The Relevance of Gwendolyn Brooks’ Poetry Today
"We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Die soon" (Brooks 1-4).
These are the opening lines of "We Real Cool", a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. They are simple words, yet they speak volumes about the lives of the speakers – young, African American men who have dropped out of school and now "lurk late", "strike straight", and "sing sin" in the jazz clubs of Chicago. As Brooks herself once said, her poems are "about what [she] see[s] going on around [her]" (qtd. in Bunkers and Elbow 2). And what she saw in the early 1940s was a group of young people – many of them her own students at the segregated Jefferson School – who were caught up in a cycle of poverty and violence, with little hope for a better future.
In this essay, I will first provide an overview of Gwendolyn Brooks’ life and works. I will then discuss her most famous poem, "We Real Cool", in more depth, looking at both its form and content. Finally, I will offer some thoughts on why Brooks’ poetry remains relevant today.
Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1917, but she was raised in Chicago’s South Side ghetto (Bunkers and Elbow 1). Her father was a janitor and her mother was a schoolteacher. From an early age, Brooks showed a talent for poetry, and she published her first poem when she was only thirteen years old (Bunkers and Elbow 1). After graduating from high school, she attended Wilson Junior College for two years before transferring to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia (Bunkers and Elbow 1).
Despite her success as a poet, Brooks did not immediately pursue a career in writing. Instead, she married Henry Blakely in 1939 and had two children with him (Bunkers and Elbow 1). It was not until 1949 that she published her first collection of poems, A Street in Bronzeville (Bunkers and Elbow 1). This book established Brooks as one of the leading voices of the African American community, and it earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 (Bunkers and Elbow 1).
Brooks continued to write throughout her life, publishing several more collections of poetry as well as a novel, Maud Martha (1953), and a children’s book, The Cat Who Wore a Pot for a Hat (1965) (Bunkers and Elbow 1). She also taught at several colleges and universities, including Columbia College, Northeastern Illinois University, and SUNY-Buffalo (Bunkers and Elbow 1). In 1968, she was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois (Bunkers and Elbow 1). Gwendolyn Brooks died in 2000 at the age of 83 (Bunkers and Elbow 1).
"We Real Cool" is perhaps Brooks’ most famous poem. It was first published in A Street in Bronzeville, and it quickly became a staple of anthologies and literature courses (Bunkers and Elbow 2). The poem is written in the voice of seven young African American men, who boast about their "cool" lifestyle of skipping school, staying out late, and drinking gin (Brooks 1-4). However, despite their bravado, there is a sense of emptiness and despair beneath the surface: "We real cool. We/ Left school. We/ Lurk late. We/ Strike straight. We/ Sing sin. We/ Thin gin. We/ Jazz June. We/ Die soon" (Brooks 1-4).
The poem is only nine lines long, but it packs a lot of punch. Brooks uses simple language to great effect, painting a vivid picture of the speaker’s lives with just a few well-chosen words. The poem is also notable for its use of repetition and parallelism, which gives it a musical quality (Bunkers and Elbow 2).
The content of "We Real Cool" is just as important as its form. In the poem, Brooks gives voice to a group of young people who are often ignored or misunderstood by society. By doing so, she helps to humanize them and to show that they are more than just statistics or stereotypes. In an interview, Brooks once said that she wrote the poem because she wanted to "forewarn the youngsters against certain pitfalls that were not very far in their future" (qtd. in Bunkers and Elbow 2). In other words, she wanted to show the real consequences of dropping out of school and living a life of crime.
Today, Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry is still widely read and studied. In particular, "We Real Cool" continues to resonate with readers, more than fifty years after it was first published. I believe this is due to two main factors. First, the poem’s simple language and powerful images make it accessible to everyone, regardless of their background or education level. Second, the poem’s themes of poverty, violence, and hopelessness are just as relevant today as they were when Brooks first wrote the poem. In a time when inner cities are still struggling with many of the same problems as they did in the 1940s, Brooks’ poetry remains an important reminder of the human cost of social inequality.
2. Gwendolyn Brooks: Life and Works
3. Gwendolyn Brooks: Her Literature