‘We Real Cool’ by Gwendolyn Brooks is a four stanza, eight-line poem that has been separated into repeating couplets. The poem is quite short and makes use of the minimal number of words to get the speaker’s point across. Each line, except for the first and last is made up of three words, the last of which is “We.” This creates the most basic of rhymes. It is a constant in the poem until one gets to the final line. It drops off after the phrase “Die soon.” The ending mimicking death itself.
The speaker has been interpreted in a number of different ways. It could be one person among the group of players speaking for everyone else, an uninvolved onlooker projecting what he or she thinks onto the group, or every line might be spoken at the same time by all seven players.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he and his friends are “cool.” They spend their days playing pool and have left school in order to get away from the establishment. The players do not seem to have any regard for their futures, only the present. They are satisfying their most basic wants with “Lurk[ing]” in the night and drinking watered-down gin.
The poem concludes with the speaker noting and accepting the fact that all going to “Die soon.” This is a striking ending that makes one wonder how the characters got into the situation they are in and if they are truly happy and confident with the choices they made.
You can read the full poem here.
Before beginning ‘We Real Cool’ it is important for a reader to take note of the subtitle that appears before the text actually begins. It reads,
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
These two lines are straight forward, just like the rest of the poem. They are used to set the scene as if they are stage directions. From these lines a reader can interpret that the characters are “pool players,” there are seven of them and they are at a hall called “The Golden Shovel.” For a contemporary reader, the idea of a pool hall or billiard hall/room might be unfamiliar.
It is a meeting place where any number of games, pool included, could be played. They were often dimly lit and offered drinks. The halls are now well past their popular height. They were extremely common throughout the early to mid-1900s and began to be seen as disreputable by the end of the 60s.
The Golden Shovel
Since ‘We Real Cool’ is only four stanzas and eight lines long a reader must seek out detail wherever possible. Brooks did not choose her words lightly. If a word such as “golden” was used, it was used with a specific image in mind. One should consider this in reference to the larger image of the pool hall. This particular place is labeled as “golden” as if it is giving off some kind of light or is alluring, like gold.
The second part of the title is “shovel.” A shovel immediately brings to mind work and labor, the opposite of what occurs at a pool hall. After finishing the poem and encountering the line “Die soon,” it is impossible not to relate the shovel to grave digging. Brooks is commenting on the activities of the seven players and how they are leading themselves to an early grave.
Analysis of We Real Cool
We real cool. WeLeft school. We
When Brooks begins ‘We Real Cool’ she does so without hesitation. The seven pool players immediately turn and address the listener. It is easy to fall into the patterning of the verses as the repetition makes the lines read somewhat like a song. The players could be speaking in tandem. They begin by saying that they are “real cool.” The grammatical structure of the sentence tells the readers something about the men.
The next line informs the reader that they chose to leave school. It is unclear whether they have left school for good or just for the day. Either way, it was something they chose to do. Also important is the presence of “We” at the end of each line. The separation between the second “We” and “Left School” is done intentionally. Brooks stated that this choice was made in order to allow one to meditate on what the “We” represents. The men are presenting themselves strongly, perhaps too much so. They seem determined to prove who they are, something that Brooks alluded to as their weakness.
The next stanza describes how the men “Lurk late.” The use of the word “Lurk” makes the phrase sound predatory. It is as if the men are moving through the night seeking out opportunities, thrills, or prey. Whatever it is they do, they do it “late” at night. There is not an end to their “Lurk[ing]” and they will be out and on the prowl long after others have turned in.
The following line is similar in that the word “Strike” feels dangerous. It is used here to refer to their ability to play pool but also shows their precision and determination.
In the next stanza, Brooks’ speaker or speaker/s begins with an alliteration. Here it is stated that they “Sing sin.” This is meant to describe the way they celebrate their own (and others) misdeeds. They like to participate in things that are deemed sinful and they do not feel about their choices. One should consider the statement made by Brooks at this point alluding to the false confidence she saw these speakers as having. The sins are unknown, but could relate to the possibly disreputable pool hall they are spending their time in. Gambling and drinking indulgence were not uncommon.
Next, the speaker or speakers say that they “Thin gin.” This refers to their thinning of alcohol with water or soda. Due to the fact that it follows after the “sin” line, it probably relates to their misdeeds.
Jazz June. WeDie soon.
In the first of the last two lines, Brooks’ speaker or speakers refer to “Jazz[ing]” June. This line is unclear and Brooks does not reveal exactly what she meant by it in interviews. One interpretation could take the line sexually. June could refer to a woman and “Jazz” could be used as a slang word for having sex.
From another angle, the line references summer and the pool player’s embrace of the freedom of that time of year. This speaks to their age and to their need to break out of the pattern of society. They make the most of the time they have away from obligations. Although, if they left school that is no longer a concern.
There is one further interpretation promoted by Brooks, that the month of June represents the exact opposite. Rather than summer it was to her a symbol for the system that players were meant to conform to. Their “jazz[ing]” of it would be their ignoring of its power.
The final line of ‘We Real Cool’ is the most shocking. The speaker says that they are going to “Die soon.” Their lives are following a path that does not lead anywhere good. The phrase follows in the same pattern as those which proceeded it. The speaker sees death as being part of the deal made by the players. They can either shy from death or accept it. In this case, they see where they are going and are able to accept that fact.