The poems “We Real Cool” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” use a viewpoint that is unusual in this unit. What is the unusual viewpoint? In each poem, whom does that viewpoint represent? How...

The poems “We Real Cool” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” use a viewpoint that is unusual in this unit. What is the unusual viewpoint? In each poem, whom does that viewpoint represent? How does the viewpoint relate to the theme of each of the two poems?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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  • "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks

With her fourth volume of poetry, The Bean Eaters (1960), Gwendolyn Brooks, who was profoundly influenced by the work of Romantics John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the Transcendental Emily Dickinson, abandoned close rhyme for a freer style, a more political content, and much more colloquial language in response to the times. Certainly, her poem "We Real Cool" demonstrates Brooks's new methods. 

The viewpoint of this poem represents the young men who are the speakers. This point of view that the speakers exhibit is apparently boastful and over-confident, but Brooks

The WEs in ’We Real Cool’ are tiny, wispy weakly argumentative ’Kilroy-is-here’ announcements. 

Brooks' repetition of "We" at the end of each line underscores their self-awareness and uncertainty. This tone makes the final line all the more poignant in its irony as it points to the sad truth of their ends (in which "We" is omitted) as they are probably killed in their illegal activities:

               We
Thin gin.   We

Jazz June. We
die soon.

The theme of this poem is elegiac: Brooks writes of trapped lives of the inner city.

  • "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes

In this poem the viewpoint is that of a black man who claims his race and takes pride in its heritage. Hughes himself wrote that he boarded a train and looked out the window at the big, muddy Mississippi River. As he watched, Hughes reflected upon the tragic history of slaves being sold down this mighty river, he recalled the other rivers of blacks' history: the Congo, the Niger, and the Nile. "I've know rivers," he then thought.

His poem has the viewpoint of the soul of the Negro; that is, a racial soul that courses throughout time. Using the first person pronoun "I," Hughes writes of the historical connection of the Negro as well as the spiritual experience acquired as the speaker connects to the three African rivers in an extended metaphor:

I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow
     of human blood in human veins....
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep,
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln....

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

The last line of this lyric poem expresses the theme that there truly is a vital history for blacks. 

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