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NaPoWriMo Poetry Prompt 21: The Golden Shovel

Sarah and Jeff Boyle

Difficulty Level 5/5

Today’s challenge comes to us courtesy the elastic and experimental brain of Terrance Hayes. Our hometown boy—he’s a professor at Pitt—Hayes is a formalist. Usually, when you hear someone’s a formalist, you expect some flowery old sonnets like those of Elizabeth Barrett Browning or the dry iambic perfection of Robert Frost. The formalist has a reputation as a bore. But not Hayes—he breezes by the classic forms (though goodness knows he can write those, too) and makes up his own forms. Today we’re looking at one of those forms: the Golden Shovel.

Some background first. The name “Golden Shovel” comes from a very famous Gwendolyn Brooks poem:

We Real Cool
      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
Die soon.

(Click here to hear Brooks read this poem aloud—really, seriously, click through. No one reads poetry aloud the way Gwendolyn Brooks does.)

Terrance Hayes, to pay tribute to the great Gwendolyn Brooks,  turned every word in “We Real Cool” into an end word in his poem “The Golden Shovel.” Say what? Basically, if you read the last word in every line of the  “The Golden Shovel,” what you’re reading is “We Real Cool.” Here, look at the first few lines. We’ve bolded the end words so they stick out:

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we


drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school

See how he did that? Also notice that sometimes those words come in the beginning, middle, or end of a clause or sentence. The words that make up “We Real Cool” are what we will call the “seed” for “The Golden Shovel.”

Now that you know what you’re looking for, check out the whole poem. (NB: Terrance Hayes actually wrote a double golden shovel here, using the seed poem once in part I and again in part II. In “II. 1991” you’ll notice that sometimes he uses the words from “We Real Cool” as a smaller part of a bigger word, hyphenating the word across the line in order to keep the pattern of end words. In the first line, “we” becomes a part of “we-/akened.” Don’t feel pressured to do this yourself, but we will bow down before you if you do.)

The Golden Shovel
After Gwendolyn Brooks

I. 1981

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we

drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school

I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk

of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we

watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight

Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing

his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We

watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.

He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,

how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we

got down on our knees in my room. If I should die
before I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.

II. 1991

Into the tented city we go, we-
akened by the fire’s ethereal

afterglow. Born lost and cool-
er than heartache. What we

know is what we know. The left
hand severed and school-

ed by cleverness. A plate of we-
ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-

ing in the afterglow. A late-
night chant. Into the city we

go. Close your eyes and strike
a blow. Light can be straight-

ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-

ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat. We

push until we thin, thin-
king we won’t creep back again.

While God licks his kin, we
sing until our blood is jazz,

we swing from June to June.
We sweat to keep from we-

eping. Groomed on a die-
t of hunger, we end too soon.

(Poem from Lighthead and reprinted here courtesy of the author.)

So, how do you write your own golden shovel? First, pick a seed. This can be a sentence or a few sentences or just a phrase. Find something between 10 and 25 words long—however many words long your seed is, that’s how many lines long your poem will be. You can make up your seed, find it in the newspaper or in another poem, lift it from a friend’s tweet—it doesn’t matter. Just make sure you credit your source if you borrowed it from someone else. Then list those words down the right margin of a piece of paper. Write your poem, integrating your end words into your sentences as you go.

When you’re finished, give your poem a title. And directly under the title, write your seed sentence in quotation marks (again,  include a credit to the original writer if you didn’t write the seed yourself). Send us your poems at flashbangwriting@gmail.com


Join us in person in Pittsburgh on April 26th at the East End Book Exchange for the Poem-A-Thon Write-In and Reading. We will be writing poems for donations on our old typewriters at 3pm, and at 4pm you are welcome to read your poem(s) as part of the Poem-A-Thon celebratory reading.