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Brooks' We Real Cool Poem: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Scarlett Brooks

Scarlett has a Ph.D. in English and has taught literature and composition for both high school and college.

This lesson will examine the poem We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks. It will focus on the poem's literary context and techniques. At the end of this lesson, you will be able to analyze the poem from these angles.

Vernacular Poetry: Definition and Context

Vernacular is the term used to describe a style of writing that attempts to capture the conversational speech patterns peculiar to people of a geographical region, social class or race perceived to be inferior to the powerful, mainstream, or dominant in a society. Writing in the vernacular has historically been seen as a political statement. Poets and writers as diverse as Geoffrey Chaucer, Mark Twain and Langston Hughes have used it to validate the language and perspectives of so-called ''social inferiors.''

Following in this tradition, in ''We Real Cool'' Gwendolyn Brooks uses diction, which means ''word choice,'' and syntax, which means ''sentence structure,'' to provide insight into the street culture of young, black urban males during the late 1950s.

Summary and Analysis

''We Real Cool'' begins by identifying the poem's subject as ''The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel.'' The rest of the poem--four stanzas of two lines each--captures the voice of one such young man, a brash, young tough.

The first stanza reads, ''We real cool. We/ Left school. We''

If Gwendolyn Brooks had written this poem in standard English, the first line would read ''We are really cool.'', or ''very cool.'' Instead, she omitted the verb and used an adjective where an adverb would have been grammatically correct. Using the ''wrong'' word is a diction choice, and leaving the verb out of the sentence is a syntax choice. Notice also that the stanza does not end with a complete thought. Rather, the thought continues into the next stanza. This is called enjambment, a poetic technique in which the end of a complete thought or statement does not correspond to the end of a line. Gwendolyn Brooks once said that she used the break in thought to create a hesitation that represents the boy's lack of total confidence in his cocky, self-assurance.

The second stanza reads, ''Lurk late. We/ Strike straight. We''

What stands out in these lines is Brooks' use of alliteration, another diction choice. Alliteration is the successive use of words that begin with the same letter. Here, the speaker brags about staying out late, presumably after a day of skipping school, or having dropped out altogether. The alliteration gives these activities an appealing quality. On the other hand, the words ''lurk'' and ''strike'' have a slightly sinister cast and convey the impression that there might be a dark side to the activities or lifestyle the young man is describing.

The third stanza reads, ''Sing sin. We/ Thin gin. We''

These lines are somewhat elusive. ''Sing'' probably isn't meant literally here. In order to understand the meaning, we have to think about the connotation of the word ''sing.'' Connotation refers to ideas or meanings that we associate with a word, even though those ideas or meanings might not be the word's exact definition. To ''sing'' about something is to endorse, celebrate or revel in it. Apparently, the young men revel in socially-unacceptable, or deviant behaviors. The next line gives us a more comprehensive view of what those behaviors are: drinking alcohol. Brooks substitutes the word ''thin'' for the word ''drink,'' but the letter combinations in those two words are so similar that the one word suggests the other. ''Thin'' also suggests the watered-down cocktails served in pool halls and bars.

The last stanza reads, ''Jazz June. We/ Die soon.''

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