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if everything happens that can't be done

if everything happens that can't be done


by E.E. Cummings

if everything happens that can't be done Introduction

In A Nutshell

Though it might be tempting, we don't recommend showing this 1944 poem to your English teacher as proof that all those wacky punctuation and capitalization errors she corrects in your papers were actually a-okay. Unless, of course, the assignment you're debating is a poem.

"if everything happens that can't be done," like many other poems by E.E. Cummings, breaks just about every rules there is in the English language, but it breaks them for a reason. No, Cummings's shift key is not broken, and no, his spacebar isn't broken either. He writes incorrectly (at least as your English teacher would define it) completely and totally on purpose.

It's Cummings's exploration of the elasticity of the English language, including what he does with capitalization, punctuation, and beyond, that makes poems like "if everything happens that can't be done" so magical. It is, plainly, fun to read, and for more reasons than one.

Part of what makes this one fun, in addition to its style, is its subject matter. This poem is about rejoicing in love, nature, and youth. But it's also about what can and can't be said in the English language, and twisting that language to try to say what can't be said, despite the fact that it can't be said in the first place. Phew. That's a whirlwind of impossibility right there, and the poem, as its title suggests, is all about the impossible occurring, in brilliant ways.

"if everything happens that can't be done," well, then we'll just have to go along for the ride and revel in the joys of impossibility.


Why Should I Care?

We hope he won't mind our saying it. The speaker seems, well, speechless in this poem. Sure, he's using all kinds of words, but those words have their limits, and it's those limits that Cummings is emphasizing. The speaker tells us, "birds sing sweeter / than books / can tell," meaning that some things in this world just can't be described by mere words in a book. Nevertheless, he'll keep trying. He really wants to explain the feeling of oneness he finds in life and love. Perhaps, he suggests, this can't be done. But the poem is, remember, about everything that can't be done happening.

In fact, our speaker is asking something similar of us as we read. If you're intimidated by the lack of grammar and ordinary logic of this poem, just remember that we're now in a world where nothing is impossible. If we can let go of the logic of books and reality when we read this poem, we're in for a totally new and totally wonderful logic – in which impossibility itself is possible.

Try this: clear your mind of everything you've learned in a book, and let yourself imagine a world in which everything impossible has suddenly happened. Pigs are flying, fish are walking around on the street, children are giving lessons to their teachers, the girl or boy you thought would never like you suddenly smiles at you, and money is growing on trees. Sounds pretty great, right? So go ahead, dive in.

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