This poem has a pretty complicated form, which you can read about in our "Form and Meter" section, but it somehow still sounds simple, free, and easy.
Go ahead, read it aloud to yourself. It's fun, we promise.
In fact, this poem sounds just like the actions from each stanza's second set of parentheses: running, leaping, and shouting with joy. And what's more fun than that?
This poem is so full of noise and life that it sounds like a whole group of children has gone out to recess and is playing a game in which they run, hop, skip and giggle as much as possible, having fun in the sun.
Plus, it has that repetitive quality that children's games often do. The repeated rhymes and consistent structure, the simple words and the rollicking rhythms – they all come right out of a child's playbook. How bout a game of Ring Around the Rosie, Shmoopers?
Technically speaking, this poem doesn't actually have a title. But lucky for you, we'll talk about it anyways.
Like many of Cummings's poems, this piece is simply known by its first line. It's not printed with a title, so the first line becomes the default title, and there' you have it, folks: "if everything happens that can't be done."
As luck would have it, this first line/title comes in handy when we're trying to understand this poem. The piece starts off by proposing a hypothetical situation, in which everything happens that can't be done. We're given the first half of an "if… then" statement. When you read every line keeping the first one in mind, it can help you make sense of some of the paradoxes and contradictions in the poem. After all, if the impossible can happen, well, then the impossible can happen.
Plus, it's important to note that the first line doesn't just come right out and say, "Look, you can do the impossible!" Instead, it tells us that everything is happening that can't be done. People aren't doing these things that can't be done. Nope, those things are just happening. There's some mysterious force at work here, and we're guessing that it might be this whole "one" concept, and we're guessing that it has something to do with love.
Though we can't be exactly sure where this poem is set, the references to teachers, books, nature, and the childish actions seen in the parentheses make the poem seem like it's set at a playground where children are enjoying their recess. It's likely that this playground is just in our speaker's head, but, nonetheless, the poem has a childish glee.
More important than the physical place where this poem is set, though, is the type of world this place is. We know from the first line of the poem that this piece is going to describe a world in which "everything happens that can't be done." In other words, nothing is impossible in this world, so when we read we should drop any skepticism that we've picked up from years of living in a world with limits.
In this poem, love can be brighter than the sun, the world can be a leaf, far can be near, anything can be everything, and even "everyanything." Everything is happening, all at once, and it couldn't be more wonderful.
This speaker doesn't come right out and tell us much about himself, but we Shmoop sleuths can guess a good bit about what he might be like, based on what he has written.
Most importantly, we know that he's in love thanks to line 28, and that the person he loves happens to love him, too. If you've ever been in love, you'll know that it's a pretty wonderful feeling, which gives us a context for all the exhilaration and wonder we've seen throughout this poem. Our speaker is so in love that he feels as if he has become one with his lover, and that they are brighter than the sun. Swoon.
We don't really know how old the speaker is, or where he lives, but he writes about running and skipping (6-7). So, regardless of how old the guy is, his love sure makes him feel young. Also, no matter where he actually lives, his love has made him feel like it's a place where anything is possible, where "everything happens that can't be done."
Strangely, our speaker, who's writing a poem, has a strong aversion to books. But we think that Shmoop can let him slide on that one. In fact, we might as well pin it on love too. Why sit in the house reading a book about love when you can go outside and actually be in love? Why not drop the novel, and go bask in the sun with your special someone?
The funny thing about the difficulty level of this poem is that, if you read it with an open mind, it's pretty easy to feel, if not understand, what the poem is saying. But if your mind is closed by, say, everything everyone has ever told you about how to read poetry, this poem might prove tricky. It just refuses to make logical sense in many of its lines. There are made-up words and crazy phrases, paradoxes and metaphors left and right, weird capitalization, and no punctuation other than parentheses.
Our advice is to battle through all the stuff that confuses you, and read the poem based on how it makes you feel, without analyzing every single little part of it. Once you've truly felt the poem, then you can start to analyze it to discover why and how it makes you feel that way.
E.E. Cummings loves to play with words. Of course, many poets play with words, but Cummings has an astonishing knack for it. Not only does he come up with new words, he makes us think new things about old words by simply using them in entirely different ways from what we're used to.
He'll take a simple word, like "something," a word which most people just gloss right over, and explore its meanings and uses in new and fascinating ways. Cummings's poems are about words, and how they work and fit together, as much as they're about anything else, and "if everything happens that can't be done" is no exception.
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.
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:
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.
"if everything happens that can't be done" might be about love, but it sure is crammed with nature. Hmm. Maybe those two things have something to do with each other. Again and again, things in this piece are compared to things in nature, which seems like a place where all of experience is vibrant and wonderful. When you dive into this poem, we'd recommend sitting outside, shaded from the brilliant sun by a big old tree. We think the speaker would like that.
If there's anything that keeps kids away from nature, it's school. Throughout this poem, the speaker talks about books, and he mentions a teacher once. But for someone who's writing a poem, he doesn't seem to like books so much. There's still a lot of jubilation in this piece, though, that reminds us of the glee of schoolchildren playing outside during recess. When you read this poem, try thinking of the joy you used to feel during recess, when you got to romp around outside before returning to be cooped up in the classroom.
We hear a lot about this whole "one" thing in this poem, but we never get an explanation of what it actually is. It's up to us to define "one," but to be fair, the speaker does give us some hints, which we've outlined below. Our best guess is that this "one" is the same thing as the "we." Perhaps this oneness could be the way the world feels to the speaker when he's deeply in love. But that's Shmoop's guess. What's yours?
There are two people in love in this poem, but sex is nowhere to be found.