In ‘if everything happens that can’t be done’, E.E. Cummings makes use of his traditionally untraditional use of punctuation and capitalization. He pushes the boundaries of the English language, creating new words by combining others, removing capital letters, and ignoring any sort of punctuation throughout the entire poem. This particular poem is a wonderful example of how this technique impacts the content. ‘if everything happens, that can’t be done’ is about the things that can’t be spoken in the English language. Things about love, nature, and fate, but the poem in its twisted language and grammar, contains attempts to do so.
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Throughout the stanzas of this piece, Cummings repeats a general pattern of lines with parentheses, repeated structures, and words. It takes quite a while, at least four stanzas, to get into this pattern and start to understand what Cummings, or at least his speaker, was wanting to convey. He emphasizes throughout the stanzas the nature of “one” and how it is a representative of the strength and importance of his relationship with the intended listener of the poem. He uses bird and book-related images to convey his opinion that knowledge is better gained from love and nature than it is from the written word.
Cummings engages with themes of love, nature, and education/knowledge in ‘if everything happens that can’t be done’. All of these themes are related to Cumming’s speaker’s option in regards to where the best kind of knowledge comes from and what’s worth prioritizing in life. He sees his relationship, one that is making the impossible possible and forever real, as the best source of information on life that he could find. It far outstrips the knowledge found in books, just like the sound of bird song is better to hear aloud than it is read about.
Structure and Form
‘if everything happens that can’t be done’ by E.E. Cummings, it becomes obvious quite quickly that Cummings chose to write this poem, almost, in free verse. But, the fourth and ninth lines of each stanza rhyme as well as the fifth and eighth lines. The meter is also roughly structured. The lines are almost all iambic, meaning that each line has syllables that follow a pattern of unstressed and one stressed. But, there are moments where this changes. There are also anapaestic feet in which two unstressed syllables are followed by a stressed syllable.
Cummings makes use of several literary devices in ‘if everything happens that can’t be done’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, imagery, and repetition. The latter is actually one of the more obvious techniques at play in this piece. While it is not as prominent in the first couple of stanzas, by the end, it is hard not to pay attention to it. Cummings repetitively uses the same line structure, makes comparisons to books and reading, and uses parentheses in each stanza.
Enjambment is a formal device that is used throughout the poem. It is concerned with where the poet chooses to cut off a line. If a line is enjambed, then the line ends before the conclusion of a phrase—for example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza.
Imagery is another quite prominent literary device. It refers to the poet’s use of language to create images in the reader’s mind. These images are not just visual, they should also make the reader feel as though they can hear, touch, and smell whatever is being described.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
if everything happens that can’t be done
(and anything’s brighter
there’s nothing as something as one
In the first stanza of ‘if everything happens that can’t be done’, the speaker begins with the line that came to be used as the title of the poem. It’s a good example of a paradox in that the speaker is suggesting that a number of impossible things are going to happen. This isn’t for sure, but the speaker is considering the possibility. It might happen. In the next lines, there are examples of personification. Specifically, the speaker is talking about books “planning” something. The books plan alongside their writers, what’s going to be written. But, the speaker is saying, their knowledge is not perfect. Things can be “righter” than books can even conceive of.
The fifth line of this stanza finally brings around the conclusion of the “if” statement that started the poem off. The speaker says that if impossible things happen, the “stupidest teacher will almost guess”. The line is enjambed, meaning that the reader has to wait until the next lines to find out what the teacher is going to guess.
The following lines are in parentheses; they suggest a general joy at the way the world is working in this poem. The teacher, as well as “we” (perhaps other teachers or students, or even the reader and writer), are happily skipping and jumping. The final line of the stanza is just as confusing as those that came before it. In it, the speaker explains that the teacher is guessing about the reality of the “something-ness” of “one.” This “something” is not described, suggesting that there are no words to pin it down.
one hasn’t a why or because or although
(and buds know better
one’s everyanything so
In the second stanza of this poem, the speaker continues where he left off in the first stanza. More information is provided to the reader about “one” and how “something” it is. It doesn’t have a “why or because or although,” it simply exists. More parentheses come into play in the following lines. They suggest that “buds,” new flowers, know more than books do. The latter doesn’t grow or evolve.
“One” is mentioned again in the next line. Here, the speaker says that it is “anything old being everything new.”One is like everything old being reborn into something new. All these lines make more sense as the poem progresses.
Finally, in the last part of the stanza, the speaker expresses the idea of questioning and “we” coming around to an understanding of some sort about “one” and its somethingness. One, the last line says, is “everyanything.” This made-up a combination of words tells the reader that one is “anything” and “everything.”
so world is a leaf so a tree is a bough
(and birds sing sweeter
around again fly)
forever was never till now
As has been the case in the previous stanzas, Cummings repeats the last word of the previous stanza at the beginning of the next. This stanza begins with “so” and is just as nonsensical seeming as the rest of the poem. It is less important to pay attention to what every word and line means that it is to get an overall feeling for what Cummings is trying to accomplish. The first line suggests that a tree is a leaf and a leaf is everything. This relates back to the feeling of unity or oneness that was seen at the very start of the poem.
The same pattern of parentheses continues in the next lines when Cumming’s speaker describes how “birds sing sweeter / than books / tell how.” Once again, something is better than what can be found in books. The sound of bird song is always going to outstrip a written description of it. The following line compares opposites, yours and mine, and near and far. “One” is everything at once. Moving on, the speaker asserts the freedom of “one.” There is some bird-related imagery with the use of the word “fly,” and suggesting a happy, unconstrained existence. This is reinforced by the description of “forever” in the last line of the stanza. Forever didn’t exist until now, and it is certainly going to be a happy forever.
now i love you and you love me
(and books are shuter
around we go all)
there’s somebody calling who’s we
In the fourth stanza of ‘if everything happens that can’t be done’, the speaker addresses his listener, someone he loves. He tells them that he loves them and they love him. It is this love that’s made forever seem possible all of a sudden. The books come back in the next lines. They are “shuter,” another made-up word, then “books / can be.” They’ve closed up these sources of information, which have already proved themselves to be inadequate in the previous stanzas. More knowledge
about the world can be found in nature and in love than in the written word.
The following line presents another contrast. This time between high and deep. It suggests that when one is “high” there is nothing “but fall” afterward. Someone is shouting, someone who’s “we,” the speaker says. This relates back to the idea of “one”. It also might refer to the nature of their relationships, together they’ve become “we” rather than two separate people.
we’re anything brighter than even the sun
alive we’re alive)
we’re wonderful one times one
The poem concludes with a stanza that is, by the standards of the rest of the poem, much clearer. The speaker describes his love with the listener as “brighter than even the sun” and “greater / than books”. There is nothing in “books” that could mean more to the speaker, or presumably to his lover, than the reality of their love.
The word “everyanything” is used again in order to describe the two as more than “believe”. The two together, as one, are more than simple belief. They’re part of the possible impossible.
In the concluding lines, the speaker repeats the movements in parentheses for the last time. The aliveness of their relationship is quite clear, as is their general happiness. The last line describes the two as “wonderful one times one”. The obvious conclusion here is to be reminded that together they’ve become “one,” a single person.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other popular poems by E.E. Cummings. For example, ‘somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond,’ ‘I carry your heart with me,’ and ‘in Just’. The latter is one of Cumming’s best-loved poems. In it, he speaks on the beginnings of spring, a concerning balloonman/satyr, and the children he calls to his side. It is even more disconcertingly strange as ‘if everything happens that can’t be done’ is. Readers should also take a look at our list of Top 10 Greatest Love Poems.