Gary Lehmann - Author

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Friday, September 15, 2006

Gwendolyn Brooks and Point of View

Most poets write from their own point of view. Write what you know is the old adage, which most poets follow religiously, but sometimes it works best to locate the presumed narrator of your poem in a voice other than your own. Take Gwendolyn Brook’s poem We Real Cool.

We Real Cool
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.

Aside from the unusual use of the third person plural pronoun at the end of most lines, the internal rhyme scheme, and the use of capital letters to emphasize the verbs, the reader is struck by the sense that this is not the voice of a traditional female poet. The poem takes on the voice of the collective consciousness of the gang members themselves. This voice is conspicuously male in tone and form. This is how we see ourselves. Here is what gives us street cred. The poem is a kind of street gang’s credo.

The last line of this poem draws you up tight. For most people this would be a chilling realization. At first, it seems like it is inadvertent, even an unguarded revelation, but I think that both the poet and her hooligan narrator realize that the threat of death in the streets is an ever-present part of what makes life on the streets worthwhile. It’s what gives that life vitality.

Vitality. That is not only what holds the poem together, it is why the poem needs to be told from the point of view of the subject. Gwendolyn Brooks was not pushing for this lifestyle. She is merely reflecting what has come to her attention as a form of life she saw all around her. Gwendolyn Brooks was no street thug.

She was a mild-mannered writer and editor, born in Topeka Kansas in 1917, but brought up on the streets of Chicago. She published 21 books of poetry, 5 books of prose, and 1 novel during her long lifetime. She spent her life behind a desk, not in a pool hall, but still, she witnessed the destructive nature of the street gangs for herself. She knew the street even if she wasn’t a direct part of its life. To write a poem about this life would have been a natural enough desire, but to try to tell that story from her own point of view would have involved layering too many masks over each other. The poem would have gotten very confusing.

And what would the poet’s point of view have added to the poem anyway?

The power of this poem comes from its direct and honest revelation of belief. The gang is speaking. Here is what we are. Take it or leave it. This is how we live, and die. In an interview with George Stavros, Brooks confessed that those boys “have no pretensions to any glamor [sic]. They are supposedly dropouts, or at least they're in the poolroom when they should possibly be in school, since they're probably young enough, or at least those I saw were when I looked in a poolroom.”

The poet is a voyeur in the life of the street thug’s gang life. She had no standing to speak for them in her own voice, and so she naturally takes on the only voice that works, the voice of the gang itself.

As Gary Smith has said, “Brooks's attitude toward the players remains ambivalent. To be sure, she dramatizes the tragic pathos in their lives, but she also stresses their existential freedom in the poem's . . . meter, the epigraph that frames the poem, and the players' self-conscious word play. . . .” Sometimes it is best to do what the poem dictates and ignore the well-worn poetic adages that limit and confine too much modern poetry.

Maybe it should be Write what you feel, not Write what you know.

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