Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
- The funniest thing happens when we stick our head inside the doorway of "The Golden Shovel." The young men who are shooting pool suddenly stop what they're doing, turn toward us, and start singing like they're on Broadway.
- Well, maybe not Broadway, but they are definitely talking in a song-like verse.
- They tell us how cool they are, speaking in the slang that we associate with big cities.
- They say, "We real cool," instead of "We are real cool." With this ungrammatical speech, we're not surprised that they "left school."
- Then again, the meaning of their words comes across just fine, so we shouldn't be too quick to judge.
- The missing word "are" creates an interesting contrast in the first two words, "We real."
- On the one hand, it says, "We're the real deal," and on the other it says, "We're real people."
- The first point may be true, but the second isn't – this is a poem, and they are characters.
- As for "left school," we can't be sure if it means they skipped school or if they dropped out altogether.
- The second option is more likely, both because it's June and school might already be out, and because the speaker could have said "skipped" if that's what she meant. Still, we don't know for sure.
- The first line is book-ended by the word "We," which makes the boys sound both arrogant and self-conscious, as cool kids often are.
- Brooks has been very specific about how she thinks the "We" should be pronounced and interpreted.
- She said in an interview: "The 'We' – you're supposed to stop after the 'we' and think about their validity, and of course there's no way for you to tell whether it should be said softly or not, I suppose, but I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty, which they don't bother to question every day, of course."
- And, from the same interview: "These are people who are essentially saying, 'Kilroy is here. We are.' But they're a little uncertain of the strength of their identity" (source). The phrase "Kilroy is here" originates from the WWII era, and it was a way of asserting one's presence or identity, using Kilroy's name instead of one's own.
- It's the mid-20th century equivalent of Bart Simpson spray-painting "El Barto" all over Springfield.
- It's something you do to get attention: "Hey! Look at me! I'm here!"
- The young men in the pool hall want to project a strong presence, but this very desire may reveal their insecurity.