What Can We Steal From Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool”?

Title of Work and its Form: “We Real Cool,” poem
Author: Gwendolyn Brooks
Date: 1960
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem has been anthologized a LOT.  You may also find the work in authorized form on the web site of the Academy of American Poets.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing:  Lineation

Discussion:
Many folks are under the impression that poetry must be depressing and must use flowery, ostentatious language.  Poems are like people; no two are alike and they come in all possible shapes and colors and permutations.  “We Real Cool” does not contain any “big” words; in fact, the poem is deliberately written in the vernacular (commonly used language) of those young pool players.  You’ll also notice that all of the words are monosyllabic.  Sure, you could make a case that “real” should be two syllables.  Listen to Gwendolyn Brooks read her poem and you will see that “real” is only one syllable to her and to the characters she’s writing about.

“We Real Cool” is a powerful example of the way that poetry can make music.  The most musical choice that Ms. Brooks makes, it seems to me, is the way she splits up the sentences in her poem.  The poem consists of eight sentences, each beginning with “We.”  Would the sentences have the same kind of melody if each were placed on its own line with no break?  Let’s see what it looks like:

We real cool.

We left school.

We lurk late.

Instead, the first seven lines end in “we.”  This choice creates a great deal of momentum in the reading of the piece.  Instead of sounding like a grocery list, the poem sounds like a song.  If you listen to the reading of the poem, you’ll notice that the “we” sounds a little less important than the words that follow.  Isn’t this where the emphasis belongs?  The pool players lurk and strike and sing.  The reader already identifies them as a group, so we’re much more interested in seeing what the group does.

Think about it this way.  Let’s look at a quote from a movie you should see and think of it as a poem.  In the following line from the 1954 film On the Waterfront (written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan), Terry Molloy (Marlon Brando) is considering testifying against a gang boss.  His brother Charlie, the gangster’s right-hand man, tries to get Terry to forget about testifying.  Terry tells his brother:

“You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

What if the “poem” looked like this on the page:

You don’t understand!

I coulda had class.

I coulda been a contender.

I could’ve been somebody,

instead of a bum,

which is what I am.

Or what if it looked like this?

You

don’t understand!

I

coulda had class.

I

coulda been a contender.

I

could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what

I

am.

Or even like this?

You don’t understand! I coulda

had class. I coulda been

a contender.

I could’ve been

somebody,

instead of a

bum,

which is what

I am.

See how the meaning and the feeling of the poem can be influenced by the way it looks?  Gwendolyn Brooks shaped “We Real Cool” as though it were a ceramic sculpture; she made the appearance of the poem reflect the way she wanted it to feel.

What Should We Steal?

  • Think about the effect of the shape of your lines.  When someone is reading your poem, their eyes are literally moving left to right and down the page.  When you “chop up” your lines, you’re forcing the reader to consider your words just a little bit more slowly than they might otherwise.  The same technique can be seen in suspenseful stories.  The identity of the killer, for example, may not be buried in the middle of a big, thick paragraph.  Instead, the important “jolt” may be found at the end of a bunch of really short paragraphs.
  • Transfer the music of your poem to the page.  If you really thought about it, you might not be surprised the Gwendolyn Brooks read her poem aloud the way she did.  You’ve undoubtedly heard that you should read your work aloud to yourself during revision…here’s another reason why.  Ask yourself if the words on the page sound the way they do in your head.

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