Friday, December 5, 2008

The Day I Learned to Think

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

-- e e cummings

Wow. The first time I read that poem, I would have been in eighth grade, right around my 14th birthday. I was in Dr. T's Humanities class, and it was almost the end of the school year. We had already covered a broad sweep of all art, literature, and drama styles from pre-agricultural times to post-modernism. e e cummings was an exercise in literary analysis. We were enthralled. The poem sounded funky and cool, but it was completely absurd. No sense could be made of it whatsoever. What a strange and fun bit of nonsense.

"What is it about?" Dr. T asked us.

"Huh? This dude named anyone, and nobody loves him, and he dies. And he lives in a 'pretty how town,' whatever that is. The end."

"It's hard to understand, isn't it?"


"What if we change the language around a little bit, to make it less confusing and more familiar?"


So we substituted "Albert" for anyone, and "Bertha" for noone, because, as it turned out, both were individuals. We called the pretty how town "Springfield," and suddenly things started to make a bit of sense.

We broke the stanzas into bits and translated the language into the everyday vernacular. Nuances began to appear. It was amazing. A theme emerged. Our young minds were spinning with wonder.

It struck me all at once. A thunderclap to the head. Literature could mean something! There could be some significance beyond a storyline or simple plot, beyond a theme, beyond even a moral to the tale. It was no longer enough to decipher what a story or poem or play was "about"--there was so much more to it than that! Something from this strange little quatrain lacking capital letters could apply to my own life; could teach me about myself; could give me insight into the world; could show me how to live. What a revelation!

I made two decisions that day, although I'm not sure if I was conscious of them at the time.

First, I would try to be like anyone and noone. Isn't it so much better to sing your didn't and dance your did (in other words, rejoice in both your successes and your failures, so that you may learn from each and better experience the journey of life) than sow your isn't and reap the same? Wouldn't you rather dream your sleep than sleep your dream?

Second, I would pursue true understanding of art with a relentless passion. Scratching the surface was no longer enough. Aesthetic appeal and prettiness of rhyme were fine and dandy, but the true value of art lies deeper--in its interpretation, significance, and life message.

Of course, the cultivation of these skills is a life-long process. I'm still working on it. I'll still be working on it a long time from now, but I hope I never forget it. But I can truly say that the day I read this poem marked a turning point (one of many!) in not only my academic career, but my life in general.

So thank you, Dr. T, and thank you, e e cummings, and most of all, thank you, anyone.

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