“We Real Cool” and the Golden Shovel

Gwendolyn Brooks’ iconic poem, “We Real Cool,” has resonated with readers since its publication in 1960. See how Terrance Hayes transformed it.

Gwendolyn Brooks’ iconic poem, “We Real Cool,” has resonated with readers since its publication in 1960. Its raw, succinct portrayal of young lives hanging on the edge of societal norms is as relevant today as it was then. In recent years, this powerful piece has found a new life in the form of the Golden Shovel, a modern poetic structure that honors Brooks’ legacy while adding a contemporary twist. Let’s first take a look at the poem “We Real Cool” to see how it is transformed in the Golden Shovel form.

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.

“We Real Cool,” at first glance, seems simple, featuring short, fragmented lines that echo the rhythm of a billiard game – a game the young protagonists abandon for their reckless lifestyle. Brooks’ poem delves into the lives of seven pool players, capturing their bravado and defiance. The poem is renowned for its innovative use of enjambment and repetition, creating a sense of urgency and disconnection. Brooks leaves her readers with a haunting reflection on the consequences of the choices made by these young individuals.

The Golden Shovel

Enter the Golden Shovel, a poetic form invented by Terrance Hayes. This form takes a line, or lines, from an existing poem and uses each word in that line as the final word of each line in the new poem. In the context of “We Real Cool,” a poet could use Brooks’ entire poem as the source text, constructing a new poem where each word of Brooks’ original piece becomes the final word in each line of the Golden Shovel poem. This technique allows contemporary poets to pay homage to Brooks’ work while adding their own voice and perspective to the conversation. Here is the first stanza of the Terrance Hayes poem as an example.

I. 1981

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we

drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school

I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk

of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we

watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight

Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing

his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We

watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.

He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,

how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we

got down on our knees in my room. If I should die
before I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.

The Intersection

Notice how the last word of each Terrance Hayes line is a word from “We Real Cool” and when put together, the poem is recreated in its entirety. The intersection of “We Real Cool” and the Golden Shovel form creates a unique blend of classic and contemporary poetry. It’s a poetic dialogue across generations, a way for new voices to echo the sentiments of a literary giant while infusing the words with their own emotions and experiences. This fusion offers a fresh lens through which to view Brooks’ timeless poem, highlighting its enduring relevance while showcasing the evolution of poetic expression. In this fusion, the words of “We Real Cool” stretch and transform, finding new meanings and resonances in the context of modern challenges and triumphs.

The Golden Shovel form, inspired by Brooks’ work, not only pays tribute to her genius but also enriches the poetic landscape, encouraging poets to engage with the classics in innovative ways. Through this intersection, “We Real Cool” continues to inspire and provoke, reminding us that poetry is a living, breathing art form, capable of bridging the past and the present in profound and unexpected ways.

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Sam and Corey started Poetry is Pretentious to demystify poetry. More importantly, their 5th grade teacher told them they couldn’t go through life as a team. 18 years later they’re here to prove her wrong.


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