We Real Cool Summary
“We Real Cool” is a 1959 poem by Gwendolyn Brooks about a group of young pool players who collectively describe their lives and habits.
- The first two lines establish the subject matter and setting. Seven pool players have gathered in a bar called the Golden Shovel.
- The poem shifts into the shared voice of the pool players. In short lines, they talk about leaving school, playing pool, drinking gin, and other activities.
- The poem ends abruptly and ambiguously when the players say that they “Die soon.”
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
“We Real Cool” was written by Gwendolyn Brooks in 1959 and centers on the inner thoughts of a group of youths playing pool at “The Golden Shovel”. Inspired by a walk that Brooks took through the streets of Chicago, the poem was included in her third collection, The Bean Eaters (1960.) Passing by a group of boys who were playing pool when they should have been at school, Brooks had an idea:
instead of asking myself, why aren’t they in school, I asked myself, I wonder how they feel about themselves?
Brooks was the first Black American to win the Pulitzer Prize (1950) and served as the United States Poet Laureate from 1985-6. “We Real Cool” is considered a foremost example of jazz poetry, with a distinctive rhythmic structure which inspired its own literary style, coined by Terrance Hayes as the “Golden Shovel” technique. Although the poem is short and comprises only ten lines, it is widely studied and has inspired many other artists due to its distinctive narrative voice and form.
“We Real Cool” begins with an subtitle of two lines that sets the scene of the poem. It mentions a group of seven playing pool at “the Golden Shovel,” presumably a tavern or bar. Brooks gives no detail of the members’ individual appearances or personalities, instead describing them simply as “The pool players.” These lines are short and factual, introducing the reader to the poem’s focus—the lives of “the pool players” at “the Golden Shovel.” The lack of identifying features in the poem itself—such as race, age, or gender—means that everything the reader learns about the group comes from their inner thoughts and that Brooks leaves a great deal to the reader’s imagination.
The opening stanza shifts from the subtitle’s detached tone to an inward perspective that states inner thoughts as facts. Rather than viewing the action from the outside, the reader now accesses the experiences of the “pool players.” The group describe themselves as “real cool” and note that they “left school.” Though it is not clear whether they left school in the recent or more distant past, the use of school as a point of reference suggests that they are youths. They don’t care about education or how other people see them, and they seem confident in their choices. This confidence tone pervades the poem.
In the second stanza, the reader learns more about the group’s lifestyle; they “Lurk late,” staying out late at night, and “Strike straight,” a reference to being good at pool and having precise aim. Rather than following the established path, the group are free to ignore the conventions of work and school, and thus they live according to their own schedule. Their world consists of pleasure and enjoyment. They “Lurk late,” taking part in a social scene and culture outside of the establishment. The group are proud to be outside of this system.
The third stanza follows the same pattern. The pool players “Sing sin,” celebrating their rebellious lifestyle and outwardly expressing it. They are part of a scene which others see as sinful and given to immoral behaviour, something which they see as liberating rather than damaging. Although the “sin” is not specified, they also “Thin gin,” a reference to drinking alcohol and sharing it amongst them. Even though they are living a life which others see as devoid of morality, they have a sense of community and camaraderie through celebrating their rebellion together. Despite their suggested youth, the pool players are able to acquire limited amounts of alcohol and share it amongst themselves. They “Thin”—or dilute—it in...
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order to make the quantity they have last longer.
In the fourth and final stanza, the group says that they “Jazz June,” an ambiguous line which suggests that they live every day with the fun that jazz music and the month of June are associated with. They live as if it is summer every day, which connects to their lack of obligation to go to school or work. The word “jazz” once had connotations of premarital sex, but it also refers to excitement and spiritedness in a general sense.
Brooks ends the poem with a shift in tone, as the group shifts from celebrating life to stating “We / Die soon.” Their fun is abruptly ended, and they acknowledge that their way of living is not sustainable and may even be the cause of their eventual demise. It is not clear whether their rebellious actions directly lead to death; Brooks leaves it to the reader’s interpretation. Perhaps the pool players accept dying young as an inevitable consequence of their way of life.