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Gwendolyn Brooks & a Poetry of Collective Self

One of the best-known poems in the first-person plural is probably “We Real Cool,” by Gwendolyn Brooks, which first appeared in Poetry in September 1959, and was then published in her 1960 collection The Bean Eaters. From junior high students to established literary scholars, readers of poetry have had to grapple again and again with the questions of “we” that this poem raises. In such a spare poem, so much hinges and turns on that pronoun, as Brooks’s dissonant enjambment after each repetition wrenches predicate from subject, action or description from selfhood. This rhythmic decision renders the ironic turn all the more heartbreaking in the poem’s final line, and it orchestrates our consideration of each sentence’s (and the poem’s) subject–the speakers as “We.” More often than not, my students read the “we” aloud emphatically–an interpretive decision that emphasizes a perceived collective bravado. In a 1970 Contemporary Literature interview with the author, however, Brooks herself said:

The “We”—you’re supposed to stop after the “We” and think about their validity, and of course there’s no way for you to tell whether it should be said softly or not, I suppose, but I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty, which they don’t bother to question every day, of course.

Again, in 1972, Brooks reiterated:

The WEs in “We Real Cool” are tiny, wispy, weakly argumentative “Kilroy-is-here” announcements.  The boys have no accented sense of themselves, yet they are aware of a semi-defined personal importance.  Say the “We” softly.

Brooks, Gwendolyn.  Report from Part One.  Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.

I haven’t quite figured out why this last imperative moves me so much, but I know that I sometimes whisper to myself, “Say the ‘We’ softly.” What does it means to have an “accented sense” of self? What might instill that sense, and how do these questions echo through our current conversations about privilege?

When I think about form as an enactment of content, I often think of this question of the accented or unaccented “we.” At this point in a discussion, my students who read each “We” as a bold declaration sometimes get impatient: If the author’s intentions are so different from my interpretation, how can I understand form or content? I have had students say that they wish I hadn’t told them about Brooks’s intentions. “We” is a vital, uncomfortable, uncertain entity–and not just in poetry, of course. Brooks’s poem creates a world (a world that is not just “like” our world, but is our world), and lets us into that world to meet ourselves and others. How we stress the pronoun, how we perceive the author’s tone, how we perceive the speakers’ tone, whether or not we see ourselves as speaking as the “We” or listening to the “We”–all of these questions can tell us as much about ourselves as about the poem. And the poem tells us so much already.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that in Philip Metres and Mark Nowak’s 2010 “Poetry as Social Practice in the First Person Plural: A Dialogue on Documentary Poetics” in the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, Nowak asks Metres:

What sort of genealogy can you trace for your own poetic labors—both in terms of precedent poets and other language workers (who are not self-consciously “poets”)? Was there an epiphanic moment, where you saw it as possible and productive to officiate the marriage of poetry and labor history?

And Metres responds:

If an epiphany can emerge slowly, say over the course of 44 years and counting, then yes, absolutely. The very first thing I consciously wrote as a poem . . . was an homage of sorts inspired by the person who was then, and in many ways still is, my favorite poet: Gwendolyn Brooks.

While I hear Brooks read in my head and on the page all the time, I heard Brooks read aloud in person only once. I had just turned 19 years old a month before I heard her read on October 4th, 2000, in Wright Hall Auditorium on the campus of Smith College, through the Poetry Center at Smith College reading series. Brooks, who was eighty three years old, stayed long after her reading to sign books and talk with the crowd that had formed a long line in the auditorium. In my copy of Blacks, she wrote, “May the New Century SING to you!” (emphasis hers).

Brooks died less than two months later, on December 2nd, 2000.

In an internal rhyme of my private mind, Brooks’s inscription in my most prized volume (“SING”) sometimes echoes off of the final word (“Spring”) of another great and necessary poem of hers–“To the Young Who Want to Die.” This is another poem of youth and mortality; in this poem, the collective is not the one speaking, but a potential collective “You” to which the poem is addressed: “Graves grow no green that you can use. / Remember, green’s your color. You are Spring.”

When I went searching for an online link to “To the Young Who Want to Die,” I found it (again, I don’t think coincidentally) not on a literary site, but in a 2010 post on a blog about “Prison Culture” and the how the Prison Industrial Complex “structures our world.”

The 21st century sings, indeed–and much of it, dirges. But the music and meaning of Brooks’s poetry, and the poetry of those influenced by her words and work, keeps singing too:

Stay here–through pout or pain or peskyness.

Stay here: See what the news is going to be tomorrow.