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On "We Real Cool"

An Interview with Brooks by George Stavros

Q. How about the seven pool players in the poem "We Real Cool"? 

A. They have no pretensions to any glamor. 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, and they. . . . First of all, let me tell you how that's supposed to be said, because there's a reason why I set it out as I did. These are people who are essentially saying, "Kilroy is here. We are." But they're a little uncertain of the strength of their identity. [Reads:]

We real cool. We 
Left school. We 

Lurk late. We 
Strike straight. We 

Sing sin. We 
Thin gin. We 

Jazz June. We 
Die soon.

The "We"—you're supposed to stop after the "We" and think about their validity, and of course there's no way for you to tell whether it should be said softly or not, I suppose, but I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty, which they don't bother to question every day, of course.

Q. Are you saying that the form of this poem, then, was determined by the colloquial rhythm you were trying to catch?

 A. No, determined by my feeling about these boys, these young men. 

Q. These short lines, then, are your own invention at this point? You don't have any literary model in mind; you're not thinking of Eliot or Pound or anybody in particular . . . ? 

A. My gosh, no! I don't even admire Pound, but I do like, for instance, Eliot's "Prufrock" and The Waste Land, "Portrait of a Lady," and some others of those earlier poems. But nothing of the sort ever entered my mind. When I start writing a poem, I don't think about models or about what anybody else in the world has done.

from "An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks" in Contemporary Literature 11:1 (Winter 1970).

Gwendolyn Brooks

The WEs in "We Real Cool" are tiny, wispy, weakly argumentative "Kilroy-is-here" announcements.  The boys have no accented sense of themselves, yet they are aware of a semi-defined personal importance.  Say the "We" softly.

Brooks, Gwendolyn.  Report from Part One.  Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.

Barbara B. Sims

Until the last line, the element of bravado in the diction and rhythm has made the activities of the street people seem somehow defensible, if not downright desirable.  A certain pride in being outside the conventions, institutions, and legal structures of the predominant society is conveyed.  Escaping the drudgery and dullness of school and work has left the lives of these drop-outs open to many romantic possibilities.

However, the tone changes dramatically when the reader learns the street people "Die soon."  At once their defiant and complacent attitudes seem quite pathetic, and the reader wonders whom the cool people are trying to kid about the desirability of their disordered lives.

Sims, Barbara B.  "Brooks's 'We Real Cool.'"  Explicator 34 (1976): 58.

Gary Smith

Brooks's attitude toward the players remains ambivalent.  To be sure, she dramatizes the tragic pathos in their lives, but she also stresses their existential freedom in the poem's . . . meter, the epigraph that frames the poem, and the players' self-conscious word play. . . .

The often overlooked epigraph to the poem suggests Brooks's ambivalence toward the personae's lifestyle.  The number "seven," for example, ironically signifies their luck as pool players; while "golden" similarly implies a certain youthful arrogance.  However, "shovel" reminds the reader of death and burial.

Within the poem, the personae's self-conscious word play supports their self-definition.  The title . . . boasts of the reason why the personae left school. . . .  The remainder of the sentences . . . mock the value of education and celebrate the personae's street learning.  Finally, the alliterative pattern of their other spoken words, "Lurk late," "Strike straight," and "Sing sin," belies any possibility for mental growth.

The most suggestive sentence in the poem, however, is "We Jazz June."  Among its many meanings, the word "Jazz" connotes meaningless or empty talk and sexual intercourse.   If the latter meaning is applied to the poem, "June" becomes a female or perhaps the summer of life whom the personae routinely seduce or rape; "die" thus acquires a double Elizabethan meaning of sexual climax and brevity of existence.  Either connotation, obviously, works well within the players' self-appointed credo.   More importantly, the rich word play suggests Brooks's own ambivalence toward the players' lifestyle.  She dramatizes their existential choice of perilous defiance and nonconformity.

Smith, Gary.  "Brooks's 'We Real Cool.'"  Explicator 43.2 (Winter 1985): 49-50.

 Kathryne V. Lindberg

Of this poem Hortense Spillers, praising the "wealth of implication" in this "[l]ess than lean poem," says it is "no nonsense at all." Finding origi-nal artistry, in-crowd and in-race code, and a full range of traditional poetic techniques in Brooks's poem, Spillers say that Brooks's players "subvert the romance of sociological pathos" and, quite comfortably, she has them read Brooks's lines, thus:

They make no excuse for themselves and apparently invite no one else to do so. The poem is their situation as they see it. In eight [could be nonstop] lines, here is their total destiny. Perhaps comic geniuses, they could well drink to this poem, making it a drinking/revelry song.

I would like to bring Helen Vendler's recent mention of Brooks into conversation with Spillers's earlier tribute. Speaking with the well-earned authority of her position as a major reader of the Western canon and an influential critic of new poet candidates to that tradition, Vendler writes about the new national poet laureate in Callaloo, the most important wider-than-academic journal of black and Third World poetry. She generously praises and candidly corrects (explicitly not in the sense of "political correctness") the "Identity Markers" Rita Dove marshals to "confront . . . the enraging fact that the inescapable accusation of blackness becomes, too early for the child to resist it, a strong element of inner self-definition." At one point, Vendler economically dismisses Brooks in questioning one of Dove's "relatively unsuccessful historical excursions in a lyric time-machine." Not to make too much of a few lines, I quote her dismissal in full: "This [Dove's early 'odyssey' ] may owe something to Gwendolyn Brooks's 'We Real Cool,' but it avoids the prudishness of Brooks's judgmental monologue, which though it is ostensibly spoken by adolescetls, barely conceals its adult reproach of their behavior."

Even though Vendler indicates that Brooks's poem is not properly addressed lo the white critical tradition, her response does not fail to register, however unwillingly, Brooks's double movement at to narrow and to expand the usual distance readers of poetry traverse in becoming—or resisting becoming—"We," whether real cool or not. By making Brooks admonish the adolescents, Vendler makes pretty clear who isn’t We-not to say who "We" isn't. It seems that, however fallen, Brooks, tile poet, simply must share the critic's position above those pool players. Curiously, from their different aesthetic and experiential positions, Vendler and Spillers both give valid readings of the poem, and it is no accident that they fix on the pronoun that hangs out there like the prepositions from William Carlos Williams's famous wheelbarrow.

Not to dwell overlong on the ethos or impact of the very different constructions invited by Brooks's "We," I add Brooks's own commentary on the poem, which is delivered as stage directions for her public readings:

First of all, let me tell you how that’s ["We Real Cool"] supposed to be said, because there’s a reason why I set it out as I did. These are people who are essentially saying, "Kilroy is here. We are." But they’re a little uncertain of the strength of their identity. The "We"—you’re supposed to stop after the "we" and think about validity; of course, there’s no way for you to tell whether it should be said softly or not, I suppose, but I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty. (RFPO, 155-56)

Characteristically, Brooks invites both identification with and objectification of the young men—depending, perhaps on such categories as the race, gender, age of her/their audience. There is something cunning and deceptive both about the openness of Brooks's "We" and her variable distance from both the pool players to whom it refers and the people—at least since its Broadside republication—it seems to rename. Rather like the young white man who, in Brooks's Story about Baraka, heeded a call not intended for him, or the "You" of "Primer for Blacks," that shifty pronoun works a critique on audience overidentification and poet's supposed representativeness. After all, isn't she supposed to correct the young punks, not to follow them as new leaders? But which she? The writer of "We Real Cool," The Bean Eaters (1960)? Or the writer of the 1967 broadside "We Real Cool"? And should the differences of context text and thus of content be fixed—either in the sense of "healed" or "halted"? Brooks put(s) her readers, specifically a black audience that is not limited to the no-longer-New Blacks of the sixties, to work on such questions.

Rather than stand as the highly decorated, proper, and representative lady and/or poet for her race (the "lady ‘negro poet’"), Brooks chose to transform a black audience into poets or, as William Blake might say, prophets. Brooks's address is wider than Whitman's mutual embrace of writer and his people. More literal, literary, and liberating are her encouragement and publicity in favor of young poets than the hope that one day, perhaps crossing to Brooklyn on a ferry, one might think her thoughts. Indeed, it might be that her greatest offense against the literary and academic establishment(s)—the refusal to rest on her (canonical) laurels and apparent dismissal of the capital "P" of Poetry, which is also her refusal to repeat the talented-tenth or exclusive single, sanctioned post of (non-) representative poet, such as Hughes in the Harlem Renaissance—encrypts her most direct engagement of literary history.

Despite a fair amount of thunder and fire, her statement is no "No in thunder," but a generous "Yes" to those systematically excluded from the academic and elitist poetic apparatus.

Lindberg, Kathryne V.  "Whose Canon? Gwendolyn Brooks: Founder at the Center of the 'Margins.'"   Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and Their Readers.  Ed. Margaret Dickie and Thomas Travisano.  Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1996.  283-311.

 James D. Sullivan

Compare two presentations of "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks: first, the single most widely accessible edition of the poem, on a page of her 1963 Selected Poems published by Harper & Row, and second on the 1966 broadside published by Broadside Press.  The words, in a formal linguistic sense, remain the same, but the material presentation does not.  Those physical qualities, as a necessary condition for reading the poem, as an unavoidable part of the thing read, create a different set of meanings in each artifact.

First consider the book version. . . .  [The pool players'] first dramatic line, "We real cool," repeats the title, a complete Black English sentence, and it suggests an interpretation of what follows: these actions are manifestations of coolness.  The non-standard grammar of the title and first line transgresses the normal decorum of English language poetry, showing the social distance between the pool players and the middle class subjects of much of our poetic canon.  The second sentence, "We / Left school," establishes what I will call the moral relationship between the players and the literate reader, buyer of poetry books.  This reader knows they shouldn't do that--knows better than they do that this first manifestation of their coolness will surely harm them, as it eventually does. . . .

The simple, but strong and regular rhythm, reinforced by the jarringly nonstandard grammar, creates a sense of energy and aggressive physical power.  But in the end, rhythm and syntax contain and finally cut off that vitality.  The word "We" begins each short subject-predicate sentence and ends each line but the last.   To maintain the syntactic pattern, the last line ends on the predicate, "Die soon," omitting the final "We."   The predominant rhythm of the poem--two strong beats, one weak beat--resolves (satisfyingly) on the two strong beats in the last line.  These two patterns, syntactic and rhythmic, converge to eliminate the final "We."  The group dissolves in the last line, "Die soon," the final consequence of coolness, of energetically rejecting the middle-class respect for education.  This satisfying little tragedy confirms the dominance and the rightness of values foreign to the players themselves.  By the end, they are completely powerless, dead.

. . . But what would an increased attention to visual design add to this reading?  Can we find here a stronger value in the whiteness of the paper and the blackness of the ink . . . a metaphorical reading of color . . . a critique of humanist assumptions in whiteness as a universal standard of legible space--ubiquitous, non-contingent whiteness--and black as a differentiation upon it?  The very conventionality of the white page denies that it carries any such meaning. . . .

The elegance of the typeface and the evenness of the layout in Selected Poems are products of craftsmanship, so well produced that they are refined out of notice.  That particular grace and craft are from a world outside the pool hall. . . .  The speech is first person, but the studied aesthetics of the type does not emerge from the aesthetic values of the pool-playing dropouts who are supposedly speaking. . . .  The alternative aesthetic of pool hall cool in the language of the poem thus is reshaped to fit the Procrustean bed of book design.  The (aesthetic) values of the (white) middle class prevail.

The broadside version appeared in 1966, when Brooks was becoming more radically engaged in racial politics. . . .  The design inverts the most pervasive printing convention of all into white lettering on a black field. . . .  This is not the even, neutral, potentially infinite space of the white page; here the field of discourse is itself the inked intrusion. . . .  Language clears space in that field, exposing the white surface rather than concealing it.  By creating an unconventional relationship between ink and paper, this broadside makes that relationship legible.  It raises the question of whether that more conventional book page works any differently, whether the familiar habits of book design are any less contingent in their composition or more innocent of meaning themselves.

. . . [T] he broadside "We Real Cool" privileges the title, byline, and dramatic exposition . . . by placing them at the top, but it prints them in smaller letters than the body of the poem.  Considered as an image also rather than only as a poem, it privileges the large figures in the center, the letters that represent the speech of the pool players; the small figures above and below--the otherwise controlling dramatic, literary, and publishing context--are subordinate.

It looks like either a chalkboard or graffiti.  The refined transparencies of classical typography and the printed, bound pages of a well-produced hardcover book would not be available for these pool players to use to speak for themselves.  As chalkboard writing, it appears in a setting familiar, if uncongenial, to the pool players.   These are the rough letters they can make themselves in order to speak in a setting that has been available to them.  Appearing thus so brazenly in the school setting that the pool players themselves have rejected, this text is an empowering nose-thumbing at the institution that once controlled and restricted them--thus, also, a rejection of the school-values that would interpret the poem as an endorsement of education.  As graffiti, the poem is an anonymous, unregulated, transgressive utterance, not the work of that contained, knowable, critically manageable construction, the imagination of the poet.

Sullivan, James D.  On the Walls and in the Streets: American Poetry Broadsides from the 1960s.  Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1997.

Hortense J. Spillers

"We Real Cool," illustrates the wealth of implication that the poet can achieve in a very spare poem: . . .

The simplicity of the poem is stark to the point of elaborateness. Less than lean, it is virtually coded. Made up entirely of monosyllables and end-stops, the poem is no non-sense at all. Gathered in eight units of three-beat lines, it does not necessarily invite inflection, but its persistent bump on "we" suggests waltz time to my ear. If the reader chooses to render the poem that way, she runs out of breath, or trips her tongue, but it seems that such "breathlessness" is exactly required of dudes hastening toward their death. Deliberately subverting the romance of sociological pathos, Brooks presents the pool players--"seven in the golden shovel"--in their own words and time. They make no excuse for themselves and apparently invite no one else to do so. The poem is their situation as they see it. In eight (could be nonstop) lines, here is their total destiny. Perhaps comic geniuses, they could well drink to this poem, making it a drinking/revelry song.

From "Gwendolyn the Terrible: Propositions on Eleven Poems" in A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Ed. Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith. Copyright © 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

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