A Shed Full of Golden Shovels

Joshua Bennett

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 167.

What’s a shovel good for?

I’ve been asking a version of this question in classrooms across the country during the past few months, always as an opener, and the range of replies has been illuminating. In a high school outside Boca Raton, Florida, we get to the core of the matter rather quickly: A shovel, one student says, can be used to dig for stuff. “What kind of stuff?” I counter, and a constellation of objects fills the room. Treasure, another student says. Graves, offers another. A third hand rises from the back left corner of the class: You can dig a hole and plant a tree.

Back home in Boston, the array of options further expands. My students tell me that a shovel is a toy (think here of the kind that comes with a plastic pail and the promise of a day building sandcastles), a way to manage backyard leaves in autumn, and a weapon of self-defense. This last suggestion gives me pause, in no small part because it’s a perfect pivot to what we’re reading that day: Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.” It’s a poem I’ve been reciting for thirty years, but rarely with much emphasis on the larger context Brooks provides just beneath the title: “The Pool Players. Seven at The Golden Shovel.” Here, the shovel is not only an instrument; it’s a site of gathering. It’s a place where seven friends assemble—I hear my mother in the back of my mind saying “biblically, seven is the number of completion”—to play a game of angles.

I’ve been thinking more and more about this question of archaeology and archetype, exhuming the past and clearing space for the future, since listening (this time on a trip to New York City, again to talk with classrooms full of young poets) to a recent episode of Kamran Javadizadeh’s podcast, Close Readings. During the episode, Javadizadeh is in conversation with my colleague, Chris Spaide, about Gwendolyn Brooks’s timeless poem—perhaps the most anthologized poem in American history, Chris reminds us at one point in the exchange. They also discuss an especially luminous, contemporary extension of it, Terrance Hayes’s “The Golden Shovel.”

To begin, you should know that “The Golden Shovel” is a golden shovel. The form is named for the banner under which it first appeared. With a golden shovel, you bury an older poem in the ground of your own, and it branches out from there. The last word of each line spells out the poem that is its condition of possibility; the lines of that antecedent work guide yours to its conclusion.

This spring I’ve been building a shed full of golden shovels. While searching for poems that best fit the exercise, I’ve revisited a coterie of poets who have helped shape my voice over the years: A. R. Ammons, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, W. S. Merwin, Thylias Moss, Pedro Pietri, Stanley Plumly. In returning to their lines, I find new treasure every day. I discover new passageways in my voice, and travel in directions I could not have anticipated. I would recommend the practice to anyone, in any genre: Find a sequence of lines you love, and let it serve as the foundation for an entirely new composition.

At the level of content, both Brooks’s and Hayes’s poems emphasize mortality, the brutal speed of life itself. The golden shovel,though, cuts in multiple directions; both towards the grave and against it. It calls on us not only to reckon with the vulnerability of life on Earth, but to build what we can while we’re here. To cultivate, collaborate, and look after one another.


Joshua Bennett is the author of five books of poetry, criticism, and narrative nonfiction: Spoken Word: A Cultural History (Knopf, 2023); The Study of Human Life (Penguin, 2022), which was a winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize, longlisted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize and the Massachusetts Book Award, and is currently being adapted for television in collaboration with Warner Brothers Studios; Owed (Penguin, 2020), a finalist for the New England Book Award; Being Property Once Myself (Harvard University Press, 2020), winner of the MLA’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize; and The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016), winner of the National Poetry Series and a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. For his creative writing and scholarship, Joshua has received fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. This summer, he will join the faculty of MIT as a professor of literature and distinguished chair of the humanities. He lives in Massachusetts.

Art: Laura Cordido