I return to the poems of 1940 to celebrate an American poet I haven’t taken much time for on the blog—the enigmatic and experimental E. E. Cummings. (Yes, E. E. Cummings—modern scholarship has basically determined that he never meant to go by “e. e. cummings”, despite the orthographical choices of some of his editors. Save that one for a bar bet, I guess. A really unusual bar.) Cummings’s work is always daring and weird, sometimes (for me) totally impenetrable, but sometimes breathtakingly lovely. He has captured the minds (and pens) of a lot of young poets, I know, and I taught him almost every year I was a teacher, since I think he raises (and answers) a lot of questions about what poetry is, and what it can do. Here, in 1940, he plays with meaning, syntax, and other conventions of writing in one of his more famous compositions—a poem entitled “anyone lived in a pretty how town”:
“anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did
Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more
when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her
someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream
stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)
one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was
all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.
Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain”
My appreciation for the poem has grown over the years, aided by a recording I’ve heard of Cummings reading it aloud in a very expressive and high-pitched voice, trembling just a little—the closest comparison I can make for the sound is the voice actor who played Winnie-the-Pooh in the Disney animated featurettes of the 1960s and 1970s. The innocence and the optimism suddenly came through the poem in a way that it doesn’t quite on the page (for me). But what is the poem really about?
Love isn’t a bad initial answer—Cummings slowly develops the story of anyone and no one, a simple man and the woman who loved him. His choice of names, which is of course a distinctively him thing to do, allows him to get a lot of resonance out of very simple lines: take, for one example, the difference between “one day John died, I guess (and Mary stooped to kiss his face)” and “one day anyone died i guess (and no one stooped to kiss his face)”. There’s something incredibly emotional and moving about the image he presents—my brain yaws wildly from the sadness of the initial meaning (no one mourns him?) to the sudden heart-breaking gladness of the real image (it’s her! No one mourns him!). There is a fragile beauty to their love, like a delicate flower or a butterfly emerging from a cocoon: the way it grows “bird by snow and stir by still”, the way their wedding vows and honeymoon rush by us as “they said their nevers and slept their dream”. Even the deep hope of their graves is powerfully connected to their love for each other, where they now “dream their sleep” in these fantastic phrases—“earth by april”, “wish by spirit” and “if by yes”. What does that mean? I know I understand, but I cannot shape that understanding into words. There is a resurrection inside those phrases, of a form and purpose that not even Cummings, I reckon, fully realizes or could possibly describe.
Time is a good answer also, the way Cummings turns again and again the seasons “spring summer autumn winter” and the weather “sun moon stars rain” to give us a story unfolding on a large canvas (yet an intimate one). His decisions at times to shift the phrasing are surely significant, but what do they mean? When he says “stars rain sun moon” right after anyone and no one marry, and before he asides to us his marveling that the children are apt to “forget to remember”, what do we make of that? Something about the poem wants to get its arms around time, but what?
And much of the poem is left to us to ponder—what does it mean to live in a “how town”? Who are these children, and do they serve any purpose in the poem other than acting as a kind of Greek chorus? What are these bells, these floating bells? I can’t answer it all for myself, let alone for you. What I do know is that this poem, which once baffled me and even alienated me a little, is now a source of hope. There is something undying about it, something resilient and human, especially in the lines “little by little and was by was / all by all and deep by deep / and more by more” that lead to his contemplation of the dreaming sleep of the dead. Cummings is easy to caricature or parody, but difficult to pin down—the man was wise, and I hope there’s some wisdom locked in this poem for you to unearth this weekend.