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How to Sound Cool and Make Sense (like Gwendolyn Brooks)

Emma remarked on my previous post that she doesn’t know anything about poetry, except what she likes.  Well, I have loved this poem since I was a toddler.  (In poetry-reading years, a “toddler” is about sixteen earth-years old.) 

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.

I caught sight of this poem in my textbook when I was procrastinating and doodling rather than working on my assignment.  I thought I might like the poem because it was short.  It looked manageable, appropriate for a lazy and wandering mind like mine.  Ironically, the poem has been on my mind now for almost fifteen years.

Luckily I was the sort of kid who hadn’t learned how to speed-read by killing the narrator voice in my head.  But the poem is even better when read aloud.  Try it.  (You should always read poetry aloud.  If it’s good aloud, it’s good; if it sucks aloud, then it sucks.  Period.) 

Listen: this poem sounds like a sultry, swinging, slow-fast, street-corner gutbucket jazz tune.  Forget, for a moment, what the poem means; try not to feel concerned for the boys in the pool hall or ask where their mothers are.  Forget the shocking, slap-you-upside-the-head last two words and just LISTEN to the sounds of the poem.

Notice how Gwen (may I call you Gwen?) gets you to pause JUST A LITTLE at the end of each line–by putting the “we” at the end, rather than the beginning where it seems to belong?  There’s a forced, unnatural pause between the subject of each sentence and its verb. 

Most people pause too much, but some overcompensate and don’t pause at all.  The best thing to do is to feel the words coming out; notice the flow of every vowel through the walls of your throat and the placement on your tongue, lips, and teeth of every consonant.  Very sensual, reading poetry.

The “we” at the beginning of the first line, and at the end of every subsequent line, gets s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d out by this careful placement.  Plus, Gwen slows our reading even more by making us sit for half a second on each of the other words: they’re each monosyllabic, and there’s no natural accent on any of them.  (Some lines have natural accents, like the title of Chaim Potok’s book My Name is Asher Lev.  Say it aloud.  my NAME is ASHer LEV.)  In “We Real Cool,” every word, every syllable, has its own natural stress.  You can’t deemphasize any of them–except, maybe, for the “we.”  (Symbolic meaning to be explained later.)  Plus, most of the words participate in a percussive alliteration that naturally slows down the pronunciation.  (Try to say “strike straight” five times fast.  You can’t do it.)

So when you read the poem, you start to feel a jazzy triplet beat–like DU-WA, Du-WAH.  Like two snare rolls and a high-hat, or like like two legato notes and a staccato.  Like a sax solo by, oh, I dunno, Sonny Stitt or somebody. 

Don’t believe me?  Read the poem aloud, like I recommended above, four times.  If you’re not feeling the beat yet, listen to Gwen herself recite the poem.  (NO CHEATING!  Read it aloud for yourself, four times, first.  If you feel the beat, you’ll know it–you’ll feel it in the marrow of your bones and want to beat it out on the bottom of an upturned five-gallon bucket for the rest of your life.  If not, then and only then, click on the link.)

So, why do I care that the great Ms. Brooks (after listening to that audio, I’m going to retreat from the diminutive) creates such a jazzy rhythm in this poem?  Let me suggest a few things, some of which she might not agree with or have thought of.  (To paraphrase Robert Frost, a poet is worthy of any genius you may find in her poem, whether she consciously intended it to be there or not.)

1. The poem is super short, like the boys’ lives.  The sentences are short, the lines are short, the words are short.  But each word is a swinging, pulsing, drumming, humming, reverberating beat that you want to savor.  The alliteration, the internal rhyme, the placement of sliding vowels and percussive consonants throughout this poem make me want to writhe and spin and shake–things I don’t even do when I hear actual music.  If I ever went to a dance party, I’d ask the DJ to play Gwen (sorry, Ms. Brooks just isn’t working for me) reading her poetry.  Forget house music.

2. Putting emphasis in this way on each word, forcing us to savor each sound, recreates the temper and the worldly concerns of the boys themselves.  They, too, savor every moment; they, too, are aware of the shortness of their life before they start living it.  They, too, want to dance and embrace every minute.  But, as I’m sure you experienced the first time you read this poem, though they know the end is coming fast, it still catches them by surprise.  If you read this poem in a quiet environment, “We / Die soon” makes your heart jump and your cheeks flush.  You knew it was the end, but you didn’t know it was, you know–THE end.  (The kids in the poem talk about dying soon, and probably think they’ll die happy.  What do they know?)

3. The swinging rhythm creates, as I said above, a forced separation between “We” and the subsequent words.  How does this sound echo the sense that Gwen is creating?  I have an idea.  I think that, after the first line (“We real cool”), the poem echoes a growing alienation that the boys feel from their environments and their own actions.  Much as they might like to flaunt, they know they aren’t actually drunks or assailants or pool players.  They’re kids.  But their real, natural identity–“we”–is separate from everything they do.

Except, of course, for their vanity.  What Rousseau called amour propre.  The desire to seem cool, to be accepted, to be respected–to be seen as self sufficient or competent or above it all.  The irony of this self confidence is that it only masks their insecurity; and their arrogant, bawdy swagger (mimicked, again, by the swaggering rhythm of the poem) is ENTIRELY a show.  They’re posers.

3. Notice the longest line of the poem is the first one.  If “We real cool. We” represents the moment just before they realize they might act on their vanity, then it also represents their innocent childhood.  The longest period of life, until now, is their childhood.  Now, at the loss of innocence, they start living faster.  Three beats per line.  Until the end.

The shortest line–the one that flies by, or hits you like a bullet, or gets cut short (pick your metaphor and you’ve got an image of what’s actually happening)–is the last one.  “Die soon.”  Then?  No more “We.”  The rhythm is over, too.  One-two, not du-wa-du-WA.  A punch?  Two gunshots?  A screeching tire wheel, and then a crash?  A knife jab and a thud?  Or a funeral dirge?  No swinging dance, that’s for sure.

4. After the boys “left school,” the “We” is only an afterthought.  They’re no longer aware of themselves as selves, except incidentally.  The vanity is replaced entirely by frenzied activity.  Again, the placement of that little word accomplishes this effect only if you read aloud.

5. Check it out: After the boys “left school,” each new activity is represented by a new consonant.  “Lurk late,” “Strike straight,” and “Sing sin” are all alliterative; and each NEW activity seems new for, oh, about half a second.  (Linguistically, /st/ is a different consonant sound from /s/.  Ask me and I’ll explain, but get ready for a deluge of nerdiness.) 

Each activity gets old–repetitive–immediately.  Isn’t it characteristic of boys like this to stay cool by seeking a new, even more dangerous activity each time something loses its excitement?  The ever-changing alliteration mimicks this new-old, new-old pattern of life.

The only act (after leaving school) that isn’t alliterative is drinking.  The boys “thin gin.”  (I suppose that means they have learned to mix tonic water with liquor, and it makes them feel adventurous or mature.)  But the drinking only leads to more of the same: sensuous and rebellious music.  The liquor takes them from “sing sin” to “Jazz June.”  The second one sounds a bit more exciting than the first; /j/ is more fun and unique than /s/.  And a song is always better with liquor than without.  Just like a joke.  But it’s still repetitive, and not even gin can keep this kind of life from getting old fast.

The last line is, of course, not alliterative at all.  Dying is the most final, but least boring and least repetitive adventure.  After death, what they wouldn’t give for another alliteration!  Another game of pool, or even another boring poetry lecture!  But there’s no longer any “we” to play or hear.

6. There are only two words in the poem that end on vowels.  They’re open-ended, unknown quantities.  (Consonant endings are closed, dead ends.)  The two words are “we” and “die.”

We–the open-ended identity of the boys continues throughout the poem.  They have choice; they are agents.  They are the actors, the subject of every present-tense, immediate verb.  They are as-yet unmade.

Die: what an unknown quantity this is to the boys!  How mysterious and open-ended!  Too bad Ms. Brooks (she’s back to formal now, for me) ends on a consonant “soon.”  Death’s finality is only exacerbated by its immediacy. 

Listen to the recording again, and hear her voice fall on “soon.”  What could be more final, more fatal, more tragic than that?  Death itself is open-ended; but that “soon!”  Say the word; listen to it.  It’s over, closed, finished!  As Robert Frost says elsewhere, “No more to build on there.”

So: the moment seems long, the day short; the song stretches out forever, but life itself is over in a snap.  Such is the experience created (not merely the truth stated) by Gwendolyn Brooks in this magnificently musical poem, the tersest (I’m convinced) of American verse.  I’ve found few poets–maybe Pope, maybe Shakespeare–but probably not–who pack so much sound and sense into so few words.

Tomorrow or the next day I’m going to suggest another who tries, though: James Weldon Johnson.  If you can find it, preview his magnificent poem “Moods.”

About schmidtty

I am an English teacher in Dallas. I love to read, to write, and to talk about ideas. Every few months, I catch the blogging bug and write a little here. My students and friends occasionally humor me and read my stuff.


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