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Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool”

Poet Gwendolyn Brooks compresses a lot of meaning in a few short lines, in her poem “We Real Cool”, on page 649 of The Bedford Compact Introduction to Literature. Following a student review of Chapters 18-20, one can appropriately analyze this poem. The author utilizes various poetic devices to get her message across. Her use of word choice, order, and tone all work together to create the poem’s imagery and theme. Furthermore, Brooks’ figures of speech, her sense of irony, and the sounds she uses, combine to the meaning and message of the poem.

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First, the selection is written in rhyming couplets, which make it easier to read than blank verse would be. So, the words flow together, like a song or a rap. Brooks’ simple word choice and diction in this ten-line poem establish a relevant tone for her audience, which was likely to have been the rebellious young African-Americans of the ’60’s. The poem could even be read as a rhyme, that the youth would have recited in a continual fashion, as if to reassure themselves that they were on the right path.

However, there’s a hollow and ironic ring to the verse, as the young people make their disastrous life decisions. Her very title “We Real Cool”, instead of “We Are Real Cool”, speaks to these youth. This is is straight street slang, in terms of the grammar and syntax. The tone is also extremely defiant. Then, in the first two lines that are separate from the rest of the poem, Ms. Brooks notes that it is “pool players”, and that there are seven of them playing at the Golden Shovel. The name of this billiard hall evokes a dim and seedy, smoky atmosphere where drinkers and gamblers while away their time, doing nothing constructive. It’s actually an oxymoron in a way, because the word shovel is paired with the word golden. Golden usually makes one think of something of great value or an opportunity of strong merit. So, from the start of this poem, Brooks’ irony is very apparent.

The placement of “We” invites closer scrutiny. With the word appearing at the end of each line, except for the very last one, the poet appears to symbolize a mob or gang mentality. In addition, the remaining eight lines of the poem consist of four stanzas of two lines apiece. In the first line, for emphasis, Brooks repeats her title. Next, the poet says they “left school.” One senses the importance of this line, which will lead to the pool players’ eventual disintegration. That is probably the distilled essence of the message. Then, in lines 3-4, Brooks writes that the teens “Lurk late” and “Strike straight.” The poet is employing alliteration here, which contributes to the smooth rhythm of the poem. Also, the word lurk connotes the idea of lying in wait, as if in ambush, while the use of “strike” promotes the feel of violence, as in fighting.

Next, in Lines 5-6, Brooks writes that the pool players “Sing sin” and “Thin gin.” Here, she indicates that not only do they enjoy vice, but that they sing of it, much like some of contemporary gangsta rap, where the artists express pride in their crimes or their less than savory activities. The mention of thinning gin probably means that they must water down their liquor, as they cannot afford their own portions. Hence, the pool players appear to be bragging about their activities, in a type of song. For the “strike straight” and the “sing sin” are examples of the use of assonance, as a literary device to further the sing-song quality of the poem. Within the last two lines (7-8) of the poem, the reader sees the final actions of the teens, with “Jazz June” and “Die soon. The word jazz infers that these adolescents are into nothing else but just having a great time. Also, June is a girl’s name, or it is the first month of the year, when students are freed from school. The final line of the poem is a shocking revelation of the pool players’ fates, a consequence of their wayward actions. “Die soon” is an very terse and abrupt ending.

Nevertheless, Brooks does not seem to have written this poem as a judgment, but as a commentary, although one gets the sense of motherly regret here, on the part of the poet. Finally, it’s clear that this short poem tells a lot, with its compressed meaning and strong use of literary devices. Surely, this is far more effective writing than the same story would be, told in a longer, pedantic prose form.

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