Analysis: Form and Meter
The structure in this poem can be so tricky to spot, we're willing to bet that most people who give this poem a light read, especially without reading it out loud, might miss out on the patterns within it. That would be a crying shame, though, because the patterns and rhythms are the key to unlocking this mysterious poem.
Despite its subtlety, there's a rather complex structure and rhythm here, though it's not any form you'd find in a poetry textbook. In fact, as far as Shmoop can tell, Cummings made it up for this particular piece. But the fact that he invented it doesn't make it any less strict. Let's take a closer look.
Rhyme and Rhythm
First, rhyme. In each stanza, the first, fourth, and ninth lines rhyme. In the second stanza, for example, "although," "grow," and "so" rhyme. Plus, the fifth and eighth lines rhyme, like the first stanza's "guess," and "yes." Each stanza follows this rhyming pattern.
Oh, but we're not done, folks. We've also got some meter action. Each stanza follows a roughly iambic meter. This means that the line has an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable, and we call this pair an iamb, which is a type of "foot" or unit of sound in poetry. It makes a "da-DUM" sound.
Unfortunately, this poem isn't all iambs. Nope, Cummings likes to toss in these pesky little things called anapests. An anapest, like an iamb, is a foot, or a unit of sound. Except instead of going da-DUM, an anapest goes da-da-DUM. In this poem, Cummings has a habit of combining iambs and anapests in his lines, making for a fun rhythmical romp.
Let's take a peek at the first stanza, to see this meter in action:
if everything happens that can't be done
(and anything's righter
the stupidest teacher will almost guess
(with a run
around we go yes)
there's nothing as something as one (1-9)
So the first line reads a little something like this: da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM da-DUM. In fact, so does the parenthesis that follows, if we read the whole thing as one line. The fifth line, too, follows this pattern. Each of these lines contains an iamb, followed by two anapests, followed by a final iamb.
Then, the second parenthesis goes da-da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM. That's three anapests in a row. And finally, the last line of the stanza goes da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM. That's an iamb followed by two anapests.
As it turns out, each stanza follows the same pattern, with a few variations here and there, which makes this poem a formal one, despite its strange grammar and sentence structure.
If this whole anapest/iamb thing is confusing you, don't worry too much about it. What really matters is that each line of each stanza has a certain amount of syllables, which remains constant throughout the poem.
In fact, there are a ton of other patterns going on here, which add to the depth of formality in the poem. Take a look at this list we've compiled, and see if you can spot even more:
- The second line always ends with a comparative adjective, which ends in "er" (for example, "better" in line 11).
- Except for in the final stanza, each second line starts with the word "and."
- Every stanza's third line in the poem is the same two words: "than books."
- The fourth line of each stanza closes out the parentheses trend, and is only two words (or one metrical foot, long).
- Each stanza's sixth line always has three words, and always begins with the word "with."
- Then the seventh line is only one word and the eighth line has either three or four words, and – except in the final stanza – starts with the word "around."
- The last line of each stanza has three metrical feet.
- The last word of each stanza repeats as the first word in the next stanza.
What should we take away from this? Well, though it first seems like it's just a playful and fun poem, "if everything happens that can't be done" has a structure that is marvelously complicated. As you read, think about what the effect of this structure is on the meaning of the poem.