We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks – Meaning and Analysis
August 10, 2023
Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool” speaks to the power of poetic brevity and restraint. Though the poem is a little over 30 words in total, it taps into rich complexities and topics including rebellion, freedom, and oppression. By performing an analysis of “We Real Cool” we can open up the many layers of meaning the poem contains.
We Real Cool Analysis – Historical Context
For historical context, “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks first appeared in print in Poetry Magazine in 1959. The March on Washington was on August 28, 1963. This was four years after the poem’s initial publication. This situates the poem in a key historical moment within the Civil Rights Movement and the ongoing fight for racial justice.
We Real Cool Analysis
The poem begins with two lines that can be read as a subtitle, epigraph, or scene-setting device. They read “The Pool Players. / Seven at the Golden Shovel.” This immediately situates the poem “We Real Cool” as taking place within a pool hall called The Golden Shovel, speaking from the vantage point of seven pool players. While these pool halls offered social spaces of respite and enjoyment, this is not without more ominous tones coming from both within and without the pool hall itself. We can even dig in further to the name of the pool hall—The Golden Shovel. The word “golden” describes the quality of appearing like (though precisely not being) gold, the pricey and beautiful, rare metal. Meanwhile, the word “shovel” evokes the relatively cheap, everyday working tool associated with manual labor.
This frame provokes important questions about the meaning of “We Real Cool” to guide our analysis. Is Brooks implying that the scenes and ongoings in the pool hall might seem shiny, desirable and beautiful from the outside but are still mired in the agonies and pressures of quotidian life for its working-class Black patrons? Or does the name imply that the bar makes golden, playful, and glimmering something that otherwise might be seen as mundane and associated with work? At the end of the poem, which we will return to, there is an invocation of death. Does this reveal that the shovel is that of a grave digger, casting the bar into a sinister light in spite of its golden glows? Brooks offers no definitive, singular answer in her pithy verses but allows multiple questions and answers to linger at the same time.
Following this epigraph comprising of two sentence fragments, the poem continues to use colloquial language in the pithy three-word sentences that comprise it. The first line repeats the poem’s title, “We real cool.” Notably, this is the only sentence is not broken up with a line break (excluding the epigraph). The poem immediately takes on the voice of the pool players directly addressing an audience. The us of “We” sets them up as a unified, choral force speaking together or at least for one another.
The following sentence reads “we / left school,” which signals a relationship between the coolness of the speakers in the first sentence and the rebellious choice to drop out of school in the second. The invocation of school also marks the speakers as relatively young, perhaps even choosing to go to the pool hall and bar instead of attending school. There’s a glamour to this rebellion that is particularly alive in this stanza. It suggests that speakers are cool precisely because rejecting the authority of educational institutions to pursue their own desires.
At the same time, this provokes underlying questions regarding the reasons they dropped out of school that are left unspoken. School is a crucial educational space that, ideally, provides students with critical tools for thinking, conversing, and engaging—not to mention opportunities for the future. To leave school is to leave those opportunities behind. At the same time, school can also be an oppressive space that inherits and propagates racism. Brooks is writing from Chicago, which has a long legacy of segregation and racism within the educational system.
We Real Cool Poem Analysis (Continued)
While the speakers say they were the ones to leave school, school may have already been an unaccommodating or even untenable place for them. The poem hints at the impossible bind where racist systemic disadvantages haunt both educational institutions and the status of the dropout. The glamorous allure of cool pool players dropping out of school is shrouded by these layered realities. An analysis of “We Real Cool” helps us attend to the overlap of agency and lack thereof for these young Black men playing pool.
The poem begins to establish a pattern where the word “We” is both the first word of every sentence and the last word of each line. The “we” lies suspended and contradictorily isolated from the rest of the sentence. This gives a sense that while the ‘we’ signals a plurality and collective, that collective experiences isolation. It also forces the reader to pause between the subject of the sentence and its verb and object. This gives way to questions about how much agency the subject “we” has in their actions.
We Real Cool Poem Analysis (Continued)
The next line also spans stanzas, bridging a larger gap than a line break within the same stanza. The line “We / lurk late” offers an alliterative lilt and continues the use of monosyllabic words. At the level of content, the line further paints an image of rebellious youth who lurk and linger into the late hours. The word ‘late’ signals that there maybe have been some curfew or convention that they are exceeding. In lurking, are they seeking something or someone out? This line has an eerie, almost cinematic effect of lurking around empty streets. As they lurk late, they “also strike straight,” as the following alliterative line states.
The multiple meanings of this phrase straddles the playful and the violent. “Strike straight” could easily mean that they successfully hit the pool ball swiftly, powerfully, and directly. Yet the phrase could also mean that they “strike” or punch a person. And, if this is about striking a person, who is the recipient of the punch and why? Brook plays with open-ended lines and ambiguity to allow for the meaning of “We Real Cool” to oscillate between playful fun and potential violence.
The speakers proceed to say “We // Sing sin.” The choice of the word “sing” calls to remind us of the song-like lyricism of the poem—perhaps this poem itself is a song of their sin that they sing. The nature of the sin, however, is unclear. Writing from the vantage point of 1950s Chicago, as readers we must wonder whether they are praising clear-cut wrongdoings or if their actions are encoded as sin or crime from the perspective of structural anti-Blackness. Perhaps the sin refers to the fact that they are drinking at a bar and engaging in other such bar games. Perhaps they ‘strike straight” and are inflicting unwarranted physical violence.
Or perhaps the sin is that they ‘lurk late,’ considering the history of violence done to Black people for simply congregating in public, especially at night. One might consider how “lurk late” could mean to “loiter,” and relate that to the racist history of loitering laws. These historical and social circumstances are at play in the meaning of “We Real Cool,” evoked even if there is not an overt reference.
The “sin” of alcohol emerges overtly in this stanza in the line “We / Thin gin.” This refers to the process of diluting alcohol (in this case, gin). Perhaps they are ‘thinning’ the gin in spite of the bar’s rules to make their drinks last longer; perhaps this is emerging from their own financial constraint that might result in trying to stretch a drink longer than the usual pour. As has been a theme across this analysis of “We Real Cool,” Brooks’ language, both rich and pithy, affords these multiple possibilities to coexist.
We Real Cool Poem Analysis (Continued)
The next stanza returns us to the music. The speaker says “We / Jazz June,” drawing our attention to the staccato and jazz-like rhythms of the poem that is now describing what it enacts. We might also think about jazz as both highly technical and skilled as well as reliant on improvisatory structures. How might we understand these seven pool players as living improvisationally within the structures of the world? It might also be relevant to note that June is typically the month in which school lets out, marking both the end of finals and the start of summer break. This association with the word loops us back to the first stanza of the poem, “We / left school” and makes us consider the fleeting freedoms of summer.
The final lines are as famous as they are stark: “We / die soon.” The funereal tone immediately follows the lightness and joy of “Jazz June,” creating a stark contrast. This generates an abrupt switch and provocations around what is the appropriate tone to read into the last line? Is the speaker celebrating impending death by continuing the tone of the previous sentence or is it a quick cut to the melancholic and dismal? The poem enacts death by ending immediately after the phrase “die soon.” Furthermore, this sentence activates the same binaries around freedom and constraint, youthful joyous rebellion and oppression, and cool agency and external systems of power. In other words, are the choices that the pool players make contributing to their demise or are there external forces at play rendering premature death out of their control?
Indeed we might return to the “Golden Shovel” metaphor. One analysis of “We Real Cool” might argue that the golden joys of rebellious behavior (leaving school, striking straight, singing sin, drinking gin) cover up a ubiquitous harsh blunt object. Another analysis of “We Real Cool” might say that the prospect of premature death in an anti-Black world might make such rebellious behaviors desirable. Brooks does not cast harsh judgment on these young players; at the same time, she does not valorize their actions. These conflicting and converging meanings in “We Real Cool” emerge through such analysis.
Poetic Device Analysis & Meaning in “We Real Cool”
The poem is tight with poetic devices and musicality. We can perform an analysis of “We Real Cool” through these formal aspects in addition to the meaning of its content.
The use of anaphora, alliteration, and enjambment build up both rhythm and dissonance that contributes to the poetic meaning of “We Real Cool.” By offering an analysis of the poetic devices and techniques in “We Real Cool,” we can better engage its complex meaning as readers of both content and form. The poem itself produces a steady rhythm when read aloud in its even lines and syllables. Each word is a single syllable and has equal weight. This makes the ending of “die soon” all the more stark, as the stakes are elevated but the sentence takes up the same amount of space and sound as the rest.
“Lurk late,” “Strike straight,” and “Jazz June” are all instances of alliteration that contribute to the musicality of the poem. Additionally, the poem is dense with rhyme. In addition to each stanza containing an internal rhyme (cool/school, late/straight, sin/gin, June/soon), there are instances of further internal rhyme within lines. “Thin gin” is an example of pure internal rhyme while “sing sin” is an example of internal slant rhyme. This creates a sing-song-y, almost children’s rhyme-like timber to the piece, that emphasizes both the youth of the players/speakers and creates an eerie contrast with the life and death stakes of the poem.
Poetic Device Analysis & Meaning in “We Real Cool” (Continued)
The poem also uses anaphora—the repetition of a word at the start of a line or phrase. Every sentence starts with the word “we” yet in all but the first sentence, the word “we” is the final word of the line, separated from the rest of its phrase using consistent enjambment. This suspends the “we” in an isolated space (as mentioned above) and functions as a downbeat—both repeated and subordinated to the action. There’s a kind of suspense built by forcing the reader to read the action across a line break when the subject of the action is repeated and therefore already known or anticipated. Once again, this serves to emphasize the final line and its heightened stakes.
The poem is highly structured, drawing attention to the idea of play, rebellion, and disruption occurring from within formal structural constraints. Brooks encourages us to think about youthfulness, play, violence, and death simultaneously. She does not give us simple answers but instead occasions us to engage directly with the multivalent complexities of society.
We Real Cool Analysis – Additional Resources
If you enjoyed our detailed analysis of “We Real Cool”, you may wish to check out other poetry analyses and related content from our expert team: