Literary Fiction by People of Color discussion

Poetry > We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks

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message 1: by Mozart (new)

Mozart This is a poem that I have workshopped in the past in academic settings, and I remember it being one of the primary poems defining African American poetry... what are y'all thoughts? how do you relate to it? does it move you?
here is an audio version: the graphics are kind of creepy, but that is brook's reading her classic poem.

We Real Cool


We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

message 2: by Queen (new)

Queen | 10 comments This is not one of my favorites because I could not grasp its meaning when I first read it years ago. Perhaps these were some of the things gathered from conversations with these young men who should've been in school. Does this poem surmise what Ms. Brooks understood what they thought was cool? What does "We strike straight" and "We Jazz June" mean? Is Ms. Brooks telling us they are in fact not real cool after all?

message 3: by Mozart (new)

Mozart Queen, you are not the only one... I could never grasp this poems meaning. I think this is when the post modernist, know the situation surrounding the poem comes into effect. I'm assuming that this poem is illustrating how these black boys are living for the moment in this pool bar, and brooks might be extending the image to african american culture in our present day and time? i'm totally guessin' here, tell me if you fee otherwise. One of the reasons I do like it thought is the way Brooks read it and it reminds me of a jazz record. the sounds really reverberate, and the words want to be remember...

message 4: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Since the poem was written in 1960, we probably wouldn't be familiar with the street slang at the time, but the feel of it is still familiar. Here's what Brooks said about it on the PBS NewsHour:

I wrote it because I was passing by a pool hall in my neighborhood in Chicago one afternoon, and I saw... well, as I said in the poem, seven boys shooting pool. And I wondered how they felt about themselves, and I decided that they felt they were not quite valid, that they certainly were insecure, they were not cherished by the society, and therefore they would feel that they should, well, spit in the face of the establishment. I used the month of June as a symbol, an establishment symbol. Whereas the rest of us love and respect June, and wait for it to come so we can enjoy it, they would jazz June, derange it, scratch in it; do anything that would annoy the establishment.

It's at:

message 5: by Mozart (new)

Mozart wow! thank you, Wilhelmina! that really opened up the poem.. it really make me value it much more.... the dilemna now is; should we still devalue the poem for what we see, or let this interview inform the work?

personally, i love reading why people write what they write and find it to add another dimension to the works!

message 6: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Hey, I'm just realizing that this thread is here! I love Gwendolyn Brooks, she is one of my favorite poets, very dear to my heart. I actually thought about putting up her poem "The Mother" for our first discussion but thought that would scare folks away - ha ha.

I've always enjoyed "We Real Cool" - it makes a great companion to Wright's Native Son. I would argue that she's making a particular statement about these young men at the Golden Shovel and those like them whose swagger and rebelliousness are really a front. They hang out at a pool hall (instead of school), they stay out late and "sing sin." And any power that they may have found in numbers - the repetition of the "we" - is lost in that last stark line: "die soon."

I don't know if the PBS interview mentions this, but I once heard Brooks say that the "we" is placed at the end of the line to be said very softly so as to reinforce the insecurity of the pool players. So it would really read like:


Love that!

To speak to Mozart's question - I don't think it's necessary for us to know the details from the interview to really "get" the poem. But given its time period, I would argue that we have a responsibility? or obligation, maybe? to learn about the context of certain period-specific words. So if we're reading Shakespeare and he uses an Old English term that is unfamiliar to us, we look it up and then evaluate from there. Same goes for "strike straight" or "jazz june" in my opinion.

message 7: by Queen (last edited Aug 28, 2009 05:51PM) (new)

Queen | 10 comments Yes, thanx Wilhelmina. Now have an understanding of the poem. I agree with you Mozart, the way it is read is real jazzy (reminds of The Last Poets). Sometimes hearing a poem gives a different feel to it. Mozart, we should not devalue the poem but rather embrace that it reflects an era (the 60's) where young black men did not feel accepted by society. Besides, who is better to explain the meaning of the poem but the poet herself?

message 8: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I also think that it's important to look at time periods and cultural context, if for no other reason than to avoid errors in interpretation. A simplistic example is the word "gay" - "Our hearts were young and gay" is a little different now.

I saw Gwendolyn Brooks reading her poetry in 1994 and she was wonderful. The significance of the end-of-line "we" makes me hear this poem differently and enjoy it even more.

message 9: by Queen (new)

Queen | 10 comments well put Wilhelmina about time periods and cultural context to avoid misinterpretation. i totally agree.

message 10: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments just found this! great poem... wow. i read the poem first, then the thread, then the poem again. the first time around i thought, "i'm hopeless; i don't understand anything." the second time, i. loved. the. poem so much that the last line caused a physical sensation of hurt in my heart. lovely thread. thank you mozart, thank you everyone. i love that we have this concurrent poetry discussion!

message 11: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1289 comments Mod
My mother read me this poem approx. 40 years ago at the height of her observations that I was headed to hell wearing gasoline drawers...

message 12: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments LOL @ gasoline drawers!!! Thank you, Bill, for making me smile today. What an image! Did you "understand" the poem's meanings when she read it to you?

message 13: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Funny, Bill! I can just picture this. And my guess is that you understood her point perfectly well and kept doing exactly what she was warning you about!

message 14: by William (new)

William (be2lieve) | 1289 comments Mod
There was nothing subtle about my school teacher moms yes I understood perfectly..Actually it became somewhat of a tongue in cheek theme song for I climbed further down each rung..

message 15: by ColumbusReads (new)

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3772 comments Mod
Wow, I just found this thread myself. Nice hearing some of the responses...

I had to go and pull out my copy of Bell Hooks "We Real Cool: Black Men & Masculinity" to find out if the title came from Brooks poem. Strangely there's no mention of it on the back of the book and there's no index so I'll have to look through the book. Just gives me an excuse to re-read Bell Hooks (as if that's a problem).

message 16: by Queen (new)

Queen | 10 comments bell hooks is a great writer. i have a few books of hers but not the one you mentioned Columbus. do you agree with ms. hooks view about black men and masculinity?

message 17: by ColumbusReads (new)

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3772 comments Mod
i've read several of her books but this is probably the one that's generated the most passionate discussion amongst friends. i'm not in total lockstep with all of her views on the victimization of black men in America or how patriarchal thinking is the greatest threat to black life, but I respect her right to say them. i think she's a phenomenal writer (and personality)and would definitely recommend
this book.

message 18: by Queen (new)

Queen | 10 comments I'll check it out. Thanx Columbus.

message 19: by Mozart (new)

Mozart wow. i had to come back to this thread. somebody was talking about my girl BELL HOOKs(i know she likes lower case, but so what?!)... columbus have you read any other feminist writing on masculinity? really interested in this topic. esp. for men of color... one of the things that i could relate to the most w. hooks is that she comes from a place of compassion and not that feminism is that end all be all of gender theory, but there is room for growth and discussion, especially when it relates to the two genders communicating effectively!

message 20: by ColumbusReads (new)

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3772 comments Mod
Mozart, no I haven't read a lot of feminist writing on masculinity. Someone suggested I read Michele Wallace's "Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman." Are you familiar with it? Any suggestions out there for feminist writing on masculinity?

message 21: by Mozart (new)

Mozart Ummm... mainly, bell hooks other book on masculinity, the will to change, is really good. also, if you google Kevin Powell he has a series of essays

i have read the first book, and i heard kevin powelll speak a couple years back, his philosophy is pretty dynamic!

message 22: by Nicole (new)

Nicole Celaya (flatground) | 1 comments Back to the Brooks poem, I actually had to teach it for the first time this past summer, which is of course the best way to learn about many layers and interpretations, but I really like the ironic reference to the golden shovel, gold representing something of value in a pool hall? and the connotation of death and burial in the shovel. As far as the historical context of the 60s, black men of course had the highest number of casualties in the Vietnam War, so if they weren't in school they were most likely going to get drafted and die young.

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