What does playing with the word order do for the poem "anyone lived in a pretty how town"?

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tinandan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ordinarily, a scrambled or unusual word order slows down the reader as he moves through the poem.

In this poem, this is especially true of the second line, "(with up so floating many bells down)." It is almost impossible to read through the first stanza quickly, because we are brought up short by the baffling syntax of that line. However, it is obvious from the parentheses and lack of commas that this second line is supposed to be read quickly, all in one breath, as it were.

The result is that instead of trying to let our brains get meaning from the line, we read it almost like a chant, as much (or more) for the sound and rhythm as for the meaning.

This tendency is reenforced when we hit the next line, which instead of being a grammatical sentence or phrase, is simply "spring summer autumn winter." This too is a chant—in fact, many of us remember chanting these four words, in this order, when we were learning the names of the seasons.

By the time the reader reaches line 4, he has been notified that this is going to be a poem with a nice, clear rhythm, in which the sound of the words is just as important as their meaning, and easier to determine. By this time, the reader will probably be reading the poem in a steady chanting rhythm, almost as if casting a spell.

After the first stanza, there is no line that is quite as puzzling, grammatically, as "with up so floating many bells down" (except when the same line occurs again). Although the author continues to use words in slots that do not match their expected part of speech, (e.g. "wish by spirit and if by yes"), the steady chanting rhythm of the poem will carry the reader through these potentially confusing bits, allowing them to cast their spell. Meanwhile, the parts of the poem that actually tell anyone's and noone's story are grammatical enough that we can tell what is happening. The grammatical story emerges in between the bits of chant, like a view emerging out of mist.

Finishing the poem, we are left with a somewhat fuzzy impression of the story it has told. The fuzziness is because of the many instances where the "wrong" part of speech is used. This fuzziness gives us the impression that we have glimpsed a world we don't quite understand, or perhaps we have seen the world through a perspective we are not used to—that of someone who explains things in an unconventional way and sees beauties that others often miss.

Speaking of which, we have very many clear snapshots of the beauties of nature. You do not have to understand the odd grammar to get a very clear impression from the line "bird by snow and stir by still."

Overall, the odd use of words and word order in the poem works together with the strong chanting rhythm and the beautiful, clear nature words to cast a spell on the reader.