The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The poem “anyone lived in a pretty how town” is basically a narrative with a strong lyric component—that is to say, it is a ballad. Written in nine variably rhyming quatrain stanzas, it does not show a normative or “running” verse foot, such as the iamb; therefore, the poem is written in podic prosody, a system of accentual verse that is sometimes called “folk meters.” It is the prosody in which most nursery rhymes and folk ballads are written, which accounts for its strongly rhythmical quality. Specifically, the lines have four stresses, or are “tetrapodic.”
E. E. Cummings was in many ways a sentimental poet, although he hid this sentimentality with all sorts of typographical, grammatic, syntactic, and rhetorical tricks and, sometimes, with a slangy and “wise-guy” level of diction, though that is not the case with this poem. Complicating his essential sentimentality was his rather sarcastic outlook on life: Cummings did not care for what he called “mostpeople,” who, it seemed to him, were against culture and art and were too wrapped up in the quotidian—Cummings’s “mostpeople” were what H. L. Mencken called the “booboisie.” Very often this split-mindedness of Cummings led to what might almost be called a schizoid poetry, and no poem more so than “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” which tells the story of a person named “anyone” and his lover, “noone” (that is to say “no one”). Anyone lived in a town...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
From the very first line, the poem’s ambiguity is seen to be a purposeful component of the poem, for Cummings uses the technique of hypallage: rearrangement of syntax—word order—in a sentence. “[A]nyone lived in a pretty how town” can be put back into a more normal form easily: “Anyone lived in how pretty a town,” or “How anyone lived in a pretty town.” He chose neither of these forms because he intended the poem to be ambiguous, and he chose a syntactic form that would imply both constructions, and perhaps others as well—for example, “How pretty a town anyone lived in.” The second line continues and reinforces the double sense of the first; it could just as easily be read, “(with so many bells floating up, down).”
Like many ballads, this one has a refrain; in fact, it has more than one. There is a listing of the seasons which appears as line 3 of the first and second stanzas and line 2 of the last stanza. This is an “incremental” refrain, because it is slightly changed each time it appears—the order of the seasons is switched. A second refrain is “sun moon stars rain,” which appears as line 4 of stanza 2, the first line of stanza 6, and the last line of the poem. The second time this refrain appears it is incremental, but the third time it reverts to its original order. A third demi-refrain is “Women and men (both little and small),” which appears incrementally one time as the first line of the last stanza,...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Ahearn, Barry, ed. Pound/Cummings: The Correspondence of Ezra Pound and E. E. Cummings. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.
Bloom, Harold, ed. E. E. Cummings: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.
Dumas, Bethany K. E. E. Cummings: A Remembrance of Miracles. London: Vision Press, 1974.
Kennedy, Richard S. E. E. Cummings Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994.
Kidder, Rushworth M. E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
Lane, Gary. I Am: A Study of E. E. Cummings’ Poems. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976.
Norman, Charles. The Magic Maker: E. E. Cummings. Rev. ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972.
Sawyer-Lauçanno, Christopher. E. E. Cummings: A Biography. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2004.
Wegner, Robert E. The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965.