I have a few poems that I think of often. They’re not triggers necessarily…just poems I came across in my younger days that now are part of a constant rotation of things that I reference or think about.
Gwendolyn Brook’s wrote “We Real Cool” in 1959, having won the Nobel Prize in Literature 9 years earlier. I read a small sample of her work for the first time either in high school or in college as part of the brick by brick foundational teachings of American Literature. I adored these foundational courses where students learned about theme, and plot and structure and using many authors as examples along the way.
I remember, when reading “We Real Cool” for the first time, thinking, this poem is so simple and tidy. That’s what I really liked about it, but the simple words and style also confused me: what necessarily makes this poem a great poem? As I got older and had the opportunity to take my first class on literary criticism, I discovered that my confusion about what qualifies as “good” or event “great” poetry was but one small voice within a heated discourse about poetry and what ingredients come together to make “good” or “great” poetry–many people have an opinion, and many believe theirs to be the definitive on what is or is not good poetry. Ah, I love literary criticism.
I refer to “We Real Cool”, humoring myself when I, as a response to this situation or that, say, “we real cool,” or, more fully, “we real cool, we skipped school.” I mean, it comes up where I need to respond to things with those phrases.
The simple composition of the poem is comparable to coming across a cute screen printed apron at a gift store, and you say, “I’m not going to buy that, I can make that myself.” You pass on the $40 apron a little incensed by the price, and yet, you never make that apron. Fast forward many years later, you actually do attempt to make a homemade screen printed apron for your sister for Christmas and your final product looks like crap. We all have the capacity to make a screen printed apron. And, sure, many people can make ones that look quite lovely. Yet, more often than not, our apron doesn’t possess the high-level of skill to create a final product that is so apologetically simple and tidy.
Now, I’m in the camp that people should write–the more we do it…well, the better we get. The old saying is true. What I love in particular is that writing unlocks a part of our brain that is creative and when that part of our brain is activated, the benefits in our every day life is literally endless, and I love that. I’m not trying to be all scientific about the whole thing, but it’s true.
I admit I often don’t know what makes good poetry good all the time. I love having conversations with friends about this topic, and sometimes I can present a pretty compelling argument. It’s kinda fun to wax intelligent, devil’s advocate, or brazen about why a particular poem or author is or is not amazing.
In the meantime, Ms. Brooks poem is special to me. So now you’ll know what I mean if you happen to get a text from me saying, “hey, what are you guys up to tonight? Do you want to play pool Gwendolyn Brooks style?” Here is Ms. Brooks reading “We Real Cool,” and then a second time read a bit over-dramatically by Morgan Freeman.