By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The poem with the opening line ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ is one of E. E. Cummings’ (or perhaps that should be, following the poet’s own self-styling, e. e. cummings’) best-known poems. But like much of his poetry, ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ presents a number of challenges to comprehension and analysis, so a few words of literary-critical commentary may be useful. You can read Cummings’ poem here.
Summary of ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’
A man referred to simply as ‘anyone’ lives in a town all the year round, singing and dancing his way through things in a carefree manner.
The men and women who live in the town don’t seem to give him any thought, except for a woman, ‘noone’, who laughs and grieves with him and appreciates him. The children seem to realise that ‘noone’ loves ‘anyone’, but as they grow up they become like the other adults and don’t really care.
Around ‘anyone’ and ‘noone’, other ‘someones’ get married and get on with their lives, just like ‘anyone’ and ‘noone’. They lived, or ‘slept’, their dream. Then, one day, ‘anyone’ appears to have died, and ‘noone’ died of grief some time after. They were buried side by side.
And in time, the other men and women living around them also died, too, coming and going (‘went their came’) as the bells ring and the seasons change.
Analysis of ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’
Immediately in that first line, ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’, E. E. Cummings uses language in an unconventional manner. Not someone lived, but ‘anyone’: it doesn’t matter who. The point is that the subject of Cummings’ poem is decidedly ordinary, and could be just about anyone.
And then we have ‘pretty how town’. A pretty what town? A pretty town is fine; even a pretty ‘cow town’ would be permissible English, if we’re talking about the cow towns of the frontier and Old West.
But ‘how’ has no business being drafted in as an adjective to qualify ‘town’. It’s as if Cummings is making us think about how a town might be pretty; as if the phrase is a telescoping of the sentiment, ‘I know it’s a town, but it was somehow pretty…’ (in other words, it isn’t all that pretty).
‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ is, like Emily Dickinson’s ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’, a poem about anonymity and obscurity. A man named anyone lives in an average town, gets married to no one, and eventually dies: the poem captures the ordinariness of the life of the average American, but in Cummings’ trademark style.
Of course, part of the fun of the poem is the fact that ‘noone’, the lover and wife of ‘anyone’, isn’t simply his complement (they’re both anybody, and therefore, also, nobody in particular): writing that ‘noone loved him more by more’ (with ‘more by more’ cunningly joining together ‘little by little’ with ‘more and more’) makes it sound as if ‘anyone’ is unloved; but there is a world of difference between the women and men ‘car[ing] for anyone not at all’ (not caring for this particular anyone, or just anyone in general: either works here) and ‘noone lov[ing] him’.
In other words, the poem is a celebration of anonymity and the fact that it is perfectly possible to live a full and exciting life, to love and be loved, without being anybody special. Being ‘anyone’ is enough.
Is ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ a memento mori, or a reminder that we die? Not exactly, since the death of ‘anyone’ is presented at the end of a depiction of his life and marriage, and the poem seems stoic about his eventual demise.
But the use of the ‘bells’ in the poem to suggest the rituals and ceremonies that mark our lives (birth or christenings; marriage; death and funerals) broadens the focus out from ‘anyone’ to generations of ordinary small-town anyones down the years, decades, centuries.
‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ was made into a short film by George Lucas.