[Spring 3 (1994): 72-76]

Cummings' "l(a," the first poem in his 95 Poems (1958), was the prototypical parenthetic poem. It was originally published, in conjunction with a visit to campus and a reading by Cummings, in the University of Connecticut's Fine Arts Festival Magazine: [1]






This is not an arbitrary construct, though at first glance it may appear to be. What Cummings did was to take the word loneliness, break it in two, and insert a short sentence, a leaf falls, into the break; thus, the sentence is "parenthesized" by the word. Not satisfied, however, with merely saying, in effect, "loneliness: a leaf falls," which is rather Hallmarkish, Cummings further disguised his sentiment by applying the schema of dispersion: scattering the lines of the original according to some pattern different from its original structure, perhaps breaking it up into lines that are really phrases or a [end p. 72] few words, or by breaking lines in half at the caesurae, or by enjambing two or more lines.

The typographical level is of primary importance in this Impressionist poem, which makes its impression largely through the way the poem looks on the page. Cummings' use of dispersion isolates individual letters such as the letter el, used in place of the numeral 1 which, on old typewriters such as authors operated in the precomputer era, was left off the keyboard. By means of dispersion Cummings even brought out the fact that the word "one" is part of "loneliness." (As The New Seekers, one of the rock groups of the 1970s, sang, "One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do.") [Ed. note: the song "One" was written by Harry Nilsson and was a number 1 (!) hit in 1969 for the group Three Dog Night.] Techniques like this are what might be called sight puns--plays on words that only the eye can catch. It would be almost impossible to read this poem aloud and have the audience catch this play, for it must be seen to be understood.

Having said that, however, one must also declare that the poem does, indeed, have a sonic level. It is full of soft sounds and sibilances: the els make a moaning, windy noise, and the esses and effs sound like leaves rustling along the ground. Cummings' sentimentality here is easily observed by deconstructing his deconstruction and reassembling it as it might have appeared: "loneliness is a leaf falling." If, put that way, the poem looks a bit like a bumper sticker, well, that's why Cummings disguised it. On the ideational level Cummings' poem does almost exactly the same thing as an ancient haiku by Basho:

Please come to visit,
for I am lonely. One leaf
falls from the kiri.
And the thought was not likely new even with Basho. Nevertheless, Cummings' treatment of the subject was quite original and creative. Perhaps the most interesting thing here is that Cummings' little poem is even smaller and more economical than the product of one of the greatest of the haiku masters.


Cummings' "anyone lived in a pretty how town" is another poem that used linguistic subterfuge to hide its sentiment and simultaneously make a unique statement. It was originally published in August of 1940 as number "I." of [end p. 73] "Five Poems" in Poetry; it was collected as "29" in 50 Poems, published in the same year. It is basically a narrative with a strong lyric component; that is to say, the poem is a ballad. Written in nine variably rhyming quatrain stanzas, "anyone lived in a pretty how town" 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 rhythmical quality. Specifically, the lines are fourstress or "tetrapodic" in length.

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). He lived in a town where "women and men... / cared for" him "not at all." They "sowed" their seeds of negativism in their dull lives, but some of their children guessed that there was someone in town, the woman named "noone," who loved him, yet even the children forgot this as they grew older, turned into adults, and joined the ranks of "mostpeople." Nevertheless, "noone" loved "anyone" so much that his "any was all to her."

As life went along, the townsfolk lived their ordinary lives, "someones married their everyones," the children grew up, and "anyone" and "noone" grew old. Then "one day anyone died i guess / and noone stooped to kiss his face," but nobody else paid much attention. Eventually "noone" died as well, and "busy folk buried them side by side." Still, life went on; people continued doing what they do in all seasons, beneath the rising and setting sun, moon, and stars, in all weathers.


That is the basic story, but it can also be read in a diametrically opposite way. Take, for instance, line four of the third stanza, which can be read either as, "Noone loved him," or "no one loved him." Or, as in stanza seven, "one day Anyone died," or "one day anyone died," anyone at all, and either "Noone stooped to kiss his face" or "no one" did. In what way are these two people, Anyone and Noone, to be distinguished from mostpeople? Or are they to be distinguished at all? Are they, perhaps, in fact representative of "someones" and "everyones"? There is a deliberately built-in ambiguity about the story Cummings told here.

From the very first line this ambiguity is seen to be a deliberate com- [end p. 74] ponent of the poem, for Cummings used the schema of hypallage: rearrangement of syntax--word order--in a sentence. The line "anyone lived in a pretty how town" can be put back into a more nearly normal form easily: "Anyone lived in how pretty a town," or "How anyone lived in a pretty town," or "How pretty a town Anyone lived in." Cummings chose none of these syntactic forms because he intended the poem to be ambiguous, and he chose a form that would imply all these constructions and perhaps others as well. The second line continues and reinforces the double-sense of the first; it can just as easily be read, "(with so many bells floating up, down)" or "with so many up bells floating down."


Like many ballads, this one has a refrain; in fact, more than one. The first is a listing of the seasons which appears as line three of the first and second stanzas and line two 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 four of stanza two, the first line of stanza six, and the last line of the poem. The second time this refrain appears it is incremental, but the third time it reverts to its origina1 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, "Women and men (both dong and ding)," a reference to the sounds of the floating bells. A fourth is line three of stanza two, "they sowed their isn't they reaped their same," which reappears in the penultimate line as, "they reaped their sowing and went their came."

This last refrain illustrates another rhetorical device that Cummings used throughout the poem, anthhesis in parallel constructions: "he sang his didn't he danced his did"; "and down they forgot as up they grew"; "she laughed his joy she cried his grief." These parallel repetitive schemas are mirrored in other lines that do not repeat but give almost the effect of refrains, as in the first line of the fourth stanza, "when by now and tree by leaf," and the first line of the penultimate stanza, "all by all and deep by deep" which continues into the next line, "and more by more..." . The rest of this stanza is similarly constructed.

All these sonic devices give the poem an extremely lyrical quality even though the rhyme scheme is not exact. At times, the lines do not rhyme. For instance, although the poem begins with a rhyming couplet, the next two [end p. 75] lines do not chime at all. The following stanza also begins with couplet rhyme, but the next two lines consonate, they off-rhyme: same-rain consonance is often a feature of the anonymous folk ballad though here, course, it appears in a literary ballad.

The third stanza does the same thing, but the fourth goes back to the pattern of the first, though if one looks closely one will see that the last line ends with the word "hér," a stressed syllable that light-rhymes with line three of stanza one, "wínter." An examination of the poem will disclose many other effects on the sonic level, including assonance (how town); alliteration (spring, summer, sang); consonantal echo, as in the m sounds of stanza two; both the cross-rhyme of "stir" and "her," and the internal consonance "bird" and "stir" of stanza four.


The two major themes of "anyone lived in a pretty how town" are to be found in the first line or, rather, in the implications of the first line. On implication is, "how can anyone live in a pretty town" where nothing much goes on, where people are completely caught up in their everyday lives where, though everyone is involved with everyone else, most people don't really know or, in fact, care what their neighbors are really like? It is rhetorical question because, in fact, most people do live in such towns--there are anyone and no one, of no particular significance except to one another sometimes, on an individual basis. Anyone does mean something to Noone and that is the basic paradox of existence. We--who, after all, are most people--both care and do not care; both love and do not love; are important to one another and are not important at all.

These twin themes comprise an antithesis, they make up a paradox. One theme appears to cancel out the other, but in fact does not: both themes continue to exist and remain true. Thus, "anyone lived in a pretty how town" encompasses within its brief lyric tale two truths, not just one, and these truths exist in tension with one another, each pulling and pushing against the other, but remaining in a state of impossible equilibrium, which is always the human condition, for humankind simultaneously always treats itself at once with indifference and compassion, with cruelty and kindness, with trust and suspicion, and with many other antitheses one might list, all of which will, paradoxically, be true. E. E. Cummings, in this poem, managed to invent a poetic vehicle that exemplifies and illustrates these opposites, telling a story about most people and individuals that is simultaneously a joyous and a sorrowful song.

--Oswego, NY
[end p. 76]

Editor's Note:  According to George James Firmage's bibliography,  the University of Connecticut's Fine Arts Festival Magazine published "this little huge" in its Spring, 1957 issue. Firmage says that "l(a" was first published in the New York Review 1.1 (Spring 1958), p. 5.

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