Gwendolyn Brooks’ Message In We Real Cool

Throughout one’s life, he or she may find themselves to be spending time with the wrong crowd. Fortunately, most intelligent men and women will be able to stray from such irresponsible and juvenile groups and lead successful lives. However, what about the adults that never grew up? The unfortunate fact of the matter is that there are hundreds of thousands of people who have wasted their days away while their life falls apart. In Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, We Real Cool, she is able to tell of a group of people who have made a series of poor decisions, ultimately leading to their premature deaths.

Gwendolyn Brooks, an African-American Poet born on June 7, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas, is an accomplished poet whose works usually detailed the struggles and triumphs of people that lived in her community. At six weeks old, Gwendolyn’s family moved to Chicago; as a child growing up in Chicago during the Great Depression, it is likely that the bleak and hopeless environment Brooks’ grew up in may have influenced some of her poems such as We Real Cool, a poem about a group of unemployed boys who die sooner than expected.

In the poem, Gwendolyn tells of kids who dropped out of school, stay out late, drink frequently, and “Die soon.” At a surface level, Brooks’ effectively tells a ballad in four short stanzas. These childish men are perfect examples of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” As the title suggests, these young men believe that they are being cool, they have made the decision to submit to the challenges of life and run away from them. They have chosen to go on the easier road, following their peers into a life that is even inferior to mediocrity.

Delving deeper, this poem reveals itself to being about living life in the fast lane and its consequences. Perhaps the poem isn’t just a story, but also a lesson about the consequences of ignoring one’s responsibilities as a maturing adult. Although there are slight differences in plot, one may notice themes in this poem to be similar to those in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, a story that had its popular movie released only a few years before We Real Cool was published. As the classic Neverland characters’ entire lives are spent outrunning adulthood; Gwendolyn shows us that the real world does not work in the same way; these young men in her story are Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, but unfortunately they are far from immortal and will have to face the consequences of their prolonged childhood.

One of the most interesting aspects of We Real Cool is Gwendolyn Brooks’ use of literary devices and the strategies she orchestrated when using them. In each stanza of the poem, every word is connected. In the first line, the repetition of a long “e” sound is a technique called assonance; furthermore, Brooks repeats the “l” sound in “real” and “cool,” using another technique called consonance. Moving on to line two, Gwendolyn connects “left” and “school” with the “l” sound they both share in a literary device called slant rhyme. In line two, the “l” sound is used yet again in alliteration with the word “lurk” and “late” from line three; alliteration is also used in line four with the words “strike” and “straight” in lines five and six with “sin” and “Thin” and the “j” sound in the word “gin” is repeated in the words “Jazz” and “June.” “June” also forms a basic rhyme with the word “soon” on line eight.

A reader might be wondering at this point what it matters that rhyming is used in the poem. However, there is one word in the entire poem that does not correlate to any other word; that word being “die.” This word is completely independent from all other words in the poem; perhaps this is symbolic of how death is an unexpected and foreign event in the lives of Brooks’ characters, as it is to the words in the rest of the poem describing a carefree lifestyle.

In summary, poet Gwendolyn Brooks uses her literary skill to tell a story of a group of young men frantically running from their oncoming adult lives, eventually finding themselves to be living so recklessly that they meet their demise early. Gwendolyn uses this ballad to teach her readers that although you can escape the burdens of responsibility, you may never outrun your own mortality.

As the poem already uses a real example to convey its theme, the real-world applications of Brooks’ lesson is relatively easy to see. For example, it is safe to say that everyone in the world has a dream or goal in life; unfortunately, many people daydream of the happiness and wealth their dream could give them, but never take on the hardships and responsibilities required to achieve what they want. The people who only ever dream are much like the poem’s characters, procrastinators who will die with few accomplishments in their lives. However, if they spent their time working hard, holding their responsibilities as a priority in life, their dreams are very likely to become reality. 

16 August 2021
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