"The Golden Shovel" Summary

The Golden Shovel” is a 2010 poem by Terrance Hayes that responds to Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1959 poem “We Real Cool.”

  • In part 1, “1981,” the speaker recalls his childhood, when his father took him to a bar. The night before, the speaker and his father had seen their neighbor strike his own son and had prayed together in the speaker’s room.
  • In part 2, “1991,” the speaker enters a tented city with one or more companions and begins to sing along with the city’s inhabitants. The music stops the singers from weeping but, like the singers’ lives, ends too quickly.


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Last Updated on December 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712


“The Golden Shovel” first appeared in Terrance Hayes’s 2010 poetry collection, Lighthead. The poem carries the epigraph “after Gwendolyn Brooks” and creates a new verse form, using all the words of “We Real Cool” by Brooks twice in sequence as the end-words of the lines in this poem. The title is taken from the epigraph of Brooks’s poem “The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel.” Other poets have since taken up the form, employing the words of poems by Brooks and other poets as end-words in new works, and the golden shovel has taken its place in the lexicon of poetic forms, alongside the sonnet and the sestina.

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The poem is divided into two parts, each containing twelve couplets. Part 1 is dated 1981, and part 2, 1991.

Part I takes place when the speaker was a child, so small that his father’s sock was big enough to cover his arm. His father takes him for a drive at twilight, until they find a bar that impresses the boy as a cool place, with real men looking slightly dangerous and aloof, unapproachable women sitting on the bar stools. This is an unfamiliar atmosphere, in which there seems to be much to discover, where men play pool and the ambience is smoky. The speaker and his father, however, will not be out late.

The previous night, the speaker and his father were outside in the street when they saw one of their neighbors hit his son in the face. The speaker’s own father, however, promises to take care of him, saying that he will even leave him a multitude of treasures after he dies. These include the shovel with which they buried the dog, his rusted pistol, and his Bible. He will also bequeath to his son a less tangible legacy, including “the words he loved to sing” and “his sin.”

The speaker returns to the point when they watched their neighbor hitting his son. The boy ran toward them, “looking wounded and thin.” There are several alternative, or perhaps concurrent, explanations for the anger of the boy’s father. The boy had been caught out in a lie, had been drinking his father’s gin, or had been standing up to his father by defending his mother. As they stood in the road together, the speaker’s father talked about jazz, saying that sometimes music can come from anger and suffering. By June, the speaker reveals, the other boy would be locked up in a prison or juvenile detention center somewhere upstate.

That night, the speaker and his father kneel down together to pray in the speaker’s room. His father gives a new ending to a familiar prayer. “If I should die before I wake,” he says, “it will be too soon.

The second part of the poem is set ten years later, in 1991. The lines are shorter and the images more abstract, becoming increasingly disorienting as the poem progresses. The speaker goes, with one or more companions, into a “tented city.” They are weakened, lost, and “cooler than heartache.” There is a sense of detachment and disjunction about them, so much so that the speaker describes his left hand as “severed,” “schooled,” and clever in a way that the rest of his body is not.

The speaker gives an idea of life in the tented city through a series of impressions: a plate of cooked food, the dimness of the light, the chanting of songs late at night. These impressions become more disjointed and move from the visual, a light “straightened” by its own shadow, to the auditory, an outcry that excites the throat, through a mixture of the two, a “blue note.”

In the last few lines of the poem, music and dance take over. The people in the tented city are transported; feeling as though God has licked them, and their blood itself has turned to jazz, they “swing from June to June.” Then this frenetic energy suddenly comes crashing down. They find that they have been sweating only to stop themselves from weeping. They have been so hungry that hunger has become their everyday diet. The last words, “we end too soon,” apply to their frenetic music-making and, it is implied, also to their lives.

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