24 Words: “We Real Cool”

Gwendolyn Brooks herself really wished we’d all think about reading her other poems and give this one a minute of rest. But the reason this poem changed me involves multiple layers of experience, so there’s a bit of a different spin here that I hope would give me a pass to bring it up yet again. “We Real Cool” is so short that I’ll just pop it in right here:

We Real Cool

by Gwendolyn Brooks

The Pool Players.
        Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

I loved and appreciated this poem for so many reasons: the simplicity of diction juxtaposed with the complexity of theme, the universe created in 24 words (plus title and subtitle, so 35?), imagery, word choice, sound. But the sound is where this poem leapt into my list of transformative poems. Because maybe 20 years after first reading the poem, I finally heard a recording of Brooks herself reading it.

I get that a poet doesn’t get to tell us how to read a poem once it’s out there, but hearing her pauses, her accelerations and emphases, I thought about how many universes could be held by the same short poem. She took breaths where I didn’t expect from all I’d learned about enjambment, and the poem became something other than what I’d thought it was in intangible and magical ways. My reading was not wrong, and her reading doesn’t exist in conflict with it. Authors are not ultimately authoritative once their poems are out there. Knowing these things is like seeing a luminous thread spinning around me that goes in endless directions.

I need to stop and ask myself: What kind of magic are we working with, as poets, when our words can be their own multiverse? I need these moments of wonder, of irrational transcendence, when I am overwhelmed by the craft of poetry and its endless newness. A poem can be perfect, and then an entirely different and new perfect emerges. God, how lucky I am to have found my way to poetry.

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