Couplets with Varying Rhymes and Rhythms
When a poet isn't so crazy about capitalization and punctuation, it's safe to assume he'd be more of a free verse kind of guy. That's definitely true to a degree in "maggie and milly and molly and may." The speaker doesn't stick with a prescribed meter
or rhyme throughout, but he does throw some patterns at us that are worth diving into. Bathing caps on? Great. Off we go:
What's the first thing you notice when you look over this poem—after the general lack of capital letters and punctuation, we mean? If you're like us, then those couplets jump right out. We get six neatly-arranged pairs, just as the poem tends to pair up each girl and her beach-life experience. In that way, the poem's also trying to pair us readers with our own reflections on life, too, so couplets seem like a pretty logical choice for organizing this poem.
Rhyme (Some of the Time)
Often, when we see couplets, we expect to hear rhyming. In this poem, that's true mostly. We get perfect end rhymes in the stanzas 1, 5, and 6 ("may" and "day," "stone" and "alone," "me" and "sea" respectively). These simple, sonic chimes make the poem sound a little like a nursery rhyme, which would be appropriate for some kids' trip to the beach.
In between these nifty end rhymes, though, are some subtler slant rhymes like "sang" and "and," "star" and "were." These subtler rhymes help to sustain the poem's momentum, but offer us a clue that things aren't always as neat or simple as a perfect rhyme would indicate. This is a modern poet, just in case you forgot. And if you did forget, well poor may gets harassed by a rabid crab (or, you know, a crab with thing for bubble gum) and there is no rhyme at all to help us in that stanza (which ends with "thing" and "and"). These rhymes, slant rhymes, and non-rhymes reinforce the variety of experiences (pleasant to horrible) that the kids have at the beach (and that all adults have in life).
The Meter is Running
Sure, some of these lines have no set metrical pattern. But others have a beat that you can totally dance to. The dactyls in line 1, for example, follow a DUMdada rhythm that's very common in nursery rhymes:
maggie and milly and molly and may. (1)
When you read that out loud, you should hear four DUMdada beats, which would put this line in dactylic tetrameter ("tetra-" means four).
And then, as Monty Python would say, it's time for something completely different. It's a rhythmic 180, in fact. The anapests in line 11 follow the opposite pattern, dadaDUM:
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me). (11)
The four anapests found in this line make it—you guessed it—anapestic tetrameter. In terms of the meter, it's as if the speaker is deliberately playing with the nursery rhyme form in order to keep the poem's playful spirit intact.
Sweat the Technique
Beyond rhyme and rhythm, there's still more going on in the poem that's worth noting. For example, the parallelism in line 10 also does a great job of lending a story-like sound to the poem by repeating that "as (x) as (y)" clause. It reminds us of Humpty Dumpty and lines that sound like, "and all the king's horses, and all the king's men…"
The speaker also uses a lot of "and"s throughout the poem, usually at the end of a line, in order to keep up that childlike voice. If you've ever sat down to talk to one, you know that kids use the word "and" like it's going out of style, usually because they're so excited about what they're talking about that they have to rush to get it all out before they forget. The speaker was probably thinking along those same lines.
Speaking of forgetting, we can't leave out all of the squishing of words and parentheses that we see. Cummings did a lot of that kind of squishing, but here it seems even more appropriate since it accents the speaker's casual rush to get it all out, again as a kid might. Did you ever notice how sometimes a kid's words sound squished together because they're talking so fast? Visually, the squishing also helps to unify the speaker's ideas and the characters. There's only one period in the whole poem—in line 10—so we get the feeling that the speaker is looking to get this poem, and its chance for some big-picture reflection, out in a hurry.