Gwendolyn Brooks, poet, 1917 to 2000.
I don’t remember the first time I read a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, either in grade school or high school. But the notion of what poetry is — or can be — has always been informed (at least for me) by the spareness, wit, grace, live-fast-and-die-young mentality of the subject and the gaze on that subject (through the use of a plural first person, no less) in what is perhaps Brooks’ most famous poem, “We Real Cool.” Here’s the poem:
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
From The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks, published by Harpers. © 1960 by Gwendolyn Brooks.
Brooks was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, in 1950 for the collection of poems “Annie Allen.” [I have since learned that she is the first African-American to win the Pulitzer, and not just the first African-American woman (thanks to Barbara Smith)]To hear Brooks’ speak about “We Real Cool” and read it (and lament that few people know her other poems), click on the link below.
The audio clip is from May 03, 1983; Guggenhiem Museum, from the Academy Audio Archive.
Here are some links:
- University of Minnesota
- Modern American Poetry
- Gale Group biography
- African American Literature Book Club
Is there a book, play or essay you think is a vital part of the African-American literary tradition, especially something that has touched you personally? E-mail your idea to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.