E. E. Cummings Calls for Nonconformity in “anyone lived in a pretty how town”

by Erin
Written for May 14, 2007

Modern living in the adult world is often mundane and monotonous. It is easy to allow oneself to fall into this orthodox lifestyle, and any attempt to break away from this traditionalism is difficult and incites skepticism and even scorn. However, this widespread conventionality is dangerous. Cummings’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town” emphatically warns that conformity leads to a monotonous life without meaning, passion, or true pleasure.

It is natural that E. E. Cummings, a true individual, would illustrate the dangers of conformity in his poetry. As a member of the Modernist movement, Cummings often experimented with his literature, making his poetry unique and truly expressive of his personality. He also refused to allow himself to be confined to one career like many other people and pursued all of his passions; consequently, Cummings was able to live a meaningful life. In his poetry, he conveyed this attitude with the glorification of nonconformists and the communication of his dislike of commercial mass culture. Cummings rejected the narrow-mindedness of what he called “mostpeople” and thus frequently criticized the behavior and mindset of these types of people in his work (“E[dward”). His “anyone lived in a pretty how town” is no exception, and in fact is one of his most blatant attacks against conventionality.

The contrast between the characters in “anyone lived in a pretty how town” is the most forceful depiction in the poem of the negative aspects of conformity. Cummings starkly juxtaposed anyone and noone, the heroes of the poem, next to the “Women and men” and their children, the mundane townspeople, to highlight the differences between those who conform and those who do not. The individualistic anyone and noone are humble and unselfish people. They do not feel compelled to establish themselves as famous or superior, and because of their self-satisfaction, they are able to love each other and experience a full range of emotions (Marks 40). Anyone openly and optimistically embraces everything that life offers, his successes as well as his failures, as “he sang his didn’t he danced his did” (4) suggests. As whole people, anyone and noone are capable of growth. They make the most their life on Earth, and then when they die, “they become ‘was by was'” and achieve the highest possible contentment. Cummings demonstrates this complete development by continuing to describe anyone and noone after their deaths in the present tense, unlike the rest of the characters, who remain forever in the past tense (Marks 41).

The town’s “Women and men,” on the other hand, live their lives opposite of anyone and noone. Their lives are mundane, and they follow a monotonous, traditional pattern. Never content, they spread their negativism throughout all of their dull lives. Incapable of love, the “someones” simply marry “their everyones” (17), with no deep connection or happiness with each other (Turco). They go about their daily lives mechanically; they only “did their dance” (18), which echoes the dancing of anyone, but its phrasing is traditional, reflecting their conformist ways. The “Women and men” “said their nevers they slept their dream” (20), signifying that they muddle through life, moping about what they cannot achieve while missing the opportunities to meet their goals. Their characters do not develop or even change, and their lives are as “empty and meaningless as” the monotony of their daily routines (Marks 41).

Even more “pathetic” are the children, who figuratively “die onstage.” The third stanza indicates that they can detect the love between anyone and noone, and they are the only ones who do (Hunt), but “down they forgot as up they grew” (10). They abandon their innocence and sensitivity as they age to adopt the traditional lifestyle of their parents and become as hopelessly meaningless as all the other townspeople (Marks 41-42).

The literary devices in “anyone lived in a pretty how town” mirror and contribute to the poem’s message. Cummings utilizes refrain, which not only creates emphasis through repetition but also serves as a reminder of the redundancy of the townspeople’s lives. The most significant refrain, “they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same” (7), is reiterated in the final stanza with “reaped their sowing and went their came” (35). These lines refer to the townsfolk and signify that they disseminate their pessimism and unhappiness among others and continue to cultivate their conventional values and rituals. This emphasizes the misery and discontentedness of their conformist lifestyle. Another refrain reflects the personalities of the townspeople: “Women and men(both little and small)” (5) and “Women and men(both dong and ding)” (33). The first instance this is used conveys that the differences among the “Women and men” range from “little” to “small” and therefore are, according to Clark, insignificant and imperceptible (“On”). When it is used in the final stanza, “both dong and ding” compares the townsfolk to the ringing of a bell, which has a regular and mechanical sound to it. This comparison stresses the monotony of the women and men due to their conformist nature (Turco).

Contrast is the most powerful device utilized to stress the meaning of the poem. Cummings organizes the stanzas into groups of three so that each quatrain describes a different group of characters. As Steinmann explains, the first stanza mentions the protagonists, the second refers to the townspeople, and the third discusses the children. This pattern continues in the next set of three quatrains. The result is a descent in personal value and quality of life, from the content anyone and noone, to the dissatisfied Women and men, to the pitiful children. Eventually the children are nowhere to be found in the poem, as they have essentially joined the “Women and men” as monotonous adults. After anyone and noone die, all that is left is the tedious and repetitive lives of the townsfolk (“On”).

Cummings maintains his use paradox in his carefully calculated word choice. The diction is purposefully equivocal simply in the names of the characters. While “anyone” and “no one” typically refer to unspecified people, in this poem they are very particular people. The trend continues with the “Women and men” and the “someones” and “everyones,” who are actually the townspeople in general. Ironically, they are the ones who should be called “anyone.” This contradiction in the names of the characters serves as a method to focus on the true meaning of the words and to provoke thought about the idea Cummings is conveying (Marks 40).

“Anyone lived in a pretty how town” by E. E. Cummings salutes the individual and the benefits of a nonconformist lifestyle. By creating a story in a familiar setting of a normal town, Cummings allows readers to understand the lives of the townspeople and to realize the truth behind the actions of the people they see in everyday life (or perhaps in their very own lives). He effectively utilizes juxtaposition in the structure and diction of the poem to emphasize the meaninglessness that results from conformity. Overall Cummings conveys a powerful message denouncing the traditional lifestyle of what he would call “mostpeople.”

Works Cited

Cummings, E. E. “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 5th ed., Vol. 2. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 1998. 1485-1486.

“E(dward) E(stlin) Cummings.” DISCovering Authors. Gale, 2003. Discovering Collection. Thomson Gale. 22 Apr 2007.

Hunt, B J. “Cummings’s Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town.” The Explicator (Washington) 64.6 (2006): 226.

Marks, Barry. E. E. Cummings. Boston: Twayne, 1964.

“On ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town.'” Modern American Poetry. 28 Mar 2007. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/cummings/howtown.htm

Turco, Lewis. “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” Masterplots II: Poetry Revised Edition. Salem, 2002. MagillOnLiterature Plus. Ebsco. 28 Mar 2007.

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