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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Pool is the game the speakers of the poem like to play together at the pool hall called the Golden Shovel. In the context of the poem, the game of pool is a symbol of socially deviant behavior. When the game of pool first emerged in the 1800s, it was a game played mainly by gentlemen in special game rooms at large estates. It was therefore associated with the wealthy classes and with social respectability. By the early to mid-twentieth century, however, pool had a more popular status, and people gathered to play the game in public houses that also served alcohol, allowed smoking, and played the latest music. Pool halls gained a reputation for various forms of deviance, including intoxication, gambling, loitering, sex, and even violence. The associations the public had with pool eventually grew negative enough to cause several US states to ban the game altogether. In “We Real Cool,” the speakers effectively confirm pool’s bad reputation by listing the many types of deviance they participate in at the hall where they play the game.
The Golden Shovel is the name of the hall where the speakers of the poem gather to play pool. It’s also the place where they engage in a “jazz” lifestyle consisting of alcohol, sex, and sin. In this sense, the Golden Shovel symbolizes social deviance. However, the pool hall is also related to death. “We Real Cool” directly links the pool players’ delinquent behavior to the likelihood of their dying young. Hence, the poem’s troubling final sentence: “We / Die soon” (lines 7–8). By contributing to the early deaths of the pool players, the pool hall reveals the deeper significance of its name. Put simply, the pool hall is the “shovel” that will eventually bury these young people. Furthermore, the shovel is “golden” because it idealizes an early death, making it seem “real cool.” In this sense, the Golden Shovel symbolizes the dangerous allure of a rebellious lifestyle that leads inescapably to premature death. Alternatively, we could interpret the golden shovel as symbolizing a psychological tendency among the pool players to bury their personal or familial troubles. Instead of dealing with the difficult issues in their lives, they bury them, distract themselves with the apparent fun of youthful delinquency.
The second line of the epigraph that precedes the poem reads as follows: “Seven at the Golden Shovel.” The reference to seven here seems to indicate the time in the evening when the pool players gather at the Golden Shovel. However, seven is also a highly symbolic number, particularly in the context of a poem that focuses on people who, as the speakers claim in line 5, “Sing sin.” The connection between the number seven and the concept of sin invokes the so-called “seven deadly sins” of Christian tradition. According to this tradition, there are seven cardinal sins that must be specially avoided: pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. The speakers of “We Real Cool” invoke many of these sins. For instance, the declarative nature of statements like “We real cool” suggest pride in their rebellion. Likewise, when they “Lurk late,” it suggests that they hang about loitering, which indicates sloth. They also invoke lust when they “Jazz June,” which could refer to sexual intercourse. And when they “Strike straight,” that could refer to shooting pool or to physical bouts of violence, in which case they are invoking wrath.