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On "anyone lived in a pretty how town"

 Theo Steinmann (1978)

In his poem...E. E. Cummings cumulates different kinds and levels of rhythm in order to suggest the complexity of superimposed sensuous and mental impressions. The most striking pattern is obviously the revolution of the seasons, which is indicated by the rotating list of their names. With each of the abstract terms the poet associates a natural phenomenon characterizing the particular season on the sensuous level of human experience so that one may stand emblematically for the other: sun -summer; moon -autumn; stars - winter; rain - spring. Their vertical sequence in the poem corresponds to our anthropological expectations and yearnings: Spring (3), summer ("sun" 8), autumn (11), winter ("stars" 21), summer (34), summer ("sun" 36)....

...The regular rhythm of nature is distorted by man's emotional responses to the seasons. Winter, metaphorically synonymous with death, means to many persons a depressing and seemingly endless period. The poet echoes this disproportionate impression by referring to it insistently in the following lines: "snow" (22), "died" (25), "buried" (27), "was by was" (28), "deep by deep" (29). The shift from single words to pairs of words announces rhythmically the return of the pulsating movement of life. "Earth by april" (31) juxtaposes no longer two identical elements but associates two opposites, death ("earth") and spring ("april"); the block of sameness is falling apart, a movement in time and away from the barren element becomes obvious. After this parenthetical reference to spring, the text moves on directly to summer (34), pointing forward to autumn, however, through the association of "reaped - sowing" and the synonymous "went their came" (35). Yet the final emphasis remains on "summer" and "sun" at the beginning, "spring" and "rain" at the end of lines 34 and 36 respectively. Thus spring opens the cycle In the first stanza and it concludes two lines in the last. Life has come full circle, but the end is also a commencement....

...The cyclical recurrence of birth, growth, and decline, represented in the movement of the bells and seasons, finds another parallel on the level of man. The poem has three parts of three stanzas each. These parts contain a pattern of references to the different groups of persons mentioned: I, anyone; II, women and men; III, children; and IV [noone]; V, someones & everyones; VI, children. So far the hierarchy descends from the lovers through the indifferent mass of adults to the children who now fail to remember their young, naive experiences. In the third part, stanzas VII and VIII concentrate on anyone's and noone's death and burial. The lovers, the only gay and happy individuals, have left the stage. The children have dropt out.... They have grown up and rank among the "women and men" (IX) who dominate the last stanza. What remains is their only interest in reaping and sowing, with the overtone of dullness and inadequacy which the poet associates with them.

from Theo Steinmann, "Semantic Rhythm in 'Anyone Lived In A Pretty How Town." Concerning Poetry 11 (1978): 71, 72, and 73.

Nell Nixon (1974)

Cummings’ most important structuring devices in this poem are refrains and repeated grammatical patterns. Two of the refrains are strings of four nouns, the first series referring to the seasons ("spring summer autumn winter," line 3, then those same words in a different order in lines 11 and 34); and the second series refering to more specific natural phenomena, all related to the sky ("sun moon stars rain" in lines 8 and 36, and a variant order of these nouns in line 21). Another refrain, "with up so floating many bells down" (line 2) is repeated exactly in line 24. Both times the phrase is in parentheses.

The most important repeated grammatical pattern first appears as "more by more," (line 12), formed probably by taking the familiar "more and more" and fitting it into the pattern of the equally familiar "little by little." This "x by x" pattern soon changes to "x by y" in line 13: "when by now and tree by leaf." Altogether, these two patterns occur thirteen times in the poem, becoming so dominant in lines 27 through 32 that their effect is almost incantatory. The most frequent syntactic pattern is two juxtaposed independent clauses, each having a personal pronoun as its subject, a transitive verb in the past tense, then the verb’s object preceded by a possessive pronoun:

[Here Nixon quotes ll. 4, 7, 14, and 19-20.]

So familiar does this pattern become that the following lines are perceived as variants of it, each with the verb and object compounded:

[Here Nixon quotes ll. 17, 18, 33, and 35.]

In addition, the grammatical pattern of line 5 is exactly the same as that of line 33:

[Here Nixon quotes ll. 5 and 33.]

Finally, Cummings uses parentheses so frequently in this poem (seven times) that they may be considered a sort of typographical pattern of recurrence.

from Nell Nixon, "A Reading of ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town." Language of Poems 3 (1974): 18-31.

Malcolm Cowley (1973)  

An example in 50 Poems is Poem 29, of which the first stanza reads:

[Here he quotes the first stanza]

A translation--omitting the second line, which means whatever it means--might be, "The poet lived year by year in an ordinary town, where he sang his negations and danced his affirmations." Need one say that Cummings's new language has a marvelous way of lending strangeness to sometimes rather commonplace statements? It also serves as a means of avoiding various words that he detested. Later in the same poem, when he says that "noone loved him more by more," it is obvious that "noone" is the poet's wife. After his second divorce, Cummings was happily married for nearly thirty years, a fact attested by some of his finest poems, but the word "wife" appears in none them.

Any words involved in his game with parts of speech acquired plus or a minus value. Thus, "was" as a noun is minus; "is" and "am" and "become" are plus. "Who" is plus, but "which" is minus, especially when it refers to impersons, and so is the adjective "whichful." "It," another neuter, seems to be the negative of "he" or "him" and leads to "itmaking," a term of utter condemnation "Where" and "when" are both minus as nouns; "wherelings" and "whenlings" are pitiable people, "sons of unless and children of almost....The honorifics are "here" and "now." "beautiful most is now," he says....

All such words have become abstractions, and the meanings they imply are ethical and metaphysical. Usually ethics and ontology are fatal subjects for modern poets, but Cummings was feeling impelled to venture into them. The anti-intellectual was about to become, in limited ways, an ideologist. There had been changes in his life and they had led to a number of ideas that were partly new for him and were completely opposed at the time to those held by "mostpeople," as he called the American public. When one looks back at his career, it would seem that he had to invent his new language as the only fresh and serviceable means of expressing the ideas in poetry.

from Malcolm Cowley, "Cummings: One Man Alone." Yale Review 62 (1973): 345, 346.

 David R. Clark (1969)

Probably the best interpretation emerges if we observe the structure of the poem. The poem breaks into two-stanza units. In stanza one we are given anyone and his love of life. The locale of the poem is a town, and in the poem the individual is posed against his town. It is a "pretty how" town. How pretty a town it is! Yet, pretty? How? One would do well to look into that prettiness a little further.

When one does look, one finds the group united against the individual. "Women and men" (both large and small?) --no, "both little and small."... "Little" in this sense, intensified by "small," is what these people are like. They sow their "isn't," their dead ideas, and reap the "same" old conventional conclusions. The first two stanzas contrast singing and dancing "anyone" with the men and women of the town.

The third and fourth stanzas make one sentence about the children and noone. There is the Wordsworthian (and New Testament) idea here that children are closer to innocence and perceive spiritual truths more directly than adults. These children perceive "that noone loved him more by more," that is that he was unloved in the town, but that nevertheless he thrived on this rejection. His life was surrounded with love in spite of it or because of it. The children understand that there are values in his life beyond those that make an obedient townsman.

In stanzas five and six the ordinary lives, the lives of the men in the group, come to their dull conclusion and the children grow up to be as dull and imperceptive as their parents. Snow can explain how--the cold touch of time.

In stanzas seven and eight the unloved individual has his death and apotheosis.

In stanza nine the rhythms of life continue as before.

The individual as individual is necessarily set against society and against other people as members of society. It is in the individual's unique responses that the value of life inheres. One does much what others have always done, but with a difference, and one does it oneself, one's own way, with one's own feelings. These unique responses are always distrusted and feared by the group. The group needs communication and regularity of behavior in order to function as a group and so necessarily rejects what is most individual about the individual. But what is comprehended by all is no longer alive, no longer a living idea or feeling. These are old commonplaces but I think they place "anyone" in relation to the Women and men of the town.

from David R. Clark, "Cummings' 'anyone' and 'noone.'" Arizona Quarterly 25 (1969): 37, 38, 39, 41, and 42.

 S. John Macksoud (1968)

...I wish to...defend the hypothesis that it [the poem] may be viewed rhetorically as philosophical commentary on the antagonism between knowledge and understanding...and that the poem unfolds, by means of narrative, the consequences of the choice of "howness" rather than "whyness...." is true that Cummings' perverse ways with grammar permit one to interpret "pretty how" as "how pretty," but another reading is possible. Suppose "pretty" is construed as an adverb, and read as "rather," modifying the adjective "how." Such a construction would drastically change the tone of the line, its implications for the whole poem, and the interpreter's entire pattern of strategies in reading. This reading has the advantage of referring to the town's universally noted involvement in the sheer routines of living. Thus, in much the same way that one would describe a town preoccupied with the oil industry as an "oil town" or another which derives its principal mode of life from livestock as a "cattle town," a "how town" would be a town in which the principal preoccupation is the asking of the mechanical question, "How?" in the sense now applied by engineers: "know-how."


...All the parenthetical expressions used...seem to amplify the psychological workings of people rather than to describe places or objects. Thus the parenthetical expressions can be taken to reveal the inner selves of the women and the second stanza, the inner workings of the children in the third stanza...the inner workings of everyones and someones in the fifth stanza...the inner workings again of the children's minds in the sixth stanza...the inner workings of noone in the seventh stanza...and the inner workings again of the women and men in the ninth stanza...--this last by metonymy.

The parentheses...then, seem always to function as interpolations within the narrative material, and to bear upon some psychological activity. On this basis I infer that the second line, enclosed in parentheses, may be taken to describe the inner state of "anyone" rather than the characteristics of how town.

from S. John Macksoud, "Anyone's How Town: Interpretation as Rhetorical Discipline." Speech Monographs 35 (1968): 72, 73, and 75.

 Charles L. Squier (1966)

"Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town" moves by the alternation of negation of life with joy in life, the someones set against anyone and noone. These contrasts involve youth and age, innocence and experience, feeling and not feeling; but the overall contrast is between harmony

and disharmony. It is possible to read each stanza as primarily positive or negative in tone and feeling as Cummings moves from the sympathetic lovers to the antagonistic and imperceptive commonality who oppose the lovers' childlike simplicity. Stanza 1, of course, positive; stanza 2, introducing the "Women and men ... [who] ... sowed their isn't" is negative; stanza 3 recounts noone's love for anyone and is positive. Once such a description is made, we quickly see that the sound of the bells changes with the positive or negative tone of the stanza. In the positive stanzas the bells ring the seasons: "spring summer autumn winter." The statement is natural, logical, harmonious. But in the negative stanzas the bells ring an impossible mixture of "sun moon stars rain." Unity is violated, logic falls away, and harmony is cracked.

The harmony that Cummings seeks and celebrates in the poem is that of the full accomplished love of anyone and noone, the harmony of "anyone's any was all to her" and the final sustaining and triumphant harmony of: "noone and anyone earth by april / wish by spirit and if by yes." This harmony is sounded by the bells, and it is symbolized by the bells. The harmony which Cummings sees in anyone and noone is the essential, inevitable, and absolutely necessary harmony of bell and clapper. The bell has a symbolic force equivalent to the Chinese yang and yin. That anyone and noone achieve just this harmony of masculine and feminine, active and passive, and, indeed, flesh and spirit, is clear in the image of stanza 4, "bird by snow and stir by still."

from Charles L. Squier, "Cummings' Anyone Lived In A Pretty How Town." Explicator 25 (Dec. 1966): Item 37.

 Arthur Carr (1952)

In Poem 29 Cummings is telling a children's story, about children and grown-ups and about growing-up, in the deceptively simple-complex language of childhood. Cummings' highly conscious and perceptive naivete is the mode in which be tells a fable with at least two concurrent themes. One of these is lucidly explained by Mr. Steinhoff and Mr. Barrows (Exp., Oct., 1950, ix, 1). They read the poem as a "love-story" --and it is--of "anyone" and "noone," who saved their innocence and naturalnesss by avoiding the ways of the "busy folk." So it would be a lyric in praise of non-conformity.

But it is also an "unlove"-story. The fable, kindly and sweetly told to children, eases their discovery, or the reader's understanding, that "women and men" forget what children knew--how to love and be loved. And it is to this theme that stanzas 3 and 4 explicitly contribute. "anyone" and "noone" are also children (with perhaps a suggestion that "noone" is a boy's mother as he sees her). They are the ones who feel beloved and gradually forget to love. Their world contrasts with the topsy-turvy world of men and women. "anyone" and "noone" see that it is topsy-turvy and unhappy, but they grow up into it, of course ("anyone died i guess") and "forget to remember" how it seemed and was. Love in the grown-up world is sex ("both dong and ding") and the many bells no longer float. And so "anyone" becomes, as the poem unfolds, the lost and insular self of anyone, indeed--whom no one loved anymore.

from Arthur Carr, "Cummings' Anyone Lived In A Pretty How Town." Explicator 11 (Nov. 1952): Item 6.

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