Essay: Discuss the innovative features of: ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ by e.e. cummings and ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ by Katherine Kilalea



To consider how old language is handled in new and innovative ways in the poems, ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ by e.e. cummings and ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ by Katherine Kilalea, one must begin by unlearning the senses[1].  Which is to say, suspend what one feels one knows instinctively of language – to suspend a sense of sense – disassembling rules and received meaning, to then reassemble it all in order to arrive somewhere new and impactful.  As Nabokov had it in his Lectures on Literature: “Stranger always rhymes with danger … let us bless the freak.”[2]

e.e. cummings came to maturity as a writer during the most robust years of Modernism, publishing his first book, The Enormous Room in 1922, the year which Ezra Pound proclaimed the new Modern era began[3].  One of the main tenets of Modernism was that writing should reflect the world and our consciousness faithfully, without embellishments[4].  Therefore, in a world where nothing made sense any longer – as a result of the struggle to come to terms with the horrors of the Great War, the decision whether to embrace or reject Fascism, ‘the death of God’[5] as well as all other metanarratives, and the rise of the individual – the only possible reaction was to reflect that confused new world, that uncircus of noncreatures (to borrow a phrase from Cummings himself[6]) by using new ways of writing.  To: ‘transform the word, transform the world’[7], one supposes as a result of the same being true in reverse also.

In this rejection of the old ways cummings’ contemporaries were producing Modernism’s classic works.  For example: T. S. Eliot’s, The Waste Land, James Joyce’s, Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s, Mrs Dalloway, which used devices such as stream of consciousness, a fractured sense of time and the deconstruction of traditional literary structures, all as representations of, and responses, to the world around them.  In summary, for the Modernist: “Life is something elusive, baffling, multiple, subjective.”    And so, to replace a collective identity that no longer existed: “… the modern feels the need to employ an elaborate linguistic craft to fix and identify the uniqueness of every individual experience.”[8]  This can certainly be traced through cummings’ work.  As R. P. Blackmur describes it, his use of language is: “Frequently unintelligible because he disregards the historical accumulation of meaning in words in favour of personal and private associations.”[9] In, ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ we see cummings bending language in order to record his personal worldview, or perhaps a better description would be that he deviates from language completely, disregarding it as the main poetic tool and instead transforming his poems into non-linguistic experiences: as an overarching worldview collapses, so must language.

As well as a writer cummings was also a visual artist, and stated that his poems should be viewed as paintings: “with few exceptions, my poems are essentially pictures”[10], and asserting that their imagery should be ‘felt and not understood’[11].  Or, as Pound put it: “An image is that which presents an intellectual complex in an instant of time.”[12]  In ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ that instant is an idyll, of a place and of a life, that only on drawing closer do we see the artist has painted outside the lines.  The characters ‘anyone’ and ‘noone’ live lives of subdued hopelessness which are defined not by life but by death.  Furthermore, the adjective/noun displacement of the title (taken from the first line of the poem) suggests that perhaps the town isn’t as pretty as the description would have the reader believe. One of the ways that cummings confirms this “felt imagery” within the poem is to repeatedly use the seasons:

spring summer autumn winter

And the elements:

stars rain sun moon  

As well as the stations life passes through (birth, marriage, death), to demonstrate the inevitability of time passing and our ultimate insignificance in the wider world.  This feeling is compounded by the rhythm of the poem; its rhyme structure consisting of quatrains of two rhyming couplets, internal rhymes and alliteration, which together give the poem the feel of a train moving steadily toward some unknown but inescapable (and somehow dreadful) future.  This is all in keeping with Modernist poetics.  I. A Richards in his book, Principles of Literary Criticism (written in 1924 partly to help validate T. S. Eliot’s baffling new poetry), called rhythm a “texture of expectation, satisfactions, disappointments, surprisals, which the sequence of syllables brings about.”[13]

In analysing the prosody of cummings’ work, it could be said that his poems have more in common with music than with metre.  Perhaps as a result of taking Pound’s dictum to heart: “… compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.”[14]  Or Virginia Woolf’s: “… it is all rhythm.  Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.”[15]  ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’  has a musical, skipping feel, almost glib, but for the sinister undertones discussed previously.  The juxtapositions: men/women, up/down, did/didn’t, sowed/reaped, joy/grief, laughed/cryings sleep/wake, forget/remember add to this musicality, giving the reader the feeling that they are being run up and down the keys of a piano.  The poet Les Murray has said that: “Poetry is as much dreamed as it is thought and it is as much danced in the body as it is written”[16] and the dancing prosody of the opening stanza of ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ seems to invite the reader to both dream and dance:

anyone lived in a pretty how town

(with up so floating many bells down)

spring summer autumn winter

he sang his didn’t and he danced his did

The final and most distinctive non/linguistic device employed by cummings’ in this poem, is that of immersion.  Martin Heusser has posited that: “Despite claims to the contrary, the Modernists yearn for a visionary world of language.” [17]  And what the movement wanted was for the words on the page to act in the mind of the reader at a place beyond language.  To this end, cummings employed his innovative ‘ungrammar’; his use of adjective and verb displacement, subject-verb-object displacement and syntactic deviance to displace the reader, forcibly moving them somewhere new and unfamiliar.  For example:

children guessed (but only a few

and down they forgot as up they grew

autumn winter spring summer)

that noone loved him more by more

The cumulative effect of which is that the reader finds it difficult to situate themselves within the work, instead coming to feel surrounded and submerged.  The ultimate purpose of this immersion is to deconstruct ‘meaning as an absolute’[18], mis/using language as a tool to achieve and demonstrate this, so forcing the reader to suspend sense and senses, as Modernism demanded.

The power of this poem lies in its innovation.  In the delight it takes in blindfolding the reader, forcing suspension of disbelief so as to experience language in new ways.  In Ben Lerner’s, Leaving the Atocha Station – which, like The Enormous Room, is a fictionalised autobiography written by a poet – Lerner wonders about those moments when we fail to understand what language is, or isn’t, communicating to us, and whether this is in fact a failure at all, or just a different type of experience.  In describing listening to Spanish, Lerner writes:  “I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.”[19] Cummings was clearly intrigued by language (as much as his Modernist beliefs allowed him to accept it as an absolute) and during his time in prison he was incarcerated with a multitude of other nationalities and languages, begging the question whether cummings’ poetics were influenced by this early exposure to English as a second language, and the way that the syntactically incorrect can often end up being the perfect way to express something up to that point undefined: “Poetic language seems to bridge the gap between what has meaning but not particularity (that is, ordinary language) and what has particularity and no meaning (that is, the reality language is, ‘about’).”[20]

Although writing from very different eras, there are many points of meeting between cummings’ poem and Kate Kilalea’s, ‘Henneker’s Ditch’.  Like cummings, Kilalea writes of an imagined place, possibly based on a real place, in which the reader is never quite able to situate themselves.  Kilalea herself is a South African displaced in London and in conversation with the poet Matthew Gregory, Gregory describes Kilalea’s work as not having a lot of ”exteriorized’ detail”.  Instead: “We encounter an intimate world, often oblique … rather than one with all its public coordinates in place.”[21]  Which seems to put Kilalea firmly in the territory of ‘realism lost’[22] as a description of the central theme of the last century, and more specifically the ‘lost in a big hotel’[23] quality of postmodernity.  Kilalea goes onto to say of herself: “I sometimes feel that I come from the countries I read about rather than the one I actually grew up in.”[24]

This idea of place being a relative concept is one that Kilalea returns to often in her work.  In the same interview, she talks about Peter Sloterijk’s book, Bubbles and how he, ‘describes feeling and thinking in spatial terms’[25], where feeling is being inside of a physical place and thinking is looking, for example at something far in the distance, meaning that you cannot be both thinking and feeling at the same time, one is always at the expense of the other.  This interiority is reflected in Kilalea’s poems, and such inability to reconcile the inside with the outside also places her within the postmodern tradition and its all-pervasive sense of dislocation.  Postmodernity has required us to become adept at living in multiple places (physical and otherwise) at once.  So that we, as Seamus Heaney describes it: “make do with a constructed destination, an interim place whose foundations straddle the areas of self-division.”[26]

As well as place, cummings and Kilalea are also linked in the immersive nature of their imagery.  In a recording of Kilalea reading ‘Henneker’s Ditch’ (at that time – 2010 – called ‘Dear Circus’), she describes the poem as featuring: “A series of characters and observations without any authorial interpretation”.  She puts herself in the audience with her listener-readers, claiming: “I’m in the same position as you.  No work to be done really, but to listen.”[27].  Like cummings she intended the poem to not ‘mean but be’[28], saying:  “I guess there’s a pleasure in making a world and then closing it in on itself, not letting in the light from outside.”[29]  She does this in various ways in the poem.  Primarily by removing all sense of narrative:  “A sequence, unlike an unbroken long poem, doesn’t offer narrative promise of progression … In a narrative poem you can never really be lost.”[30]  In the poem we begin in a train station, we quickly are swept along by the jagged rhythm of the poem to the coast, back to the city, then to Africa and back and forth.  This sense of being taken out of the identifiable world is added to by the treatment of time in the poem which is variously alluded to with lines such as:


I think we are in the middle, aren’t we.

We certainly aren’t at the beginning anymore.


We have no history.


A hundred years pass like this.

A point of departure between the two poets is the use of punctuation.  Unlike cummings, Kilalea uses a glut of different kinds.  The poem variously includes: italics, hyphens, accented words, ellipsis, interrogatives and exclamation marks (which, interestingly, has much the same effect, displacing the reader inthe same way that cummings’ lack of punctuation does also).  Additionally, Kilalea also invents words and sounds:

Ickira trecketre stedenthal

And uses striking metaphors:


Cars sob across town


The trees walk backwards into the dark

This use of metaphor and these other linguistic devices to ‘reinvent the world’[31], makes that world, the one of ‘Henneker’s Ditch’ multilayered, jagged and difficult to define, yet it remains compelling, reminding the reader that: “Truth is ‘really’ a kind of fiction, reading is always a form of misreading, and, most fundamentally, understanding is always a form of misunderstanding, because it is never direct, is always a form of partial interpretation, and often uses metaphor when it thinks it is being literal”[32]

The final point of comparison between the two poets is the idea of their poems as non-poems, or as other experiences of art, as well as – or in the case of cummings, sometimes instead of – linguistic ones.  In the interview with Matthew Gregory, Kilalea mentions the influence of the working methods of visual artists in her poetry.  Gregory takes this further in describing her poetics: “… there’s something close to expressionism in this sort of fluent responsiveness to the tangible.”[33]  cummings’ poetry in turn was often compared to impressionism.[34]  Similarly both poets were concerned with the musicality in their work.  David Lodge describes it thus: “There is poetry … which forces us to pay attention to the surface of words, to their sounds.”[35]  This is certainly true for these two poets.  For both cummings and Kilalea, the reading of their two poems, and the reading aloud, or the listening, are very different experiences.  Kilalea, in introducing a reading of the poem in 2013[36], says that she wrote the poem in response to a comment by a reader that her poems were not at all musical.  This was something she found upsetting, having always prioritised prosody in her poetics, and when one listens to Kilalea reading the work herself, the musicality is striking.  One section where this is particularly strong, when read, or listened to:

Henry, the breezes – they bolt across the open market

like meatballs, Henry,

like windmills, Henry,

like policemen, Henry, apprehending criminals…

Which, with the five-footed repetition of the two middle lines, and the repetition of ‘like’, gives the lines a sense a song in chorus.

For a poem like ‘Henneker’s Ditch’, which seems defiant in every way towards analysis (particularly when the creator of the poem additionally states that we only need to absorb the work, and not work upon it), the final way in which one can consider that Kilalea uses old language in new ways is to – through language – create as close to a non-linguistic experience as possible. Seamus Heaney, on talking about Jorge Luis Borges described it thus: “… poetry lies in the meeting of poem and reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on pages of a book.  What is essential is the thrill, the almost physical emotion that comes with each reading.” And that that physical emotion, ‘fulfills the continual need we experience to ´recover a past or prefigure a future.´’[37]  Kilalea does just that with ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’, she creates a point of connection, a spark between herself and the reader that projects one into simultaneous worlds in a shared moment, dissolving language into lacy jags.[38]

What the two poets share in their respective use of old language in new ways is that they disassemble recognisable language systems in order to bring us somewhere new and differently beautiful, somewhere that is beyond language itself, in “the between of the language.”[39]  Ben Lerner has described it this way in his essay, The Hatred of Poetry: “Do you remember the feeling that sense was provisional and that two people could build around an utterance a world in which any usage signified?  I think that’s poetry.”[40]  This is where the power in these two poems lies, in that “place of possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies).”[41]

[1] Julio Cortázar, Rayuela (Buenos Aires: Me Gusta Leer, 2016), p.285.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature (Florida: Harvest, 1982), p.372.

[3] Kevin Jackson, Constellation of Genius, 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz (London: Windmill Books, 2016), pp.124-130. Amazon ebook.

[4] The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), p.3. Amazon ebook.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), p. 125. Amazon ebook

[6] `E. E. Cummings´, Poetry Foundation [accessed 1 October 2017]

[7] ibid.

[8] David Lodge, Language of Fiction (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 261.

[9] `E. E. Cummings´, Poetry Foundation <; [accessed 1 October 2017]

[10] Martin Heusser, `The Semantics of Structure: Iconicity in the poetry of William Carlos Williams and E. E. Cummings´, in Iconic Investigations, ed. by Lars Ellestrom, Olga Fischer and Christina Ljungberg (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013), p. 163.

[11] ibid.

[12] The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), p.4. Amazon ebook

[13] Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice (London: Bloomsbury, 2005), p. 53. Amazon ebook.

[14] The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), p.3. Amazon ebook.

[15] Alvarez, p. 45.

[16] ibid., p. 61.

[17] Heusser, p.160.

[18] ibid.

[19] Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station (London: Granta, 2011), p. 14.

[20] Lodge, p.67.

[21] `Poem to Poem´, Prac Crit <; [accessed 1 October 2017]

[22] Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 110.

[23] ibid

[24] `Poem to Poem´, Prac Crit <; [accessed 1 October 2017]

[25] `Poem to Poem´, Prac Crit <; [accessed 1 October 2017]

[26] Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 189. Amazon ebook.

[27] Kate Kilalea, Katharine Kilalea reads “Dear Circus”, online video recording, YouTube, 7 April 2010, <; [accessed 10 October 2017]

[28] Lodge, p. 7.

[29] `Poem to Poem´, Prac Crit <; [accessed 1 October 2017]

[30] `Poem to Poem´, Prac Crit <; [accessed 1 October 2017]

[31] Nabokov, p. 2.

[32] Butler, p. 21.

[33] `Poem to Poem´, Prac Crit <; [accessed 1 October 2017]

[34] The Faber Book of Modern Verse, ed. by Michael Roberts and Peter Porter (London: Faber and Faber, 1982), p. 41.

[35] Lodge, p. 51.

[36] Kate Kilalea, Katharine Kilalea – ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’, online video recording, YouTube, 13 July 2012, <; [accessed 10 October 2017]

[37] Heaney, p. 8.

[38] The Faber Book of Modern Verse, ed. by Michael Roberts and Peter Porter (London: Faber and Faber, 1982), p. 38.

[39] Sylvia Adamson, `The What of the Language?´, in The State of the Language, ed. by Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), p. 511.

[40] Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016), pp. 105-6.

[41] ibid. p. 114.


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