“We Real Cool,” perhaps Brooks’ single best-known poem, subjects a similarly representative experience to an intricate technical and thematic scrutiny, at once loving and critical. The poem is only twenty-four words long, including eight repetitions of the word “we.” It is suggestive that the subtitle of “We Real Cool” specifies the presence of only seven pool players at the “Golden Shovel.” The eighth “we” suggests that poet and reader share, on some level, the desperation of the group-voice that Brooks transmits. The final sentence, “We/ die soon,” restates the carpe diem motif in the vernacular of Chicago’s South Side.
This poem has a touch of freshness of youth mixed with carelessness and the rebellious zeal. It is a small couplet with great use of rhymes. On one level, “We Real Cool” appears simply to catalog the experiences of a group of dropouts content to “sing sin” in all available forms. A surprising ambiguity enters into the poem, however, revolving around the question of how to accent the word “we” which ends every line except the last one, providing the beat for the poem’s jazz rhythm (Brooks, 22). Brooks said that she intended that the “we” not be accented. Read in this way, the poem takes on a slightly distant and ironic tone, emphasizing the artificiality of the group identity which involves the characters in activities offering early death as the only release from pain. Conversely, the poem can be read with a strong accent on each “we,” affirming the group identity. Although the experience still ends with early death, the pool players metamorphose into defiant heroes determined to resist the alienating environment. Their confrontation with experience is felt, if not articulated, as existentially pure. Pool players, poet, and reader cannot be sure which stress is valid (Kent, 15).