Every line of “We Real Cool” is enjambed (en-JAMMED), which means that every line runs over to the next without stopping at the end. In poems that use couplets, it’s usually the case that the lines are end-stopped, such that the breaks between distinct units of thought coincide neatly with the line endings. Brooks wrote “We Real Cool” in couplets, but she broke with tradition by slightly shifting each unit of thought so that they cascade from one line down to the next. This technique has important visual and sonic effects. Each sentence in the poem starts with the subject, “We,” and the predicate appears on the next line. The repeating enjambment of this simple grammatical form makes it so that “We” appears at the end of every line. The appearance of “We” down the right-hand side of the poem places special emphasis on the word. Furthermore, by slightly displacing the sentences so that each unit of thought runs over, the enjambed lines visually evoke the poem’s syncopated rhythm. In other words, the poem’s repetitive enjambment creates an optical illusion that helps the reader “hear” the more complex rhythm pulsing beneath the poem’s deceptively simple meter.
Every line of “We Real Cool” has a strong pause in the middle. This type of strong, mid-line pause is known as a caesura (say-ZHOO-rah). As a poetic technique, the use of caesura was much more common in ancient Greek, Latin, and Old English verse. In Brooks’s case, however, she uses caesura to a decidedly modern effect. After the poem’s first line, each sentence is slightly displaced, such that the sentence endings don’t coincide with the line endings. Instead, in lines 2–7, sentences end in the middle of a line. Visually, this technique inserts a pause between the period that closes one sentence and the “We” that opens the next. If the reader hears a pause after each period, the poem appears to have a straightforward, three-beat rhythm. Sonically, however, matters are more complicated. Because the opening line establishes an expectation for a four-beat line, it’s possible to “hear” an additional beat, but not in the middle of the line, as the caesura would otherwise indicate. Instead, the extra beat appears at the beginning of each line, creating a jazzlike syncopation of three beats played against four:
[beat] Sing sin. We
[beat] Thin gin. We . . .
In other words, the use of caesura sets up a tension between two ways of experiencing the poem’s rhythm: either “straight” three-line beats or syncopated four-line beats.
“We Real Cool” features several instances of alliteration (uh-LIT-ter-AY-shun), which introduces added dimensions of meaning and rhythm to the poem. Alliteration refers to a situation when two or more words that are close together begin with the same letter. Generally speaking, alliteration serves to emphasize connections between words. In a phrase like “Lurk late” (line 3), the repeating “L” sound underscores a link between the act of loitering and the passing of time. On the surface, the phrase just means that the pool players hang around until it gets late. But the additional alliteration creates a stronger image for the reader, subtly suggesting that the kind people who stay up late are also the kind of people who lurk and hence might be up to no good. In addition to suggesting additional layers of meaning, alliteration also has a sonic effect that draws attention to the beat driving the poem’s rhythm. In “We Real Cool,” every example of alliteration appears in directly adjacent words. And since all the words in the poem consist of one stressed syllable, the alliteration in phrases like “Strike straight” (line 4) and “Jazz June” (line 7) gives added emphasis to the metrical beat.