"a word nerd's guide to magic": A Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town x The Mother exploration

Updated: Aug 21, 2019

I am a rather picky poet. But poetry at times can be quite a pickle, or at least if we allow it to be. From this you can tell that I am an even pickier reader. But again, it is important to note that you are merely entering my interpretation of “good” poetry. Take possibly my favorite poem Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town” by E.E. Cummings and one of a slightly different character, “The Mother” by Gwendolyn Brooks, and you will see. You may also end up disagreeing with a lot of my points, but poetry shouldn’t be an exclusive art.

For this exploration of Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town”, we will interpret some collective nouns as given names. “Anyone” is a boy and “noone” is a girl. With that said, the poem tells the story of a boy who lived in a town of “women and men” who “cared for anyone not at all” until “one day anyone died” (5, 6, 25). If we unscramble line 6, it could be understood that the women and men did “not care(d) for anyone at all”. As we continue to apply this technique, line 12, “that noone loved him more by more” can be understood to say that in contrast, Noone loved Anyone very much. At first read, E.E. Cumming’s language and message feel like secrets one has to possess a special skill to read. However, the odd grammatical orders and use of the conceits “anyone” and “noone” in fact allow readers to choose their own adventure with meaning. My interpretation deems “anyone” and “noone” as definite gendered characters because in the poem, the pronoun “he” is often written associated with “anyone” as she is with “noone”. However, because they are essentially collective nouns, they can also be understood as simply collective nouns. A middle ground interpretation may allow the root collective nouns to hint to a reader that “anyone” and “noone” are individuals, but very irrelevant individuals in the town. This interpretation also allowed me to I romanticize line 16, “anyone’s any was all to her”, to mean that anything the boy had meant everything to the girl (16). There’s really no definite way to interpret this poem.

Readers can associate practically any words as nouns, verbs or adjectives, and have them translate negative or positive tones. The speaker tells us that regarding noone’s love for anyone, “children guessed (but only a few / and down they forget as up they grew…” (9, 10). One reader may choose to interpret these lines as to mean that as the children grew up, they understood more about noone’s love for anyone, because of the universally known opposing adverbs “down” and “up”. The children forget less as they grew more. However, the adverb “down” can also mean to go deeper towards something. Perhaps as the children grew up, they forgot more and more about noone’s love. This example is more open to different unscrambling of words and meanings compared to the previous examples of lines 5, 6 and 12. I adore “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town” for its delicate abstractness. It is straight forward enough to express the author’s intentions but is equally inviting of other different interpretations.

Gwendolyn Brooks is arguably more straightforward with “The Mother”. I say this because my understanding of the poem’s dark message arrived quicker, although both poems were equipped with equal amounts of negative diction. It could be said that “The Mother” addresses its topic, abortion, in a more forward confessional tone. The poem begins with “Abortion will not let you forget”, letting readers know right away exactly what the topic and the speaker’s view on it is (1). A second person voice illustrates the aftermath of choosing abortion in a rather warning tone in the first stanza, as if the speaker was an expert of the issue. In further contrast to “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town”, sentences are in more correct grammatical order. However, there are similar techniques of symbolism sprinkled here and there.

It is often said that a good poet paints the pictures we have in our minds with colors we didn’t know were there. Good poets should stimulate enough comfort, or discomfort, with a poem’s imagery for a reader to discover the feelings that the reader has hidden inside on their own. This idea can be captured through a technique that I often refer to as “showing more and telling less”. The “The Mother” executes this by naming scenarios that will never happen for the parent and the baby because of the abortion. The first stanza tells of “singers and workers that never handled the air” and how the parent will never “scuttle off ghosts that come” (4,8). These actions are left for the reader to decide whether their cancellation really puts the reader at a disadvantage like the opening line suggests. It can be argued that the only other hint of regret for losing the child is found in the “luscious sigh” that the parent is said to would have had to control when briefly leaving the child during the day (9). Once again, we find a delicate abstraction. Despite the speaker’s firm opening line, the reader is left to see the situation and determine their interpretation.

Figures of speech are a great way of executing the technique of “showing more and telling less” and make a poem more entertainingly vivid. Line 3, “The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,” features “small pulps” as metaphors for the lost children (3). Pulps are defined as small soft shapeless matters, but a reader often associates the word with a mandarin pulp. In this case, the metaphor helps a reader understand the fragility of the little humans and how they are fundamentally incapable of anything against the choices of their parent. Brooks also illustrates strong use of this technique in “The Mother” because although the topic of focus is hard to talk about, the occasional appearances of metaphors allows for a softer delivery. Small mandarin pulps the babies were and the “singers and workers” they could have been, are unquestionably more bearable to think about than dead fetuses they have become.

In “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town”, the phrases “spring summer autumn winter” and “sun moon stars rain” are interchangeably repeated in every other stanza. With each of their new appearances, the words within each phrase are in a different order (3, 8). These uses of metonymy can translate the reordering of “spring summer autumn winter” to progression of time and “sun moon stars rain” to the changing of space within the poem. The concepts of the changing time and space are actually what make anyone’s and noone’s situation so grim because the ignorance of the women and men continued for so long. At first read, the phrases may seem like rhythm fillers or hint aspects of a nursery rhyme. But this youthful songlike tone is similar to the figures of speech in “The Mother”. Seasons and aspects of space or the sky are pleasant things, even pretty things to observe and wonder about. Looking up at the sky or feeling the weather often makes an individual imagine the endless possibilities ahead. However, with deeper reading, this charm is present in “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town” to indicate to how the ignorant women and men wasted anyone and noone’s time and existence.

The thing about poetry is that it is able to make pretty things ugly and ugly things a bit prettier in the quietest ways. I guess this is the aspect of a poem that I pay attention to first, and the most because poetry should tickle the ear read aloud. E.E. Cummings also plays around with rhythm and sound with the refrains “spring summer autumn winter” and “sun moon stars rain” by rhyming “summer” and “winter” and alliterating the “s”, “t” and “r” sounds of the words (3,8). The poem is catchy and songlike because the ear listens with a set expectation. The reader is also set to expect a string of pleasant things and just by making the truth sound nicer to the ear, the truth may sound a little nicer to the mind. But rhyme also helps stress ideas, and in this case, unpleasant ideas. Take the last stanza of Cumming’s poem: “women and men (both day and ding) / summer autumn winter spring / weaped their sowing and went their came / sun moon stars rain” (33-36). By rhyming “ding” with “spring” and “came” with “rain”, the poet is connecting the different women and men and their activities to the progressions of time and space. The tone is still rather pleasant.

Brooks on the other hand arguably uses alliteration to deliberately stress the definite end of abortion in lines such as “You remember the children you got that you did not get” and “I have said, sweets, if I sinned, if I seized/ your luck” (2, 14-15). The pairings “got” and “get” and “sweet”, “sinned” and “seized” bounce off one another rhythmically, helping to catch the reader’s attention. However, these pairings oppose one another in meaning. The parent does not have the children they had, and the parent sinned the sweet children. This clever manipulation of sound and meaning creates an openness that also encourages new understandings of the topic at hand rather than simply a new way to hear it. Perhaps Brooks was saying that an individual and an act can be simultaneously good and bad. Perhaps that is what the poet really hopes the reader understands about abortion. This balancing act can also be found in line 21, “believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate”, where the poet uses the noun form of word to contrast its adjective form (21). This paradoxical tone creates an element of surprise or ambiguity. Is the parent in fact not deserving of all fault? It leaves the reader wondering if everything they’ve understood up to that anomaly was correct. The pattern is interrupted, and the reader is left thinking harder, reading closer and questioning more. That is what good poetry should do.

But then again, this is merely my interpretation of these poems and what I deem “good poetry”. Because poetry is whatever one makes it to be. It should be allowed to be as complicated and as simple as the writer and then reader wishes. But to do so, it must first allow a reader to think. Perhaps that’s what I ask for – inspiration, art inviting art.

That is good poetry, but all poetry is.

© 2018 by Millie Le