversely, the conventions of the young generation say that breaking rules and engaging in wrongdoing is fashionable, as implied by the first line we real cool. Astray behavior is considered ‘cool’ by many youths.

Modernism

The next theme is the ideals of modernism and its impact on society. The youth are embracing modern ideals of passion and freedom and spurning age-old orthodox conventions. Pool halls, for instance, were considered uncouth earlier but are slowly becoming popular as centers of thrill and enjoyment.

The youth reject education, decency, discipline, religious morals, social norms, and many other so-called ‘virtues’ in the pursuit of making the best of the moment. This is a good example of how modernism is changing the very perspective of society.

Identity and role conflicts

The last theme of the poem is the conflict between the identity or role which the youngsters have chosen for themselves and that which is imposed upon them by society.

On a psychological note, throughout the poem, their actions imply their craving to be accepted and recognized for who they truly are, and not for who they should be.

While society has dictated an ideal role for people their age, they refuse to accept it and step out of that role to achieve a separate identity for themselves. Their open boasting of their sinful actions is a call for attention and recognition, and a projection of such identity crises that youth face in society.

Line by line interpretation of the poem ‘We Real Cool’

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

The poem ‘We Real Cool’ begins with an introductory subtitle that provides the setting for the event that is taking place. The first line states the characters – a group of youth playing pool. Pool halls were conventionally disreputable at the time of the poem’s publishing, so it is assumed that the characters are up to no good.

The next line says that they are seven in total, in a place called the ‘Golden Shovel’. Seven is a symbolic number, and so is the name of the pool hall – Golden because of its glamorous outlook, and Shovel because of its tendency to invite people to a bad end.

We real cool. We Left school. We

In the poem, We refer to the group of pool players. It lays emphasis on the fact that they are introspecting on their current actions. The meaning of ‘We real cool’ is that since the pool players are defying virtues and engaging in wrongdoing without fear of authority, so they perceive themselves as ‘Cool’. The young generation thinks that living against the rules is fashionable.

They have quit school or, in broader terms, abandoned their education. Society dictates that going to school is a virtue, which they are not adhering to and therefore, are rebellious towards the social system. They think school is unimportant in the light of pleasure and enjoyment.

Lurk late. We Strike straight. We

Further, the youngsters are proud that they are wandering outside and doing unethical things at so late an hour, presumably at night. While people their age doing so is generally discredited by society, the youth are least bothered as they don’t care for the system.

They also take pride in their pool game and say that they are good at scoring points by striking straight. This also implies that although the playing pool is considered as bad, they don’t care and are determined to do exactly that.

Sing sin. We Thin gin. We

The characters are perfectly aware that their actions are sinful, or against general morals. But they praise themselves for indulging in such practices. Also, sing implies that since they are sinning in public, it is an attempt to make themselves heard, and their unorthodoxy may be an example to society.

Thin gin means that they are parallelly consuming alcohol as well, supposedly gin, and are diluting it by adding water or soda. This too is their way of showing that they are complacent about committing sins.

Jazz June. We   Die soon.

In the final stanza of the poem, jazz June means that they are having a good time and are doing fashionable things, even if their actions are incongruent with the accepted culture. June is the summer season, a time when they have holidays and the outdoors are enjoyable, hence it is the ideal time to break rules and be free.

The irony in the poem is that although the characters are apparently proud and confident of the path they have chosen, they are perfectly aware and accept the fact that it will eventually lead to their downfall. In the end, they accept that their actions will have negative consequences and is not good for their future, as implied by the line die soon.

Analysis of the poem ‘We Real Cool’

‘We Real Cool’ by Gwendolyn Brooks is a short poem of eight lines divided into four stanzas of two couplets each. It also has an introductory subtitle at the beginning, which is also an integral part of the poem’s structure. All the lines except the last one end with the word we, giving the whole poem a single rhyme.

The title of the poem gives reference to the mindset of modern youth, in whose views, living delinquently is fashionable and is therefore considered ‘cool’. The poem is a display of the mentality of the so-called ‘cool’ people and the consequences of such a lifestyle.

The poem has a straightforward and smug tone. It is written in the first person narrative and narrates the mindset of a group of pool players who are partying late at night and breaking social conventions. They shamelessly boast of their sins and accept the fact that they will destroy them soon.

Through the perspective of rule-breakers, the poet, who is also the speaker, attempts to juxtapose their identities with general public life. It allows room for thought on why and under what circumstances juveniles act unacceptably, against the background of morality and general ethics.

The subtitle of the poem cannot be overlooked, as it provides the reader with an introduction to the setting and characters of the situation that is taking place.

Brooks refers to the characters as simply ‘Pool Players’, with no mention of their age or gender, but considering their admittance of quitting ‘School’ further in the poem, we assume they are youth, probably boys.

The second line in the subtitle mentions the number of characters and the place, both of which are symbolic. Seven is a unique number in popular culture. For example, seven colors of the rainbow, seven days of the week, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Perhaps the poet is trying to lay emphasis that her characters are unique and consequential, as they are breaking conventions.

Similarly, the Golden Shovel is not just a name of a pool hall, but a symbol of the very nature of such a place. Pool Halls are golden because they are enjoyable places of glamour and pleasure, but all the same, cause a person’s life to culminate in addiction, bankruptcy, poor health, or any other negative consequence. So, it is also a shovel that shall dig the grave of the youth.

We can observe the repetition of we in almost every line of the poem. This is to lay emphasis on the introspection of the pool players as if their narration is nothing but a justification of their nature and its consequences.

At the moment, they are thinking of nothing else but themselves, their identity, and their actions, as if their role is so significant that the society or future is disregarded.

Also, this may be a sign of self-apprehension or guilt, where they are questioning the credibility of their actions. It may be a message for others to either beware or follow them, as their behavior certainly has some meaning to society since it is so unconventional.

In another interpretation, this may just be a technique used by the poet to draw the reader’s attention to the main characters, as the whole situation or message revolves around them. We may represent the perspective of not only those seven people, but all the youth struggling to fit into the standards imposed by society.

The line left school can be interpreted in two ways. Either the youth have quit school for good, or have bunked the classes for that day only. But since it is mentioned that it is June, a holiday season, and the line is in the past tense, the former seems more plausible.

Similarly, the line strike straight is not only talking about their pool game but also is a depiction of their audacity or straightforwardness. Jazz is mentioned because in the period the poem was published, jazz culture was popular among youth in America, as it was perceived as unorthodox and ‘Cool’. Jazz is a symbol of breaking rules and pursuing thrill.

The last line of the poem, die soon is true in its literal meaning, as the youth know and accept that habitually engaging in such acts would ultimately lead to their death, as it is dangerous for their own lives. Or at least they would be punished by society or law.

But all the same, dying soon can also be a metaphor for loss, stagnation, general failure in life, or karma. It is a symbol of the characters’ self-introspection and guilt. We can observe that the poem is written in as few words as possible, as if saying that the reality is, at the end of the day, only so much. It also serves the casual and colloquial language used in the poem.

The message of the poem, if any, has two sides to it. One conclusion is in support of the youth in society; young people nowadays struggle to fit into the roles of society and want to break out of their barriers. It is a justification for why youth commit crimes or sins; they do it as a psychological rebellion against their lack of freedom.

On the other side, the last line ‘die soon’ admonishes the fact that those who do not adhere to the norms and system will be punished by their own fate, as it is necessary to respect the laws of human civilization.

It is a warning against living arbitrarily, which, in the end, even the pool players accept. Therefore, the poem juxtaposes age-old customs and modern ideals.

Poetic Devices

The literary devices used in the poem ‘We Real Cool’ are repetition, enjambment, alliteration, and metaphor.

Repetition

The word we are repeated in the first seven lines of the poem.

Enjambment

The poem is a set of eight sentences broken down along continuous lines, and then stanzas. For example, we left school is a single sentence that is enjambed by the first and second lines of the poem.

Alliteration

There are instances of repeated syllables and consonants in the poem. For example, cool and school, lurk and late, thin and gin, etc.

Metaphor

Die soon is a metaphor for the pool players’ general failure or downfall in life, or just that they would come to a bad end.

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