Monday, July 2, 2012

e.e. cummings: anyone lived in a pretty how town

I think it's time I try tackling a poet whose work I really enjoy reading, but who I find seriously daunting. A poet who is probably one of the most emulated, and the most badly emulated at that.  His work loses some of its brilliance because of the poor imitiations with which his work is now surrounded.

 I hated e.e. cummings for a long while because I thought his form and style pretentious and gimmicky. Then I heard someone read if seventy were young aloud once and something went click inside my head. Now I appreciate the brilliance of the man and think that his innovations and originality of style and presentation were probably amongst the twentieth century's greater contributions to poetry.

There is an inherent tension between experimenting with form and remaining acessible - and it is this challenge that so much of cummings' work confronts. Cummings can achieve what he does (and we will explore this in the poem of his I have chosen) through an understanding of the function of words. Verbs become nouns, modifiers become conjunctions but all the while the essential meaning remains intact. So let's consider anyone lived in a pretty how town.

Don't panic - we'll unpack it slowly. Even if we don't understand what everything in this poem means let's get a basic grip on the plot of the piece, as we have done in so many other cases before.

What is he on about?

L1 tells us that "anyone" lived in a town. L4 of S1, from the syntax of that S, is referring to "anyone" when it says that "he sang his didn't and he danced his did". The suggestion, then, is that anyone is a he. A specific person. We should read the pronoun as a proper noun. Once we know that "anyone" is a specific person we can appreciate from S2 that this person wasn't welcomed by the adults. S3 read with the "she" in S4 tells us that cummings is perpetrating a similar trick in his use of "noone". Noone is in fact a woman who loves anyone and the children are aware of noone's increasing love for anyone. But, importantly, from S3, they forget about this as they grow up. At the end of the piece they both die and are buried side by side. Great. So we have the vague plot. But now the central question is why? Why write it in such a bizarre fashion?


Well, let's unfold cummings' brilliance. Let's start with an obvious point. Cummings is not blind to the ordinary meaning of the words. When he chooses the word "anybody" he knows that it literally means anybody - the opposite of a particular or specific person. It is being used, in other words, in the very opposite context of its literal, ordinary and direct meaning. It's an ironic word choice.  The same is true for "Noone" who is in fact very much someone (especially to anyone!). 

Secondly, consider S5. "Someones married their everyones". In other words, in our literal narrative, while Anyone gets cosy with Noone, everyone else in the town matches up with other townsfolk. They are described as "everyone". They all do the same things: laugh their cryings, do their dance, sleep wake hope and then they say their nevers they sleep their dreams.  (Note they don't live their dreams, they sleep them).

Contrast this to L4 "He sang his didn't he danced his did" and L14 "she laughed his joy she cried his grief". Anybody and Noone are being cast as individuals, as unique persons relative to everybody else. Consider L16 "anyone's any was all to her". Having read what has gone before you should appreciate that this means that Noone appreciated Anyone's uniqueness and individuality. Now read that again considering the ordinary meaning of those words (and not the meaning they hold in the context of the poem's literal narrative) and you will begin to appreciate what clever things cummings is achieving here.

There are other features of cummings construction which are worth noting. In S1-4 the first two lines rhyme with each other. In S2 L3/4 we have a slant rhyme (same/rain). All four strophes also have the heavy four beats to the line as you read it.

Both rhythm and rhyme fall away in S5 and the pattern is only properly regained in S8 & S9. Having a look at the content which is contained within those S's will show you why it is done in this way. Those opening S's and closing S's deal primarily with Anyone and Noone while the intervening ones concern the experiences of the townsfolk. I think this serves to create a closer connection between reader and the characters of Anyone and Noone than one feels for the other vague members of the town.

Perhaps you also spotted the tense switch which occurs in the second last S where it suddenly becomes the present tense before, in the last S, it lapses back to past tense again. Note what it is that is in the present - Anyone and Noone lying side by side in their graves and dreaming their sleep. Contrast this to L19/20.

There's so much more that one can unpack out of this but hopefully what I have sketched is enough to enable one to now answer the question of why cummings did it this way. Not only does the poem have a rhythm, melody and beauty to it when read aloud, but, more importantly, I think you can now see how, were one to attempt to translate this into "normal" or conventional English grammar, much of its meaning would be lost.

One cannot capture in words, or at a minimum not in this brevity of words and in such attractive form, the meanings, associations and sense of cummings message. Try "translating" some of the lines for yourself and you will see what I mean. Try just with "anyone's any was all to her" and you will see what I mean. 

And this brings me finally to the most important point I want to make about cummings. He didn't write this way to be gimmicky or clever. He wrote this way because it served his purpose to do so - it added to and enriched the meaning of what he wanted to convey. He breaks the rules of grammar with reason and in a way that makes sense and adds meaning precisely because both cummings and the reader know what the rule should be. Only if you can read this poem and confess in your heart of hearts to be as good a writer as this may you refrain from using capitals in your name.

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