I encountered Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool” my first year of public school teaching. I assigned this incredibly simplistic poem to my ninth graders and they dutifully read it and we talked about it with a blase’ ennui that couldn’t shield our dismissal of a poem we didn’t care about.
Seven youths. In a pool hall. Playing pool while skipping school and proclaiming they are going to die young.
We extrapolated out meaning and social commentary. Or, rather, we didn’t because we saw nothing more than a string of words that didn’t really mean anything to us because, well, I didn’t care. I didn’t understand. I didn’t care to understand the poem. I was lazy because I was young or stupid or unaware and so ignorant it’s embarrassing to confess to this.
My next semester of ninth grade teaching begins in four days and I, once more, encountered “We Real Cool.” Last semester, I loved my students, but I didn’t allow myself to really love them. I held myself at bay, within a bubble-wrap-barbed-wire surround system that protected me from the educational dystopia that I thought I had created. But by the end of the semester, I realized that the dystopia didn’t exist, that I was tucked in a nebula in which I could swim from one beautiful star to another, each within their own web of prismic color.
As I considered my students, considered who they were and how I had seen them and how they have been seen by other teachers, the words of “We Real Cool” came back to me. The words came to me as I drove to the mountains, as I walked my dog, as I stood on my back deck at night and stared at the winter sky. I kept thinking of the simple line, “We real cool.”
I went online, found the poem on Poetry Foundationand touched the words once more.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
What was it this time that finally made me think? Was it the fact that the lines end with the subject? That the lines are rhythmically different? Was it the fact that I was older and less naive? Was it the years of experience and the literature that I consumed and the people who had taught me about life and identity?
I don’t know. But I sat in my black, office chair with my books in long, lovely lines behind me and read the lines of the poetry and felt something. The emotion that I’m trying to describe is fleeting, shy, hidden. It wasn’t curiosity or nostalgia. Not joy or sadness or frustration. Not even appreciation which feels superficial in comparison to the deep quiet that settled over my shoulders as I leaned forward and just felt the words.
I knew then as I saw once more today that I had to teach this poem. That I had to bring this to my students on their first day with me. This certainty was powerfully reinforced this afternoon when I was in my classroom and was looking for literary criticism and analysis on “We Real Cool.”
I knew what it was about…but I didn’t have a sense of understanding. I know this sounds weird. I understood the words…but I didn’t have a sense of the characters. I read several academic essays and found one fascinating point related to the actual fonts and printing of the piece. I was used to seeing the poem in a textbook, a serif, black font and a white page….formal. Distant. Voiceless.
But an academic writer described a “broadsides” printing of the piece and I found it on the Library of Congress website. A black background. White words in long strokes of inked un-color. Bold lines and I heard voice. I heard seven young people speaking to me.
The literary analyst talked about bourgeoisie reader being held in counterpoint to the poem’s characters. He wrote about the importance of the black ink on the white page versus the white letters scrawled on the black page.
I understand what he meant, but am a bit reluctant to fully accept this sense of reality, not after reading about how Gwendolyn Brooks was inspired by seven young men she saw in a pool hall when she was out walking. She wondered why they were there when the time of day suggested they should be in school. And, so, she wrote a poem about these individuals, giving them a story, a history, a world in which four stanzas, eight lines, and a series of simple words flummoxed me and swallowed me in my academic ennui.
I searched, once more, for literary analysis. And I found an NPR interview with Geraldine Brooks in which she read them poem.
Rarely do I take the opportunity to actually hear poets read their own words. I have been honored to have listened to Bob Okaji read his poetry to my students and I could have wept at the poetry in his voice. The night before I finished and submitted my master’s thesis on Anne Sexton’s poetry, I finally found a cassette tape with her voice on it and sat for an hour in my apartment and immersed myself in her smoker voice raspiness as she read “Her Kind.”
Today, I listened to Geraldine Brooks read “We Real Cool” and I saw my bougie self pale and humble and wither before her brilliance. Her voice, her tone, her mood and medium and tarot-eseque elongation of sounds, of pulling out long meaning from two letter words….oh, I was ensorcelled. I could never attempt to read the poem like this mistress of meaning. The word “We” was a hushed punctuation mark, a quick subject that she almost uttered in a flat cough, a quick exhalation. And then, the next two words…”real cool” or “left school” or “sing sin” or “thin gin” were long, jazzy, like Ella Fitzgerald scating. I heard a pride, a strength, a flagrant rebellion against the status-quo, against those who judged because they had no idea..
They had no sense of real perspective.
In four days, I will have taught “We Real Cool.” I will have brought out Geraldine Brooks’ elegaic voice that will swirl through the room. I will stand in front of my students and have them examine how presentation and voice and tone and mood and meaning and characterization can be found in eight simple lines, in 24 single-syllabic words.
I will remind my students that perspective is momentary and can be changed and not to judge based on one moment’s worth of perspective. And I will cling to those words, to that voice. I will remember to let my perspective slide and shift and then see the growing stars in a horseshoe nebula.