1. What do you notice about the line breaks in this poem? What effect do they have on you as you read the poem?
“We Real Cool” is a poem I think of as being eminently familiar, like a photograph I have seen many times and believe I know well. When looking at the familiar, however, there may be a moment when a previously unseen detail becomes unexpectedly apparent, turning the whole thing on its head and giving new depth and meaning. Such was my experience in listening to Gwendolyn Brooks recite the poem in her jazzy cadence, with her unique accent on the line breaks.
Reading the poem, the separation of the pronoun “we” from its sentence is a surprise on the printed page, an unexpected break in flow. What became new for me was the way “we” was read aloud. Brooks gives a sharp intake of breath, pronouncing the word in such a way that it almost loses meaning and instead becomes a percussive instrument. In my mind’s ear, I have always read this poem by stressing the pause alone, nearly skipping over the drum-like prominence of the word “we.” My version of the poem interpreted the repeating word and line breaks in a melodramatic tone, perhaps having more to do with my upper-middle-class-whiteness than with the true provenance of the piece.
Brooks’ reading opens up the poem for me, accentuating the egocentric stance of the seven boys. Their swaggering self-importance is palatable in her spoken emphasis and in the line breaks. As compared to my previous readings, Brooks gives the boys arrogance and bravado instead of the simple, one-dimensional tragedy I had read into the poem before.
2. Who is the speaker, do you think? Who is the "we"?
I understand the “speaker” to be the boys as a collective, rather than an individual. Even without Brooks’ explanation of how she happened to see these boys in a neighborhood pool hall, the voice is very clearly that of a group of “bad boys” who scorn society’s conventional mores. They reject formal education, gainful employment, and socially mandated virtues. Instead, these boys play loose and run wild. The voice is fatalistic, but there is a sense of overweening pride in their dangerous, probably short existence.
The “we” of the poem can also be seen as a class or cohort of people, specifically young adult or older adolescent males disenfranchised from mainstream America. The “we” can be read as a universal voice of this group, set apart, defiantly describing a hedonistic and fatalistic point of view.
3. How does the epigraph of the poem fit into your understanding of it?
As a preface to the poem, the epigraph serves to set up the characters and the specific location, although there is some ambiguity in the use of the number “seven,” used ostensibly to denote the number of boys in the scene. For my understanding, I view the number as a bit of irony, implying a gambling-related “Lucky Seven,” when it would appear that these boys are anything but lucky. They certainly appear to...