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if everything happens that can't be done

if everything happens that can't be done


by E.E. Cummings

Stanza 1 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Line 1

if everything happens that can't be done

  • This line, which doubles as the poem's title, is crucial for understanding the poem. So don't get caught up in reading it too fast, because that can throw you off.
  • Break it down word-by-word – think, first, "if everything happens." Basically, we're supposed to imagine what it will be like if a lot of stuff happens. Sounds pretty standard.
  • Then, we read, "that can't be done." So all of this stuff that we're supposed to imagine going on can't be done – in fact, everything that we thought couldn't be done is being done. Whoa. Quite the paradox, huh?
  • Apparently, the speaker wants us to think, what would it be like if everything happens that we thought couldn't be done? Anything you ever thought was impossible not only can happen, but is happening, right now, as we read this poem. Cool, huh?
  • Of course we can't forget that this line has a big "if" at the beginning of it. That means that whatever comes next is contingent upon the impossible happening.

Lines 2-4

(and anything's righter
than books
could plan)

  • Don't think that the parentheses mean that these lines aren't important, because they are – they're just set apart because they build on the first line.
  • In fact, they add a condition to it. We're supposed to now be imagining (1) if everything happens that can't be done, and also (2) if "anything's righter than books could plan."
  • So what does "anything's righter than books could plan" mean?
  • First of all, we have some personification going on here, with books planning. We can see it now—the books powwowing with their authors, scheduling away on a super intense calendar, plotting to the utmost detail.
  • This personification, though, shows us that books are not, as some of our teachers might want us to believe, the definitive source of knowledge, of right and wrong. As much as the writer of a book might try plan something out, chances are, anything else could still be more right than that book.
  • It might help to think about this in reverse – books can be wrong about anything, the lines suggest, so don't make your plans based off of what you read in some book.
  • We've got one more tip for you: Now that you've read them in your head, read lines 1-4 aloud to yourself, and read them fast, as if they were just two lines. Notice anything?
  • They have the same rhythm, don't they? It almost sounds like a waltz. That's because Cummings was a master at playing with meter and rhythm in poetry, and this one is no exception. Head on over to "Form and Meter" for more about what meter he's using in this poem.

Line 5

the stupidest teacher will almost guess

  • Here's where we get the conclusion of the "if… then" statement that began in line 1. This line shows us what will happen if the prior lines are true.
  • If the impossible is happening, and things are righter than books, then even the stupidest teacher will almost guess. Just what he or she will guess, we'll find out soon.

Lines 6-8

(with a run
around we go yes)

  • These lines, again in parentheses, could fit into the poem in a few different ways. We want to think that they're an aside about how the stupidest teacher is almost guessing something (rather gleefully, apparently).
  • But there's a problem with that reading, which arrives when we hit the trouble that there's a "we" in these lines, and we thought we were only dealing with one teacher here.
  • Is the teacher speaking? Perhaps to his or her students? "Around we go, kids!"
  • Or are the students speaking here? We can imagine young kids, at recess, skipping around, perhaps chanting these lines. Maybe they're happy that the world seems to be becoming more magical, and that their teacher is doing something different than normal. Perhaps in this everything-is-possible world, recess lasts longer than class. Sigh. We wish.
  • Or the lines could just express general jubilation at the way the world works in this poem. Maybe the teacher, and anyone else who's been liberated from a "can't be done" way of thinking, are the "we" who are running and skipping.
  • Or the speaker of the poem could even be talking to us: "Around we go, readers!"
  • Note how the word "skip" actually seems to skip, because it's in a line of its own. Nice trick, E.E.

Line 9

there's nothing as something as one

  • A-ha. We finally see what our teacher is almost guessing. But it's not something of great academic importance. Nope, at first glance, "nothing as something as one" actually sounds like pure gibberish.
  • But, if we think about it, it's quite similar to the poem's title, which is also a bit of nonsense on first read.
  • In this line, first, we think of nothingness and emptiness.
  • But then we read "nothing as something," so whatever that nothing is, it's really something. (Head spinning yet?)
  • In the end, this line actually has nothing to do with nothingness. Instead, it's all about oneness. So we might read these lines as saying something like, "there is nothing in the world that is as much a something as oneness." Or something.
  • Unfortunately, at this point, we don't have a clue what's so "something" about one. "Something" is a pretty unusual adjective/noun to use – does it mean that "one" is the most thing-like? The most some-like?
  • The safest bet here is to guess that "one" is probably so hard to describe that a word like "something" must suffice.
  • Also remember that our teacher is only "almost" guessing this, so it might be a pretty tough concept to grasp. But then again, he's the stupidest teacher; so maybe a smarter one would have it down pat?
  • We'll dig into it as we read, but for now you can just enjoy the rhythm and word play in the line. We promise it will pay off later.
  • Oh, and before we forget, there's a rhyme in this line. "One" rhymes with "run" from line 6, and of course "done" from line 1. Keep an eye (or an ear) out for more rhymes in the poem, and then head on over to our "Form and Meter" section for the lowdown.

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