48. We Real Cool: Gwendolyn Brooks

A great poem for teaching what a poem can be in terms of structure.

First, you have the stage set up top. The Golden Shovel. Is that okay? Can a poem do that? It’s not very clever; kind of clunky. So why does Brooks do it (hint: it puts you right there immediately).

Next, the rhyme. Notice how the last word is always the same, “We”. Does we, we, we count as a rhyme? So, can a rhyme be the second to last word in each line? Well, Brooks thinks so. Does it work? Ah, first you have to figure out Brooks’ point before you can decide if it works or not.

Finally, how do you read it? Normally, you would stop at the period, and then the “We” would blend into the next line. “Real cool. We left school. We…” My college professor argued that Brooks read each line and paused, reading it “We real cool. We… Left school. We….” I don’t know the “official” answer, although I am sure there is one (someone must have heard her read it herself). Who cares? Ask the kids which way it works and why. I simply ask them which way they would read it, and everyone has fun reading it aloud. Then I explain the concept of enjambment.

Once all of that is out of the way, you can talk about the themes. Youth. Poverty. Vice. Urban and ethnic culture. Middle school students see near future versions of themselves in this poem; even the “good” kids. Talk about substituting; what would be gin today, or playing pool? Where do the “bad” kids hang out now?

Now, what is Brooks’ message? Does her style serve that theme?

An interesting side discussion…. Typically, poor kids have nowhere to go and nothing to do, so they hang out in public places (parks, down town, drive cars down the strip, etc.) and practice low level vices (smoking, drinking beer, pot, petty vandalism). For this, they get tagged as cancers on the town, while the town often offers them few other options. Rich kids, on the other hand, can often find a family home to be at while parents are away (work, vacation), it is many times somewhat isolated, and those kids can afford expensive vices (hard liquor, cocaine, heroin) and destroy property (rooms, cars) all out of the public (and sometimes family) eye. These kids are often seen as the good kids as they are heading to college and look clean, and at worst they are just being kids.

Who are your students? How do they judge the kids in the Golden Shovel?

We Real Cool
Gwendolyn Brooks


We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.


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