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We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks

Categories: We Real Cool

The Poem

We real cool.
We Left school.
We Lurk late.
We Strike straight.
We Sing sin.
We Thin gin.
We Jazz June.
We Die soon.


This poem was written in 1959, which was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. In the case of Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to segregate schools; however, desegregation was slow and many African Americans became frustrated. Segregation caused more than just separation, it caused many youths to question their roles in society.

Many youths gave up on the idea of having a future, because they were told that they had no future; so why try. The boys in the poem seem to be struggling with identity.

This poem is only eight lines long, so you probably don’t need a summary. What isn’t included in the text of the poem, however, is a bit of background framing the lines we read. The poem lists off the thoughts of some young guys playing pool at a pool house called “The Golden Shovel,” that seems pretty straightforward.

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But it’s actually more complicated than that. In fact, the lines we read are what an outside observer thinks these boys might be feeling. So this observer, our speaker, thinks the boys might have dropped out of school, be drinking gin, staying out late at night, enjoying jazz, and will have short lives. How do we know all of this background information? From Gwendolyn Brooks, of course.

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You can listen to Brooks talk about “We Real Cool” (and listen to her read the poem, too)

We Real Cool Theme of Identity
The word “We” is repeated eight times in this eight-line poem as a signal that the boys have a group identity. The boys want to be defined by their rebellious actions, which place them at odds with polite society.

We Real Cool Theme of Pride

The young pool players seem to take pride in their aimless behavior, and critics have debated whether they may also take pride in the prophecy they will “die soon.” They live in a culture where even the most talented people find that economic and social opportunities are scarce. Dying early could seem like a badge of honor. On the other hand, the last line could be read as evidence of the speaker’s disapproval as she tries to pop the boys’ inflated sense of pride like a balloon.

We Real Cool Theme of Mortality

We never learn why the speaker thinks the young pool players will “die soon,” though it might have something to do with their enjoyment of sin, rum, and (perhaps) gambling. The speaker could also be thinking that the boys are living to the fullest, as though they might die tomorrow. Additionally, this moment could point to the boys’ fears, and the struggles and violence that they might encounter in their young lives. We Real Cool Theme of Language and Communication

This poem is so full of music that we can easily imagine pool players reciting it while wearing sunglasses and snapping their fingers under soft, blue lighting. It’s jazz…in a poem. The seductive rhythm and the use of alliteration and internal rhyme might cause us to feel more sympathetic toward the pool players. The poem also leads us to ask whether their portrayal is meant to be satirical, or whether the pool players might be trying to trick us into celebrating their lifestyle.

  • We Real Cool Analysis
  • We Real Cool: Rhyme, Form & Meter
  • We’ll show you the poem’s blueprints, and we’ll listen for the music behind the words.

Couplets with Internal Rhyme

Apart from its subtitle (“THE POOL PLAYERS/SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL”), “We Real Cool” has four stanzas, each of which is a two-line couplet. Every word in the poem has only one syllable.

While many traditional couplets in poetry have a rhyme at the end of the line, this poem takes rhyming to a new level: the couplets rhyme in the middle. Thus, “cool/school” in the first stanza, and “late/straight” in the second. But the pause after each rhyme word effectively makes itsound like the end of the line. It’s almost as if each line ends on a rhyme word, and “We” is tacked on as a grace note. (In musical terminology, a grace note is a short note that gets squeezed in before a beat.)

The poem has a regular meter, with three beats and a pause, but these three beats can be pronounced in different ways. You could say, “We real cool,” or “We real cool,” or “We real cool,” or, even, “We real cool.” In the recording we listened to (hear it on, Brooks lay the most emphasis on the second two beats: “We strike straight.”

Speaker Point of View

Who is the speaker, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can we trust her or him? Perhaps we’d better let Brooks speak for herself here:
“I wrote [‘We Real Cool’] because I was passing by a pool hall in my community one afternoon during school time, and I saw, therein, a little bunch of boys – I say here in this poem, seven – and they were shooting pool. But instead of asking myself, ‘Why aren’t they in school?’ I asked myself, ‘I wonder how they feel about themselves?’ And just perhaps they might have considered themselves contemptuous of the establishment . . .” (source).

The speaker is trying to imagine what the boys think of their own lives. She is concerned with the community, but unlike some critics, we don’t think her tone is harsh or judgmental. Rather, we think she’s curious and wants to get inside the heads of these kids. Maybe she even thinks the boys have good reason to be contemptuous of the powers that be.

But what about those boys? What are their lives really like, apart from the momentary glimpse that we get through the door of “The Golden Shovel”? After all, they are speakers, too, or at least they are spoken for.

We Real Cool Setting

Where It All Goes Down

A Pool Hall in the South Side of Chicago, the late 1950s
Brooks once said that she was thinking of a certain pool hall in her hometown of Chicago when she wrote this poem (source). As we read and hear “We Real Cool,” our imaginations are set on fire. We close our eyes and, suddenly, we are in a neighborhood of bungalows and old, brick buildings. At the corner of the street stands “The Golden Shovel.” It’s hot outside and cool inside the pool hall. In the dimly lit building, we see several billiard tables. There’s a bar in the back serving cheap gin, and an old-style radio plays scratchy jazz in the corner. Seven young guys are gathered around a couple of the tables. Two of them have made a bet on one of the games, and the money is down on the table, ready to be claimed by the winner. They’re competitive with one another, but they also spend most of their time together, hanging out as a group. A person walks by, and they stare at her vacantly until she passes.

What’s Up With the Title?

The title of this poem is the same as the first line. It lets us know that the speaker will be imitating the voice of a group of young men in Chicago. The title’s musical qualities make it particularly expressive. The vowel sounds go from high to low, like walking down three steps. “We” – high. “Real” – middle. “Cool” – low. You might also put a heavy emphasis on the word “real”: “We reeaaal cool.” After reading this poem, you might find yourself repeating the title over and over again, fiddling with different ways to say it. The poem also has a subtitle, which you can read about in our “Line-By-Line” walk though.

Sound Check

Read this poem aloud. What do you hear?

Before reading this section, you’ve got to listen to Brooks reading the poem herself, which you can do at

Is it different from how you imagined it? We could sit and listen to her say, “Seven at the Golden Shovel” all day long. Her voice produces deep vibrations like a low saxophone. It may be obvious to say, but there’s no avoiding it: “We Real Cool” reads like the lyrics of a jazz tune. Brooks has even provided musical instructions to how it should be read, with the low, quiet, uncertain “We.”

When you listen to the recording, the most obvious musical element is syncopation, or the uneven distribution of the rhythm. That’s why it’s so hard to talk about meter with this poem. A meter implies a regular rhythm, and, on the page, “We Real Cool” seems pretty regular, with three beats followed by a pause. But the arrangement of the words lends itself to wild swings of improvisation.

Listen to how Brooks pronounces “strike straight,” by laying into the first word and backing off the second slightly. She literally “strikes” at the first word like a fist coming down on a piano. If you were reading the poem, you might be inclined to give both words the same amount of emphasis, but Brooks lengthens the first beat just a tad: that’s syncopation. Also, when she says, “Thin gin,” it sounds like a bunch of people shouting and clanking their glasses so hard they’re about the fall off their bar stools: “Thiinnnnn Ginnnn!”

To some readers, “We real cool,” may sound like an ironic whisper saying, “No, you’re not. Stay in school!” But if you read it aloud like Brooks does, the irresistible pull of the rhythm can also lead us to sympathize with and relate to the boys.

Gwendolyn Brooks’s Calling Card

What is the poet’s signature style?

Portraits of the Urban Poor
Brooks’s poetry draws heavily on her native Chicago. It focuses attention on poor, simple city dwellers. In another one of her poems, “The Bean Eaters,” for example, describes a couple living in a rented room, and they can only afford to eat beans for dinner. “We Real Cool” describes urban youths, and for the most part, her tone is neither angry nor judgmental. She describes the way things are using straightforward, matter-of-fact language, and allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.


We’ve got your back. With the Tough-O-Meter, you’ll know whether to bring extra layers or Swiss army knives as you summit the literary mountain. (10 = Toughest) (2) Sea Level
“We Real Cool” is written in everyday language, and it achieves its effect primarily through its glittering, jazzy tone. There are ambiguities and questions, like exactly what “Jazz June” means, but to hear the poem is to understand it.

We Real Cool Trivia

Brain Snacks: Tasty Tidbits of Knowledge

Brooks was born in Kansas but raised in Chicago. Her father was a janitor; her mother, a schoolteacher. (Source) Brooks said of the popularity of “We Real Cool”: “Most young people know me only by that poem. I don’t mean that I dislike it, but I would prefer it if the textbook compilers and the anthologists would assume I had written a few other poems.” (Source) In 1968, Brooks succeeded Carl Sandburg, who coined the phrase “City of Big Shoulders” to describe Chicago, as poet laureate of Illinois. (Source) Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for her experimental long poemAnnie Allen. She was the first African-American woman to win the award. (Source) Brooks was awarded more than 70 honorary doctorate degrees. (The walls of her office must have been completely covered.)

We Real Cool Steaminess Rating

Exactly how steamy is this poem?


We wonder what these boys are doing until “late” at night, and we’re curious about exactly which “sins” (5) they are celebrating. But Brooks isn’t going to give us any more than clues and innuendo. You might be able to push this up to an “R” rating if you bought the interpretation that “jazz” (7) is a slang word for sex. Brooks has said this wasn’t what she meant, but that she doesn’t mind if people want to take it that way

We Real Cool Allusions & Cultural References

When poets refer to other great works, people, and events, it’s usually not accidental. Put on your super-sleuth hat and figure out why. Pop Culture
Jazz (line 7)

We Real Cool Symbolism, Imagery & Wordplay

Here’s more to a poem than meets the eye.


Symbol Analysis
Despite the implication that these young guys are up to no good and should have better things to do, the poem might remind you of your own mischievous youth and of bored summers you spent hanging out in video game arcades even when it was a beautiful day outside. Nonetheless, there is something ominous about these boys who “lurk” and “strike.” Subtitle: The word “golden” is symbolic of summer, youth, and daytime. This is an ironic name for the pool hall, because the aimless lives of the pool players seem anything but golden. Line 7: Brooks has said that the month of June is “fragrant” and “non-controversial.” It represents polite society and authority figures. The boys rebel against June by “jazzing” it up.


Symbol Analysis

Chicago is the world capitol of the blues, and the city also played a major role in the rise of jazz as an art form. This poem has jazz themes and rhythms in its very bones. Its frequent use of alliteration has a percussive effect, like crashing symbols or the twang of a double bass. The pool players seem to know something about the deep jazz culture. Line 5: This poem has a lot of alliteration, and “sing sin” is one example. Line 7: “Jazz June.” You guessed it: alliteration.

Pool Players

Symbol Analysis

Brooks has said she was intrigued by the mix of rebelliousness and insecurity she perceived in the boys she saw playing pool. They want to be noticed, but they also want to seem like they don’t give a darn either way. The repeated use of the word “We” reinforces their group identity, which could be interpreted as solidarity in the face of great social obstacles. Subtitle: “POOL PLAYERS” is the first example of alliteration in the poem. Lines 1-7: The word “We” is repeated at the end of these lines to create enjambment, or a part of a sentence that carries over the line break. Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool” sums up the reality that many youths faced if they chose to leave school. This poem was written in 1959, which was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. In the case of Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to segregate schools; however, desegregation was slow and many African Americans became frustrated. Segregation caused more than just separation, it caused many youths to question their roles in society; if you are told enough times that you don’t belong, that you are different (in a bad way), or that you are less than others, then you will eventually start to believe it. Many youths gave up on the idea of having a future, because they were told that they had no future; so why try. The boys in the poem seem to be struggling with identity.

The poem opens with the scene of seven boys at a pool hall named the Golden Shovel. Seven is a number that is typically associated with being lucky. The seven pool players can also be seen to represent a small gang, and they need luck on their side, in order to survive their various financial and risky endeavors. The name of the pool hall, the Golden Shovel, signifies the short life expectancy of those who choose a life of crime over education. The golden part of the title implies that these pool players are young; they should be in school instead of in a pool hall. The shovel is an image that is commonly associated with graves. Therefore, the significance of the name of the pool hall is that the pool players who hang out there are digging their own graves by conducting illegal business. The pool players have an air of mystery around them that makes them seem cool. They seem exciting, because they aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing; they aren’t playing it safe. In the second stanza, the narrator, who appears to be one of the pool players, says that they are cool because they left school. They are sabotaging themselves by not going to school and living up to their potential. These boys are in fact not cool. The monosyllabic diction of the poem promotes the idea that these boys are uneducated. Brooks has said that “the WEs in “We Real Cool” are tiny, wispy, weakly argumentative “Kilroy-is-here” announcements

Cite this page

We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks. (2016, Mar 09). Retrieved from

We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks

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