Study Guide

if everything happens that can't be done

if everything happens that can't be done Summary

Our speaker starts off questioning the intelligence of books and teachers, introducing the gleeful language that runs throughout the poem. We're on shaky ground here, grammar-wise, but we're up for the challenge.

Then the poem moves on to a discussion of what "one" is, and plays with language a bit. It breaks down boundaries between the large and small parts of our world, and continues to question the ability of books to describe the world. That's when we start getting into the meat of the impossible happening, when the poem claims that "forever was never till now." Minds? Blown.

The speaker then get an idea of where this exhilarated mood might come from. Yep, our speaker is in love. He describes this love as greater than books, or really anyone, can describe. Sounds about right.

  • Stanza 1

    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
    skip
    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.
  • Stanza 2

    Line 10

    one hasn't a why or because or although

    • Here, we get more word play around the concept of "one."
    • Let's break it down. Our concept of "one" in this poem is growing. We know that it's more "something" than anything else, and that it doesn't have a "why," "because," or "although." But why?
    • Maybe that's the wrong question. After all, it seems that "one" is just there, being something. It doesn't need labels.
    • Could this be an example of something that, until this poem, we would have thought couldn't have been done? Food for thought…
    • Did you notice another pattern that's showing itself in this poem? The last word in each stanza is repeated as the first word of the next, like the word "one" in this stanza. It creates a nice swirly effect, huh? See our "Form and Meter" section for more.

    Lines 11-13

    (and buds know better
    than books
    don't grow)

    • Those pesky parentheses are at it again. And again, like most of the other lines in the poem, these lines may seem to be pretty nonsensical at first. But never fear. There's an easy way to break them down and put them back together again.
    • First think about the first two lines together: "and buds know better / than books." This fits right in with the parenthesis of the first stanza, that "anything's righter / than books."
    • "Buds" probably refers to flower buds, or perhaps young children (budding youth). Now we start to see how the beauty of nature and youth, at least in this poem, is more important than book learning. Youth and nature know more than books do.
    • Then, let's break down the second part of this parenthesis. Forget the first line, and the first word of the second line, and we've got "books / don't grow." So buds not only know better than books do, but also books, unlike buds, don't grow. Looks like the score is 2-0, buds on top.
    • We might also read these lines as saying something like, "Buds are even better at knowing that books are at not growing." Yep, that sounds about right.

    Line 14

    one's anything old being everything new

    • Again, the speaker tells us little bit more about the concept of "one." This line fits into the title of "everything happens that can't be done," because it's saying that anything old is now everything new.
    • This is yet another paradox, or contradiction, because something old can't be something new. Or can it? Remember that the impossible just might happen in this poem.
    • We might consider this line metaphorically, too. After all, the line is saying that this "one" thing "is" old things becoming new again. He is comparing the awesomeness of "one" to the awesomeness of everything old becoming new. That isn't necessarily what one is, but it is what one is like.

    Lines 15-17

    (with a what
    which
    around we come who)

    • Wait. What? Surely your head is spinning now.
    • These lines echo lines 6-8, but with a new spin. Same gleeful tone, new confusing idea.
    • "What" and "which" express questioning, and we can't help but think that a lot of questioning must be going on in a world where everything is happening that can't be done.
    • Then we come around to something of an understanding, but not without more questioning, of course. We know who's coming around in these lines: we are. Maybe that's all our speaker's saying, or perhaps there's a deeper play on words going on here. What do you think?
    • One thing we can say for certain about these lines is that they're super fun to read aloud, and they give an even more playful bounce to this already whimsical poem.

    Line 18

    one's everyanything so

    • Want to learn more about one? Well, in any case, our speaker is going to tell you.
    • Earlier, he told us that it was "anything" old being "everything" new, and now we get that one is "everyanything."
    • No, this is not a real word, and no, this wasn't a typo. "Everyanything" is a wonderful combination – it's everything and anything combined. That covers just about every possibility, right? Your English teacher might be tempted to correct this to "every and any thing" to be grammatically correct, but where's the fun or the rhythm in that?
    • Then there's that tricky "so" at the end of the line. What's that doing there?
    • We use the word "so" in a lot of ways. Sometimes we say "like so" meaning, "like this." Sometimes we use it to mean "therefore." Sometimes it means "very." And sometimes we just use it as an interjection: "So I was walking down the street when… "
    • In this case, we can read "so" in two different ways:
    • (1) "One is very everyanything." Or,
    • (2) "One is everyanything, therefore… "
    • Try not to grow discouraged that it's hard to pin down one meaning for each and every word and line of this poem. Instead, look at this piece as though it's a puzzle with many different solutions, each one just as right as the next.
    • Part of the fun in reading it is investigating all of the different possible meanings for its words and lines. The more solutions you can think of, whether or not we here at Shmoop have thought of them, the better you're doing.
  • Stanza 3

    Line 19

    so world is a leaf so a tree is a bough

    • This line, repeating the word "so," jumps off from line 18. It seems that this line is the logical result of that previous line: "one's everyanything," therefore the world is a leaf, and a tree is a bough.
    • This makes us think of the world as rather changeable and magical. One thing can be everything, so if a leaf is one thing, then the world, representing everything, is a leaf. In the same sense, a whole big tree can be just one bough, or branch, and vice versa. Wow.
    • We would say that this line has two metaphors, in which the speaker would be comparing the world to a leaf and the tree to a bough, but we suspect that, in the world of this poem, this metaphor is actually literal.
    • After all, everything impossible is happening: every one thing could be any other thing, or everything all at once. This might seem crazy, but just remember – the rules of reality don't apply here. Everyanything goes.

    Lines 20-22

    (and birds sing sweeter
    than books
    tell how)

    • This parenthesis remind you of anything? How about lines 11-13?
    • Yep, just as "buds know better / than books / don't grow," these birds sing sweeter than books tell how.
    • The comparison, here, is between a bird's song and a book's explanation. Sure, a book could try to explain what a bird's song sounds like, but the description will never be quite as sweet as the actual sound. Shmoop thinks, though, that if you can't actually hear that song, then reading about it is the next best thing.
    • These are perhaps the most quoted lines of the poem, and, thankfully, they're actually rather easy to make sense of. Basically, the speaker is arguing that nature is a lot more brilliant than books could ever capture.

    Line 23

    so here is away and so your is a my

    • This line echoes the structure of the first line of the stanza grammatically, but it doesn't mean the same thing. While the first line of the stanza says that a larger thing (like the world or a tree) is a smaller thing (like a leaf or a bough), this line is comparing opposites.
    • "Here," it says, is "away," and "your," is "a my." The extra "a" in front of "my" seems a little awkward, but the trick here is to read the line aloud – and then you'll hear the echo from "away" that plays into "a my."
    • This line hints a little more at the meaning of this whole "one" thing. What's far is near, what's yours is mine. In this poem at least, it seems that this big old crazy world all boils down to oneness. Everything is everything, or so Lauryn Hill would say.

    Lines 24-26

    (with a down
    up
    around again fly)

    • These lines seem to be describing the way that "here is away" and "your is a my." However, this line describes flying, which brings us right back to lines 20-22, where we're told that birds can sing sweeter than books can describe.
    • So now birds (or something else, maybe?) are flying down, up, and around in this world in which opposites are melding and large is becoming small. This is a happy, joyous existence, freed from the constraints of books and from the rules of space and time.
    • What's so fun about these lines in particular is that we might read them as an invitation or command. The speaker wants us to fly up, down, and around as we read this poem. We're totally down for some flight.

    Line 27

    forever was never till now

    • The concept of "forever" seemed impossible, far away. It seemed as though it would never actually be true, that is, until now, at this moment, in this poem. Awesome, right?
    • Of course there are a couple different kinds of forever we could think about, but judging by the context of the poem, we think they are probably all happy.
    • Our speaker isn't thinking about "forever" as being condemned to live his afterlife in hell, or something like that. Instead, he could be envisioning eternal life in heaven, eternal time on Earth, or an eternal emotion, like true love. Remember, anything's possible.
    • But what is it about this very moment that makes forever possible? What has changed? Keep reading…
  • Stanza 4

    Line 28

    now i love you and you love me

    • Oh, so that's what has changed. Our speaker is in love, and that love is what has made forever seem possible.
    • Now, before you shy away from the cheesy love poem cliché, think about the poem you have read so far. Is it your typical hearts and flowers love note? Hardly. The rest of this piece is so twisted and complicated that we'll just have to let our speaker get away with a corny moment or two. He has earned it.
    • Of course, we also have to point out that this doesn't necessarily have to be romantic love. He could be talking about family love, or love for a friend, too.

    Lines 29-31

    (and books are shuter
    than books
    can be)

    • The books are back. But this time the speaker is using a made-up word to talk about them. Don't even try looking "shuter" up in the dictionary, because you're probably only going to confuse it with "shutter." Also be careful when you look up this poem on the Internet, because this word is misprinted on many websites as "shutter."
    • But even though we can't look up the word "shuter," and might never know exactly what it really means, we can guess that it's pretty different from "shutter."
    • "Shutters" are those wooden things on the outside of windows, which can be opened or closed at will. But "shuter," we're going to guess, means that books are more shut, or more closed, than books normally can be. Just think – if the speaker had used the word "shutter" instead of making up a new one, we might have been even more confused. Yikes.
    • So all the books are shut tight and abandoned in this world of forever and oneness. After all, the world around us seems to know far more than the books that try to tell us about it.
    • At this point in the poem, your English teacher might be regretting her reading choice for your class. A poet is rejoicing that books are shut? Oh dear.
    • But remember: just because books are shut doesn't mean that there isn't knowledge to still be found. The speaker just thinks that knowledge is better found in nature, and in love, than in books. Fair enough.

    Line 32

    and deep in the high that does nothing but fall

    • Get ready to stretch your mind into the world of surprising opposites once more.
    • First, the speaker says we're "deep in the high." Huh? This doesn't seem to make sense. Normally we're deep in depression, or in a lake, not in the high of happiness or the sky.
    • But we know by now that we can't really expect our speaker to make perfect sense, so maybe "deep" in the high just means that we're really, really soaring.
    • This "high" could be emotional or physical. It could be drug-related, but considering all of the intense emotion already present in this poem, it doesn't seem as though drugs would really be necessary to make our speaker feel so high.
    • Then what does this high do? It falls. This bursts our bubble a bit. We thought we were in love and happy in this world with a disregard for books and conventions forever. But turns out, height – of love, of emotion, of a paper airplane, of anything – only falls. Maybe this poem isn't as forever happy as we thought.

    Lines 33-35

    (with a shout
    each
    around we go all)

    • If we follow the second set of lines in parenthesis through each stanza, it seems like they're taking us on a roller coaster. We've run and skipped through the lines, questioned what, which, and who, flown all over the place, and now we're shouting as we go around.
    • The "we" in these lines makes us readers feel like we're part of the poem, enjoying the same questions and emotions, the same shouting and go-round, as the speaker.
    • Even though we don't totally have a context for what's happening here, we can follow the emotions and go along for the ride.
    • But we should also consider the fact that now that we know that there are two lovers in this poem, the "we" could be this couple. Uh oh. Are we the third wheel?

    Line 36

    there's somebody calling who's we

    • Now that "we" has shouted and gone all around, that same "we" is calling. Maybe this call is the same shout from the lines before, maybe not. Either way, the "we" that's calling is actually a "someone."
    • Or… (Shmoop brainwave alert) what if this "we" is referring to the idea of "one" from earlier in the poem? Maybe, for the lovebirds in this poem, the idea of someone who's "we" calling means that they're turning from being two people, from being a "you" and an "I," into one person, a "we."
    • This transformation into "we" is calling the lovers, bringing them closer.
  • Stanza 5

    Line 37

    we're anything brighter than even the sun

    • What a love these two have. It's brighter than even the sun. Ah, romance.
    • This line is an example of hyperbole, or extreme exaggeration. Being brighter than the sun would be pretty hard to do in real life, as no one would be able to look at you straight on without some serious eye damage.
    • But it may not be a visual brightness that this line refers to, but a brightness of the heart, of the soul. The power that these two people feel – and that all people, as part of the "one" can feel – is more powerful and shining than the sun.

    Lines 38-40

    (we're everything greater
    than books
    might mean)

    • This "we" is turning out to be pretty magnificent. First it's brighter than the sun, and now it's greater than anything books could mean? Hello super-couple.
    • These lines continue the theme of doubting books. Like birds, flower buds, and, well, anything (according to this poem), "we" is better than books.
    • Shmoop just can't resist pointing out the irony that books are being so criticized in a poem that is printed in a book. But let's leave the irony aside for a moment, and think about what the speaker's really saying about books.
    • He's stating that "we" is better than anything books could mean. This could be taken a few different ways.
    • It could be saying that books can always have multiple meanings (because he tosses in that word "might"), or that "being" is better than "meaning."
    • We think that, most importantly, the poem is suggesting that if something can be seen or done in real life, it should be done, and not just read about. Anything you do in life will be better than the book version.

    Line 41

    we're everyanything more than believe

    • "Everyanything" strikes again.
    • Here, the speaker is saying that "we" (probably he and the person he loves), are everything and anything more than "believe."
    • But wait a minute. The word "believe" is a verb. But here he's using it as a noun. Weird.
    • Think about the word "believe." It could be religious, or just about having convictions. Or it could be about having hope, and having faith in yourself and in the world.
    • In this poem, maybe, it refers to believing that everything can happen that can't be done.
    • But then you think of "we" as being more than even the concept of "believing." And not just your average more – everyanything more. So this "we" must be something pretty darn spectacular.
    • This isn't just your run-of-the-mill relationship. It, too, is accomplishing the impossible, the "can't be done."

    Lines 42-44

    (with a spin
    leap
    alive we're alive)

    • These lines, like the rest of the second section of parentheses in each stanza, show us dynamic motion. In this case, we're spinning, leaping, feeling so alive that we have to repeat ourselves.
    • While we're still not getting an exact visual here, these lines do a pretty good job describing how the couple in this poem must feel.
    • Plus, they describe what we, as readers, feel as we read the poem. Spinning and leaping through the made-up words, the rhymes, the dynamic rhythms. This poem makes us feel more alive, despite what its speaker might think about the power, or lack thereof, of books.

    Line 45

    we're wonderful one times one

    • This final line plays on the sound of the word "wonderful" to bring back the concept of "one." As it turns out, this poem was published in Cummings's book titled "One Times One," so this poem most likely had some influence on the title of the book, or vice versa.
    • But this line, more than reminding us of the title of the book in which it was published, completes the feeling of love, oneness, and possibilities that this poem asks us to believe in.
    • While it's difficult to say what "one times one" might mean, let's drop English class for a minute and go to math. One times one is what folks? That's right—one.
    • Could love, as the poem is suggesting, be a matter of multiplying oneness, rather than adding together two different souls? Instead of 1 + 1 = 2, could love actually be 1 x 1 = 1?
    • No matter what this line might mean, it's just like the rest of the poem – the meaning isn't as important as the feeling. "We" is greater than books and meaning and all of that.
    • In other words, read this summary as you may, but as you finish it, take with you not just what you think about the poem, but more importantly what you feel as you read it.