Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Perhaps to her dismay as a voluminous, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, Gwendolyn Brooks is best known for her short but far-reaching poem "We Real Cool." The poem's beauty, strength, and power are rooted in its effective use of line breaks. Brooks' strategic choice of line breaks affects virtually every aspect of the poem: its pace, rhythm, mood, tone, characters, sound, and meaning. In this lesson, students will closely analyze the poem's line breaks and the effect of enjambment on their reading and interpretation of the poem.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to
Introduce students to Gwendolyn Brooks by providing some details of her life and place in literary history, drawing from the following links available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poetry:
Emphasize to students that perhaps the most important first step in closely analyzing a poem is to hear and/or read the poem aloud. Ask for three different student volunteers to read "We Real Cool." Then show the video of John Ulrich discussing and reading "We Real Cool" as part of the EDSITEment-reviewed Library of Congress Favorite Poems Project. During these readings, ask students to pay particular attention to how the poem is read - what words are emphasized and how do the readers establish a rhythm for their reading?
If students read this poem at home before class discussion, consider handing out these questions, available in .pdf format, for students to complete at home. If students are encountering the poem in class, ask them to consider the following questions:
Next, play the audio clip of Gwendolyn Brooks reading her own poem "We Real Cool," from the EDSITEment-reviewed The Academy of American Poets website. In the video, Brooks offers her own commentary about the poem, and then she reads the poem itself. As students will hear, Brooks prefers to use a soft "we" when she reads the poem aloud. Specifically, she says,
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." (From critical essays from the EDSITEment-reviewed Modern American Poetry website.)
Ask students the following questions:
The beauty, strength, and power of this poem are rooted in the poem's effective use of line breaks and enjambment. Review with students the definition of enjambment at LitWeb, available online via the EDSITEment reviewed Academy of American Poets:
Perhaps the best way for students to understand the impact of the poem's line breaks is to reconfigure the poem and disrupt the use of enjambment. Ask students to rewrite the poem as in prose form, placing all "we" sentences on the same line. They should not use any stanzas but should instead write the poem in one "block" piece of prose, such as:
We real cool. We left school. We lurk late (etc.)
Note: these activities can be accomplished in a variety of ways, depending on class size and configuration. One student can transcribe the poem on the blackboard and the class can engage in one large conversation, or you might consider breaking students into groups for this activity. Likewise, if more than one computer is available, consider asking students to copy and paste the poem into a word processing program and using it to rearrange the stanzas and line breaks.
Ask for two student volunteers to read the new prose poem, and then ask students to discuss the following questions:
Now ask students to rewrite (retype, or rearrange) the poem on the board with each "we" sentence in its own line:
We real cool.
We left school … (etc.)
Read this version, and then ask students to analyze this rendition of the poem:
Finally, replay the audio clip of Brooks reading the poem. Discuss with students how Brooks' selected line breaks affect the poem's sound, pace, and meaning. Also call attention to the fact that Brooks uses 2-line stanzas. Wrap up this activity with the following questions:
Another way for students to understand the power and poetic effect of line breaks is to have them turn their own prose poems into poems that rely heavily of line breaks to convey meaning and move an audience. Divide the class into 4-5 small groups. Have each group work together to write a prose poem about a group of people that they associate with, such as members of an academic or athletic club, band members, and so on (students should write about themselves to hopefully avoid any tone of mocking another group of people).
After each group has "perfected" its prose poem, have each group turn the poem into a poem with 5, 2-3 line stanzas. Point out that students can rearrange the word order and change a word or two if necessary to create their final poem.
Have each student write a brief analysis of the difference between their group's prose poem and revised, 5-stanza poem. In the analysis, students should answer the following question: "How does your group's choice of line breaks affect the tone, pace, rhythm, and thematic impact of the poem?"
1 class periods