We real cool. We
The speakers open the poem with these lines 1–2, in which they express the pride they take in their youthful rebellion. They obviously think that they are cool and, as this couplet indicates, their coolness derives at least in part from the fact that they’ve dropped out of school. And yet, already in these opening lines, the poem’s ironic tone begins to come through. The opening sentence, “We real cool,” is grammatically incorrect. In fact, it isn’t a sentence at all, since it omits the verb—that is, “We [are] real cool.” This is the only example of an incomplete sentence in the entire poem, and it helps to emphasize what the speakers get wrong in their naïve self-evaluation. Whereas they cast themselves as the cool kids, we readers can see through their prideful boasting. To put it bluntly: we find it hard to see any of their actions as either attractive or impressive.
This is the second-to-last sentence in the poem (lines 6–7), and it’s perhaps the most difficult to interpret. The difficulty lies with the word “jazz,” which the speakers use as a verb. In American English, the verb “to jazz” has numerous meanings. It can refer simply to playing or dancing to jazz music. It can also mean to enliven, stimulate, or intoxicate. There are also several slang meanings, most of which imply social deviance. Some of these slang meanings include wasting time, having sex, playing tricks, and making a mess of something. All of these meanings are available to readers as we interpret the sentence, “We / Jazz June.” If we understand June as a symbol for the summer season, when school’s out, we could paraphrase the sentence in a general way, as follows: “We live the jazz lifestyle like it’s always summer and we have no responsibilities.” Alternatively, since June is a common female name, the phrase “We / Jazz June” could refer to conducting a romantic or even sexual relationship with a woman named June. In either case, the implication is clear: jazzing references some form of juvenile delinquency.
Lines 7–8, which close the poem, bristle with tragic irony. The speakers utter these words with an apparent sense of pride. To them, an early death is the logical consequence of the “cool” lifestyle they have chosen to live. Even if the thought of dying young startles them, they seem to uphold it as an ideal. But whereas the speakers proudly anticipate their impending demise, the reader recoils at the brutality of such an ending—both for the speakers and for the poem itself. In the case of the pool players, we readers find the notion of their premature death unnecessary and therefore tragic. Perhaps what’s most tragic of all is that the speakers are too young and naïve to see that their deviant behavior is likely a psychological strategy for avoiding challenges in other parts of their lives. The roots of these players’ delinquent behavior probably lie in deeper, more systemic issues that the players themselves cannot see. We cannot know if these issues are personal (e.g., troubled family life) or social (e.g., racism). Even so, the speakers’ quickness to idealize early death is tragically ill-considered.