Winter 1966. I'm doing my student teaching at West Geauga High School (Chesterland, OH). Eleventh grade English (American lit). In one of my college-prep classes, I skated quickly across the surface of E. E. Cummings' poem "anyone lived in a pretty how town," a performance that did not satisfy a very bright young man, Ed, who raised his hand and informed me there was a lot more to the poem than what I'd so superficially said.
He was, of course, right, but I didn't know what to say about the poem (other than it confused me--which I was not about to confess in class: I was supposed to be an authority, or so I thought).
So I lied. I told him that of course there was more to the poem--but, sigh, we just have to move on. Miles to go before we sleep and all that.
And, as I've written here for the past couple of days, Puritan Guilt has consumed me for nearly fifty years since that day. Throughout my long teaching career (45 years) I never taught that poem (though I did teach others by Cummings), and I guess I was avoiding it.
But last week, spending our annual week at the Stratford Theater Festival in Ontario, I decided, like the walrus, that the time has come. I took a printout of the poem along with me. I memorized it (three stanzas per day); I thought about it and talked about it with Joyce continually.
And now--a half-century later--I am ready to continue my conversation with Ed.
PS--I've pasted the poem below.
ED: There's a lot more to that poem than that.
DYER: You're right, Ed. There is. I'd planned to go on to some other poems--but since you're interested, let's stop and talk about this one. What do you see in it, Ed?
ED: It's a poem about love.
DYER: Anyone else see that? [Some hands, affirmative murmurs.] Well, Ed--or anyone--where do you see "love" in the poem.
ED: Well, noone loves anyone--even the children recognize it. A few of them, anyway.
STUDENT 1: And they get married, too.
STUDENT 2: And after they die, they're buried together, "side by side."
ED: And here's something else: They're living in a pretty town ... but the people in it are not too nice.
ED: Well, they don't like anyone.
STUDENT 3: And they're all so busy, they don't seem to make much out of the deaths of anyone and noone.
DYER: What does Cummings say here about the dreams we have in life?
ED: They don't often come true.
STUDENT 4: I think that's true. In that stanza about marriages, he says that the people get married, are full of hope each morning, and then--
STUDENT 5: And then they say "never." They realize ...
ED: And from then on they "slept their dream." Their dreams and hopes ...
DYER: We see too, don't we, that as we grow older, we forget what we know. We become less observant. "and down they forgot as up they grew" Cummings says about children.
STUDENT 6: And--later: "how children are apt to forget to remember."
ED: This poem is kind of depressing, too.
DYER: What do you mean?
ED: Well, people are just repeating what they always do. All the time--all the seasons.
STUDENT 7: And not recognizing real love when it's right in front of them.
[This goes on for a while.]
DYER: What do you guys make of the look of the poem? The spelling, capitalization, spacing, and so on. If I'd turned this in to my English teachers, I'd get an F on mechanics!
ED: It's all on purpose.
DYER: What is, Ed?
ED: All of it forces you to slow down ... to read ...
STUDENT 8: To read more carefully.
[The conversation continues as we ... fade to black.]
Well, Ed, I hope this will do. I'm sure you would have had brighter things to say than I did here, but--wherever you are--I want you to know that I never forgot your comment.
It just took me a half a century to get around to dealing with it.
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.
Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more
when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her
someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream
stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)
one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was
all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.
Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain