“We Real Cool” Illustrated #vizpoem

I love the pairing of Stevens’s “Emperor of Ice Cream” with this poem, since both of them have an ambiguous relationship with ephemerality (that which is disconcertingly fleeting). The speakers (We) are seven in number, if we take the epigraph to apply specifically to the poem’s situation; they’re at a fictional pool hall called “The Golden Shovel,” which if that is a pun for playing pool it’s a pretty bad one. On the one hand much of what the speakers claim about themselves is a running boast designed to establish their coolness. On the other hand, that coolness comes at a price. But you’d have to compare the speakers’ claims (and their tone of arrogant awesomeness) to the presentation created by the enjambment of each line and the rhyme scheme in order to have any chance of parsing whether that last line is ironic or not.

Hey, she said "Golden Shovel," not Golden Eagle.

Hey, she said “Golden Shovel,” not Golden Eagle.

In other words, who is this poem’s persona? At first glance, it might be seven pool players, who dropped out of school, lurk late outside of a pool hall, often get into fights therein, admire those who break the law (“sing sin”) but not to the point that they do not wish to be caught for their own misdeeds — this is how I read “thin gin,” which is to pour water into a gin decanter so that nobody realizes you stole some. But even if it were possible for the seven of them to speak in unison, is it likely that they would admit their unsavory qualities (in however intimate a setting), or more to the point, that they would have the self-awareness requisite to realize they’re on a one-way trip to imminent dissolution?

I say no. It’s more likely that the persona is implicit, the person who imagined their claims to coolness and then set them up for examination. To this person, perhaps watching the seven of them from across the street, it would be far more plausible to call their cool strutting “lurking,” which is diction that has overtones of menacing loitering. She (let’s call her she, because why not) would also be more likely to call their actions sins than they would (they would call each of them “cool”). On the other hand, she would also need to know enough about pool halls to know what goes on inside them, to be able to recognize the seven of them as a type that she can impute thoughts to, to be able to sympathize or at least be half-drawn to their coolness, which she would need to be in order to romanticize at least some of their actions as “jazz June,” which I admit is a really cool phrase.

To “jazz June,” I expect, is to play the summer like a jazz piano — improvisationally, with virtuosic but always different music pouring from it. No two jazz sessions ought to be the same, and the summer is the time to do it, since that’s when the year’s energy peaks. There’s an art to the seven pool players’ performance of cool, surely. But it is known first and foremost for its one-time-only appeal, that when jazz is good it’s good in part because everything has come together in that one moment to produce a combination of riffs and extended showcases of different instruments, and you can’t guarantee that confluence will ever happen again. So the persona couples the rhyming “Jazz June” and “die soon,” which is an identification of the peak energy of cool with the ephemerality of an unusually short life. In that sense, the tone of this last line can either be seriously supportive of coolness needing a short life in order to constitute coolness, or ironically deflating the “we”‘s pretensions to coolness which will cut them off in their primes. There’s the poem’s essential ambiguity.

The enjambment of each line draws this out even further — the evidence of cool comes first in each line, from the opening claim of the seven players to the last line predicting their untimely deaths. Each line ends with an enjambed (and therefore interrupted) “We” after a slight pause following each claim sentence’s period. Their actions are more important, as a testament of coolness, than themselves; they are after all a collective “we,” an interchangeable group of seven players. The last line, of course, has no enjambed “we” at the end, in part because they’ve died by that point. As we miss what had up to that point seemed almost superfluous when compared with their awesome coolness, we recognize that we’ve now lost the possibility for any sort of specific knowledge about them: the poem is more specific about the pool hall than the loitering players.


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