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In “We Real Cool,” Brooks makes use of a deceptively simple meter that evokes the elementary patten of children’s nursery rhymes as well as the more complex, syncopated rhythms of jazz. Each of the poem’s eight sentences are all built from three monosyllabic words, creating a repetitive three-beat rhythm. In the study of poetry, the technical term for a metrical foot made up of three stressed syllables is “molossus.” But rather than using the molossus as a single foot in a longer line, Brooks constructs an entire poetic line with this single foot. When read aloud, the repetition of units made up of three stressed syllables sounds a lot like a children’s nursery rhyme. For comparison, consider the nursery rhyme that opens with the well-known molossus, “Three blind mice.” Although that nursery rhyme goes on to have lines with more and more syllables, the whole song remains organized around the three-beat line, and it consistently returns to the same, simple chorus: “Three blind mice.” The repeating three-beat rhythm of “We Real Cool” strongly recalls this nursery rhyme form, underscoring the childish naïveté of the poem’s teenage rebels.
However, when viewed on the page, the meter of “We Real Cool” becomes more complicated. Even though every sentence contains three stressed syllables, the sentences don’t neatly coincide with the lines. The first line contains the full sentence, “We real cool,” followed by the first word of the next sentence, giving it four beats instead of three. The sentences then begin to cascade down the poem, with each sentence being split across a line break. This pattern continues between lines 2 and 7, leaving each of those lines with three beats. Whereas the first line sets up an expectation for a four-beat line, the following three-beat lines don’t appear to satisfy this expectation. However, it is indeed possible to hear a fourth beat in each of the three-syllable lines. The reader can “hear” this extra beat by mentally inserting their own pause of silence. If the reader inserts this extra line not at the end of each sentence but at the beginning of each line, then a syncopated rhythm emerges:
We real cool. We
[beat] Left school. We
[beat] Lurk late. We . . .
This kind of syncopation, with three beats playing against four, is highly characteristic of jazz music.