We Real Cool
Brooks, 1917–2000
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1917 but spent her childhood and adult life in Chicago, Illinois. Her mother, Keziah Wims Brooks, had been a teacher in Topeka. Her father, David Anderson Brooks, was the son of a runaway slave and worked as a janitor. She had two younger siblings. Both parents encouraged Brooks’s education. A precocious child, Brooks wrote plays and poems; “Eventide” was her first published poem, appearing in Childhood Magazine in 1930. Dozens of her poems were published in The Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper. To encourage her writing, Brooks’s mother arranged for her to meet the Harlem Renaissance poets and James Weldon Johnson.
Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues on CBUT, 1958
Brooks excelled as a poet, activist, and nurturer. Her poems embodied African folk traditions, such as dancers swaying in rhythm, religious leaders sermonizing and prophesying, and oral historians reciting ballads of the past. She wrote in a distinctive style, often using innovative poetic forms. She wrote two books of advice for would-be writers: Young Poet’s Primer in 1981 for older students, and Very Young Poets in 1983 for children.
From the 1960’s on, Brooks’s poems took an increasingly activist tone, encouraging African Americans to fight unequal treatment. She promoted black pride and voiced the rage of urban youths trapped in ghettos and lacking opportunity. Her ultimate message was that African Americans should work together and maintain hope. Her concern went beyond African Americans to include women and poor people of all races.

Brooks contributed to acceptance of the word “black” when a reading from “Of De Witt Williams on His Way to Lincoln Cemetery” was banned by two radio stations in 1962 because the word “black” was considered pejorative by some. Brooks defended the term’s appropriateness. The poem became the basis for a song, “Elegy for a Plain Black Boy,” by Oscar Brown, Jr.

Brooks also was a nurturer, not only of her own children but also of those attending her workshops and reading her poetry. She focused on aiding young people through books like Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956) and Aloneness (1971), which dealt with combating loneliness and the need to “be yourself.” Brooks took a special interest in troubled black teens; concerned about the high youth homicide rate in inner-city Chicago, she conducted a poetry workshop for members of the Blackstone Rangers street gang.
Terjesen, Nancy Conn.
Gwendolyn Brooks.
Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January, 2016. 3p.
THE
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.
Q. How about the seven pool players in the poem “We Real Cool?”

A. They have no pretensions to any glamor. They are supposedly dropouts, or at least
“Ya Got Trouble,” from The Music Man, released 1962
since they're probably young enough, or at least those I saw were when I looked in a poolroom, and they... First of all, let me tell you how that's supposed to be said, because there's a reason why I set it out as I did. These are people who are essentially saying, “Kilroy is here. We are.” But they're a little uncertain of the strength of their identity.
from “An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks” in Contemporary Literature 11:1 (Winter 1970).
The often overlooked epigraph to the poem suggests Brooks's ambivalence toward the personae's lifestyle. The number “seven,” for example, ironically signifies their luck as pool players; while “golden” similarly implies a certain youthful arrogance. However, “shovel” reminds the reader of death and burial.
Smith, Gary
First consider the book version... [The pool players'] first dramatic line, “We real cool,” repeats the title, a complete Black English sentence, and it suggests an interpretation of what follows: these actions are manifestations of coolness. The non-standard grammar of the title and first line transgresses the normal decorum of English language poetry, showing the social distance between the pool players and the middle class subjects of much of our poetic canon. The second sentence, “We/Left school,” establishes what I will call the moral relationship between the players and the literate reader, buyer of poetry books. This reader knows they shouldn't do that—knows better than they do that this first manifestation of their coolness will surely harm them, as it eventually does...
The elegance of the typeface and the evenness of the layout in Selected Poems are products of craftsmanship, so well produced that they are refined out of notice. That particular grace and craft are from a world outside the pool hall... The speech is first person, but the studied aesthetics of the type does not emerge from the aesthetic values of the pool-playing dropouts who are supposedly speaking... The alternative aesthetic of pool hall cool in the language of the poem thus is reshaped to fit the Procrustean bed of book design. The (aesthetic) values of the (white) middle class prevail [...]
Sullivan, James D.
The simplicity of the poem is stark to the point of elaborateness. Less than lean, it is virtually coded. Made up entirely of monosyllables and end-stops, the poem is no non-sense at all. Gathered in eight units of three-beat lines, it does not necessarily invite inflection, but its persistent bump on “we” suggests waltz time to my ear. If the reader chooses to render the poem that way, she runs out of breath, or trips her tongue, but it seems that such “breathlessness” is exactly required of dudes hastening toward their death. Deliberately subverting the romance of sociological pathos, Brooks presents the pool players—“seven in the golden shovel”—in their own words and time. They make no excuse for themselves and apparently invite no one else to do so. The poem is their situation as they see it. In eight (could be nonstop) lines, here is their total destiny. Perhaps comic geniuses, they could well drink to this poem, making it a drinking/revelry song.
Spillers, Hortense
Characteristically, Brooks invites both identification with and objectification of the young men—depending, perhaps on such categories as the race, gender, age of her/their audience. There is something cunning and deceptive both about the openness of Brooks's “We” and her variable distance from both the pool players to whom it refers and the people—at least since its Broadside republication—it seems to rename. Rather like the young white man who, in Brooks's Story about Baraka, heeded a call not intended for him, or the “You” of “Primer for Blacks,” that shifty pronoun works a critique on audience overidentification and poet's supposed representativeness. After all, isn't she supposed to correct the young punks, not to follow them as new leaders? But which she? The writer of “We Real Cool,”
The Bean Eaters
(1960)? Or the writer of the 1967 broadside “We Real Cool?” And should the differences of context text and thus of content be fixed—either in the sense of “healed” or “halted?” Brooks puts her readers, specifically a black audience that is not limited to the no-longer- New Blacks of the sixties, to work on such questions.
Lindberg, Kathryne V.
Smith, Gary. “Brooks's ‘We Real Cool.’” Explicator 43.2 (Winter 1985): 49-50.
Sullivan, James D. On the Walls and in the Streets: American Poetry Broadsides from the 1960s. Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1997.
From “Gwendolyn the Terrible: Propositions on Eleven Poems” in A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Ed. Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith. Copyright 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
Lindberg, Kathryne V. “Whose Canon? Gwendolyn Brooks: Founder at the Center of the ‘Margins.’” Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and Their Readers. Ed. Margaret Dickie and Thomas Travisano. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1996. 283-311.
“Keeping Warm in a Pool Hall” by Wayne F. Miller, Chicago 1948.
“Chicago’s South Side, 1946-1948” by Wayne F. Miller.
“Lawndale Pool Room, Chicago’s West Side” by Unknown Photographer.
“Lawndale Pool Room, Chicago’s West Side” by Unknown Photographer.
We real cool.
Left school. We
Listen to “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. May 03, 1983 at the Guggenheim Museum. From the Academy of American Poets Audio Archive
The “We”—you're supposed to stop after the “” and think about their validity, and of course there's no way for you to tell whether it should be said softly or not, I suppose, but I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic , which they don't bother to question every day, of course.
from “An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks” in
Contemporary Literature
11:1 (Winter 1970).
The “We's” in “We Real Cool” are tiny, wispy, weakly argumentative “Kilroy-is-here” announcements. The boys have no accented sense of themselves, yet they are aware of a semi-defined personal importance. Say the “We” softly.
Brooks, Gwendolyn.
Report from Part One.
Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.
The non-standard grammar of the title and first line transgresses the normal decorum of English language poetry, showing the social distance between the pool players and the middle class subjects of much of our poetic canon. The second sentence, “We / Left school,” establishes what I will call the moral relationship between the players and the literate reader, buyer of poetry books. This reader knows they shouldn't do that—knows better than they do that this first manifestation of their coolness will surely harm them, as it eventually does . . .
Sullivan, James D.
On the Walls and in the Streets: American Poetry Broadsides from the 1960s.
Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1997.
Not to dwell overlong on the ethos or impact of the very different constructions invited by Brooks's “We,” I add Brooks's own commentary on the poem, which is delivered as stage directions for her public readings:
First of all, let me tell you how that’s [“We Real Cool”] supposed to be said, because there's a reason why I set it out as I did. These are people who are essentially saying, “Kilroy is here. We are.” But they’re a little uncertain of the strength of their identity. The “We”—you’re supposed to stop after the “we” and think about validity; of course, there’s no way for you to tell whether it should be said softly or not, I suppose, but I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty. (RFPO, 155-56)
Characteristically, Brooks invites both identification with and objectification of the young men—depending, perhaps on such categories as the race, gender, age of her/their audience. There is something cunning and deceptive both about the openness of Brooks's “We” and her variable distance from both the pool players to whom it refers and the people—at least since its Broadside republication—it seems to rename. Rather like the young white man who, in Brooks's Story about Baraka, heeded a call not intended for him, or the “You” of “Primer for Blacks,” that shifty pronoun works a critique on audience overidentification and poet's supposed representativeness.
Lindberg, Kathryne V. “Whose Canon? Gwendolyn Brooks: Founder at the Center of the ‘Margins.’”
Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and Their Readers.
Ed. Margaret Dickie and Thomas Travisano. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1996. 283-311.
late. We
Strike straight. We
The simplicity of the poem is stark to the point of elaborateness.

Less than lean, it is virtually coded.

Made up entirely of monosyllables and end-stops, the poem is no non-sense at all.

Gathered in eight units of three-beat lines, it does not necessarily invite inflection, but its persistent bump on “we” suggests waltz time to my ear.
From “Gwendolyn the Terrible: Propositions on Eleven Poems” in A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Ed. Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith. Copyright 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
—Within the poem, the personae's self-conscious word play supports their self-definition. The title... boasts of the reason why the personae left school... The remainder of the sentences... mock the value of education and celebrate the personae's street learning. Finally, the alliterative pattern of their other spoken words, “Lurk late,” “Strike straight,” and “Sing sin,” belies any possibility for mental growth.
Smith, Gary. “Brooks's ‘We Real Cool.’” Explicator 43.2 (Winter 1985): 49-50.
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
We
One of Gwendolyn Brooks’s most famous poems, “We Real Cool,” was
The Kanawha County Book-Banning Controversy took place from April 1974 to December 1975

Alice Moore, a school board member and the wife of a Fundamentalist baptist minister, objected to the books selected and to the manner of selection. Moore claimed the books contained material that was disrespectful of authority and religion, destructive of social and cultural values, obscene and pornographic, unpatriotic, and in violation of individual and family rights of privacy. The textbook series under attack included Heath’s Communicating and Dynamics of Language series, McDougal-Littell’s Man series, Houghton Mifflin Company’s Interaction, Ginn’s Responding series, and Scott Foresman’s Man in Literature and Galaxy programs. Moore extended her attack to include the writings of E. E. Cummings, Sigmund Freud, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, Dick Gregory, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Allen Ginsberg. Specific titles to be banned from library shelves included the Iliad, Plato’s Republic, John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) and Paradise Regained (1671), James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1841), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea (1952), other classic works, and a children’s book of jump rope rhymes. In all, 325 titles and 96,095 volumes were considered offensive and, under conservative protest, temporarily removed to a warehouse.
Paquette, William A.
Kanawha County Book-Banning Controversy.
Salem Press Encyclopedia, January, 2015.
in schools in
Protestors during the Kanawha County Textbook Controversy
September 17, 1974 Letter Sc93-3
for the penultimate sentence in the poem: “We / Jazz June.” The school districts banned the poem for the supposed
The most suggestive sentence in the poem, however, is “We Jazz June.” Among its many meanings, the word “Jazz” connotes meaningless or empty talk and sexual intercourse. If the latter meaning is applied to the poem, “June” becomes a female or perhaps the summer of life whom the personae routinely seduce or rape; “die” thus acquires a double Elizabethan meaning of sexual climax and brevity of existence. Either connotation, obviously, works well within the players' self-appointed credo. More importantly, the rich word play suggests Brooks's own ambivalence toward the players' lifestyle. She dramatizes their existential choice of perilous defiance and nonconformity.
Smith, Gary. “Brooks's ‘We Real Cool.’” Explicator 43.2 (Winter 1985): 49-50.
of the word “jazz.”
However, Brooks herself maintained that that interpretation was
I didn’t mean that at all. I meant that these young men would have wanted to challenge anything that was accepted by ‘proper’ people, so I thought of something that is accepted by almost everybody, and that is summertime, the month of June. So these pool players, instead of paying the customary respect to the loveliness of June—the flowers, blue sky, honeyed weather—wanted instead to derange it, to scratch their hands in it as if it were a head of hair. This is what went through my head; that is what I meant.

However, a space can be permitted for a sexual interpretation. Talking about different interpretations gives me a chance to say something I firmly believe—that poetry is for personal use. When you read a poem, you may not get out of it all that the poet put into it, but you are different from the poet. You’re different from everybody else who is going to read the poem, so you should take from it what you need. Use it personally.”
Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks
(University Press of Mississippi, 2003)
...the tone changes dramatically when the reader learns the street people “Die soon.” At once their defiant and complacent attitudes seem quite pathetic, and the reader wonders whom the cool people are trying to kid about the desirability of their disordered lives.
Sims, Barbara B. “Brooks's ‘We Real Cool.’” Explicator 34 (1976): 58.
To maintain the syntactic pattern, the last line ends on the predicate, “Die soon,” omitting the final “We.” The predominant rhythm of the poem—two strong beats, one weak beat—resolves (satisfyingly) on the two strong beats in the last line. These two patterns, syntactic and rhythmic, converge to eliminate the final “We.” The group dissolves in the last line, “Die soon,” the final consequence of coolness, of energetically rejecting the middle-class respect for education. This satisfying little tragedy confirms the dominance and the rightness of values foreign to the players themselves. By the end, they are completely powerless, dead.
Sullivan, James D. On the Walls and in the Streets: American Poetry Broadsides from the 1960s. Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1997.
Published by 1963
Compare two presentations of “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks: first, the single most widely accessible edition of the poem, on a page of her and second on the The words, in a formal linguistic sense, remain the same, but the material presentation does not. Those physical qualities, as a necessary condition for reading the poem, as an unavoidable part of the thing read, create a different set of meanings in each artifact.

But what would an increased attention to visual design add to this reading? Can we find here a stronger value in the whiteness of the paper and the blackness of the ink... a metaphorical reading of color... a critique of humanist assumptions in whiteness as a universal standard of legible space—ubiquitous, non-contingent whiteness—and black as a differentiation upon it? The very conventionality of the white page denies that it carries any such meaning...
Harper & Row Page, 1963
Broadside Press, 1966