---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
Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool
Voice is imperative in writing, especially poetry. Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool is the poem I read when I try to understand voice. This poem proves why voice is imperative to good poetry, how effortless it can truly be, and the invariable difficulty of sustaining an authentic voice. The third person plural narrative that dominates this relatively short poem is an intriguing access point. I’ve read this poem hundreds of times and I see two major interpretations, both of which are contingent upon a feature of the poem’s and poet’s voice. Are we, as readers, meant to be included in the “We” group that this poem focuses upon, or are we, as readers, meant to be viewing them, and thus the “We,” as a brazen means of self-identification with a hint of self-publicity? I can go either way on that one because I could make a case for either side. In fact, that’s a great idea, let me put my thinking cap on and see how this works out.
Case #1: “We” includes the audience. Plainly put, the poem is more shocking and influential if we are members of the pool players at The Golden Shovel. We didn’t make the decision to join this fast living crew, we chose to read a poem and became members of a group on the fringes of upstanding society. We are gritty; we are dangerous; we are ill-informed. Gwendolyn Brooks makes us one of these young fools and in becoming one of them we fully comprehend just what the poem is about: the invincibility of youth gone a step too far to the ultimate waste of life.
And here we have Case #2: “We” does not include the audience. The speaker of the poem is the oral secretary for a group that wants nothing more than to live life on their own terms, which includes letting the world know just how they live. You, reading this poem, are not one of them. There is a sense of exclusivity to their inherent stupidity. The code they operate on is transparent, and yet it is solely theirs. The declarations made with “We” are meant to clarify that these are things “We” do, not you. Heck, you can try and do these things on your own, but you won’t be a part of our group.
In hindsight, I’m not sure either of the two preceding cases are overly compelling, which just might be the evidence necessary to declare that it doesn’t matter how you interpret the poem; the voice is what matters. The voice is always what matters, and Gwendolyn Brooks was a dazzling curator and technician of poetic voice. Her collection The Bean Eaters features one poem after another enriched with memorable voices. In We Real Cool, voice propels the poem forward, aided by hard enjambments that manipulate repetition. The hanging “We” that ends every line (except for the conspicuous final line) adds pace to the poem. This pace is the heartbeat of the poem’s voice. The emphasis on the “We” also serves to augment the poem’s theme, clearly spotlighting the premium these young folks place on being part of a group. I’m also enamored with the fact that this poem is strictly made of single syllable words. Simplicity oozes from this poem’s pores, but these monosyllabic words are still capable of deep meaning. And how can I write another sentence without mentioning the clever rhyme scheme. The hanging “We” embeds the rhyme within the line, where we find two additional off rhymes in the middle stanzas (lurk and strike, as well as sing and thin). The haunting, abrupt end mirrors the impending fate that this group has resigned themselves to. How do we know they will “Die soon”? Gwendolyn Brooks made sure they tell us with their own voice.