Edward Estlin Cummings, or e.e. as he preferred, was one of the most inventive poets ever to be born on American soil. His impressive command of the English language is seen throughout his poetry. Cummings’ work seems to the naked eye dominated by a lexical style, devoid of any grammatical constructions. But when read aloud, as his poems often should be, the image clears just as the 3-dimensional pictures appear to the viewer (after staring for long periods of time) in the Magic Eye paintings. This hypothesis rings true especially in one of his better known works “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” Working through the thirty-six lines of garbled and misplaced words is almost as exhausting as attempting to expose a meaning in the work. Cummings’ (ab)use of the syntax of the English language is clearly a trademark, but not needlessly or purposelessly. His twisting and kneading of the denotations and connotations of the words that he uses produces a lovely offspring in meaning and sound.
His skill in creating concoctions of words remains unmatched.
Beneath the misused words there is a simple story being told. The story sounds as if it should be told to a child before bedtime. It tells of a man who lived in a small town, not liked very much by the others who lived there because he was different. Despite being disliked by so many, he met a woman who loved him “more by more” (12). They enjoyed each others’ company and loved one another happily until he died (as people often do). Soon after he died, the woman he loved also died, and the people of the town buried them “side by side” (27). And afterwards the people of the town returned to their mundane existence living their lives but not truly living them as the man and woman had. Cummings’ sad tale of being different is complicated slightly by one small problem: the words used to convey this story. Truly an allegorical poem, Cummings applies “a continuous and consistent system of equivalents” (Kennedy 256). He substitutes “anyone” for the male of the story and “noone” for the female who falls in love with him. Other “equivalents” are used but will be discussed below when exploring denotations and connotations.
The denotations of words are easy to discern: although there may be multiple definitions it is very possible to ascertain the relevant meaning through context and a dictionary. Cummings manipulates the denotations by declaring all meanings irrelevant and assigning his own, ultimately affecting the connotations of the words. Taking the first line “anyone lived in a pretty how town” and breaking it down reveals several changed implications. Cummings uses the pronoun “anyone” as the name for the male main character in the work. This can be deduced through reading on to line four where Cummings clarifies: “he sang his didn’t he danced his did.” The location where “anyone” lived is referred to as “a pretty how town” (1). The word “how” is not often used as a descriptor of any sort, but as a question. How does it work? How are you? And so on. The denotation of the word “how” leads to an applied connotation as Cummings may have meant it: the town is “pretty,” but how is it pretty? Is he referring to the town’s simplicity? Or is he making a satirical comment on how pretty it is not?
Evidence granted throughout the poem reinforces that anyone “sang his didn’t” and “danced his did” (4). Although the denotations do not make sense, the connotations of this line lead the reader to believe that anyone was one who enjoyed life and was not admired by the people in the town. The “Women and men” of the town “cared for anyone not at all” (5-6). Their blatant animosity is present in their plain actions also for “they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same” (7) and there is no talk of dancing or singing on their behalf. The meaning is not lost on the reader considering Cummings uses “isn’t” and “same” to yield the proverb: “They reap what they sow.” The people of the town sowed mediocrity and thus reaped the mundane plant that grew in their fields. The second stanza is echoed in the final stanza where the people of the town return to life in the summer when it was time to reap what they sowed in the spring.
As with anyone, Cummings introduces in the third stanza a female equivilant: “noone” (12). Noone is almost paradoxical in herself; not only does noone happen to be the women who falls in love with anyone, it also denotes no one, in that “Women and men … cared for anyone not at all” (5-6). Therefore no one loved the man who did not follow the status quo. Both connotations are acceptable for Cummings’ ambiguity is the prime source of what makes his poetry so grand. After the death of anyone and noone, Cummings, just as with T. S. Eliot’s “The Naming of Cats,” begins an Eliotesque style of the naming of people. The “busy folk buried them
Cummings’ contorting of denotation and connotation brings to the poem a playful courting of two lovers who produce a lovely offspring: Euphony. His mastery of the language and manipulation of words leads to some beautiful sounding lines when read aloud. The final stanza promotes the lovely quality of euphony quite wonderfully:
Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain (33-36)
The meter is not regular, nor should it be, but when read aloud the line “summer autumn winter spring” slows down the speech to allow for a moment of reflection before moving on to the sad line mimicking the second stanza advocating a return to the mundane. The final line “sun moon stars rain” signifies beauty and also sadness, displaying regularity from sun to moon to stars and even in rain. Anyone and noone were irregularities in that cycle, but they provide a soft touch to smooth over the rough edges of the aforementioned mediocrity. Their simple, happy love is reflected in the nursery rhyme verses, the short flowing words that roll off the tongue. “They sowed their isn’t they reaped their same / sun moon stars rain” (7-8) draws out the “s” sound. Also, for example, “(and only the snow can begin to explain / how children are apt to forget to remember” (22-23) the juxtaposition of short words to long words allows the lines to flow smoothly and soundly. The euphony in the poem simply encourages the reader to remember what is said in the work.
Although a full explication of the poem cannot be done in such short terms, it is wonderful to be able to shed some light on the enigma that is e.e. cummings. “Anyone lived in a pretty how town” has so much to offer in terms of sound and meaning that a hundred pages would not do it justice. As a note of finality, the poem is a wonderful source of allegorical content, lessons on human nature, and beautiful verse. There should be no wonder why it has lasted so long in popular literature and no doubt that it will live on as a representation of the command of language.