“We Real Cool” begins with a subtitle. This subtitle sets the scene for the poem, showing the reader where the poem happens and who its speakers are: a group of “seven” “pool players.” They're hanging out at a pool hall, called the “Golden Shovel.”
This may be a real place; in interviews, poet Gwendolyn Brooks describes how the poem was inspired by seeing a group of teenagers hanging out outside a pool hall in her neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Regardless, the name of the pool hall hints at some of the poem’s themes. On the one hand, it’s “golden”—which makes it sound glamorous, expensive, and alluring. But, on the other, it’s a “shovel”: a tool that people use to dig graves, holes, and ditches. The name of the pool hall thus suggests that it is both a dangerous and alluring place: while it may look enticing, it also might lead someone to, metaphorically, dig their own grave.
This tension between glamor and danger is central to the poem—and it appears in the poem’s first two lines. The poem begins with two simple, straightforward statements. The speakers of the poem declare that they are “real cool.” Then they declare that they “left school.” In the opening lines of the poem, the speakers present themselves as rebels and delinquents: they refuse to stick to the straight and narrow; they rebel against authority and conformity, which is symbolized here by "school." At the same time, they present themselves as glamorous: they’re "cool.” Already, the poem also hints at the costs of their coolness: they’re missing out on the chance to get an education—and that may hurt their opportunities in life.
The speakers don’t use any kind of connecting or subordinating words to link the sentences in lines 1 and 2 together—there’s no “therefore” or “because.” Instead, they leave it up to the readers to decide if there is a connection between the two sentences: if the speakers “left school” because they think that’s the “cool” thing to do. This is an example of parataxis, and it establishes a pattern that the poem will follow throughout. The speakers never tell the reader how to put all these pieces together.
The sound of the poem, however, can help the reader unfold connections that the speakers otherwise leave ambiguous. For instance the consonant /l/ sounds that appear in “real cool” and “left school” suggest that there is a connection to be made here—that the speakers leave school because they think it’s the cool thing to do. This is supported by the assonant /oo/ sound in “cool” and “school” too.
Indeed, “We Real Cool” is rich in sound. Each of the poem’s sentences is exactly three syllables long; all of them start with “We.” All of the poem’s lines—except the last—are enjambed. The poem is written in couplets, but the rhymes are internal: “cool” and “school” are perfect rhymes, for example, but they fall inside the line, not at its end. All of these different patterns work with each other to create a syncopated, jazzy rhythm (syncopation is a musical term that describes an unexpected break in the rhythm of a piece of music). Thus although the poem doesn’t follow a traditional form (such as, say, the sonnet), it has strict rules—and those rules help it sound like a piece of jazz music.