Strangely Alive: Poets Upsetting Adjective Order


Native English speakers might not realize that our adjectives follow a certain flow chart. This system is called the "royal order of adjectives." Modifiers are sorted in the following way, for the most part: quantity-quality-size/shape-condition-age-color-origin/material-purpose/qualifier [noun]. In essence, this is the syntactical rule that makes the phrase “he’s a smart little kid” sound correct and a “he’s a little smart kid” sound wrong when said aloud.

In a few of my favorite poems, the poet takes direct aim at this “royal order” to surprise and delight readers. Great meter is often categorized by an inventive breaking of the rules and messing with modifiers is a fun and easy way to attempt this. Here is a shining example from Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses”:

He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,

from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,

the blade of which is almost worn away.

Can you imagine if Bishop had said “old black knife”? How blasé. It is not a phrase at which readers would pause. In fact, it is entirely devoid of sound. But, by inverting the adjectival order, the meter is switched and the reader is forced to pay attention. “Black” is certainly a stressed syllable now, perhaps the beginning of a dactylic foot? We are taken by it—we can see the knife clearly and the rhythm of the phrase is said with a stab—in keeping with the content. This technique renews the word in our minds, providing us with a new context for it. We must look at the thing rather than skim over it. An “old black knife” is something I would find in my mother’s kitchen drawer. A “black old knife” is magic.

When an interviewer from the Christian Science Monitor asked Bishop what quality every poem should have, she said: “Surprise. The subject and the language which conveys it should surprise you. You should be surprised at seeing something new and strangely alive.” This is exactly what inverting adjective order accomplishes in some small way. Perhaps subverting word order is a trick Bishop picked up reading Gerard Manley Hopkins, or other great poets of the past, who were forced to invert the order of words to keep meter alive. Here’s an example of an inverted adjective in Hopkins’ “The Windhover”:

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

A “Windhover” is a small falcon, also known as a kestrel, and here Hopkins is describing its colors—brown, blue, gold, and scarlet—but he takes a particular turn when describing that second color—it is not blue, but “blue-bleak embers.” When I looked up a picture of a kestrel, the blue in the bird’s coloring is ashy and muddy, just as Hopkins’ described. Why not say “bleak blue embers” then? In this context metrically, “blue-bleak” is much closer to a spondee than “bleak blue” embers. As the inventor of sprung rhythm, Hopkins typically endeavored to stress as many syllables as he possibly could, to keep his galloping rhythm apace. In this case, by mixing up the order of words, he furthers the momentum of that flying, falling bird, who has spun itself into a dervish by the end of this poem.

A more contemporary example of this phenomenon, presented in slightly different syntax, appears in Li-Young Lee’s sensuous poem, “Eating Alone.” In the first stanza, Lee writes:

I've pulled the last of the year's young onions.
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold,
brown and old
. What is left of the day flames…

In this case, the adjectives describing “ground” appear after the noun in the sentence. Still, the modifiers are out of traditional order. Say aloud to yourself, “The ground is cold, old, and brown.” Not so exciting, right? But when the order of the words is inverted and the rhyme is broken up, readers are shocked awake to each modifier individually. The linebreaks also help to alert us to this as well.

Lee ends the second line above on a stressed syllable, then breaks up the rhythm with a potential trochaic foot to start the third line. One can almost feel the rocky, hardscrabble nature of the land in these uneven lines that we stumble over while reading. This also sets up the end of the poem well, where after a wistful section of remembrance and a sensory description of the traditional dish he is making for his dinner, Lee mournfully states, “What more could I, a young man, want.” Even here, syntax is displaced and qualified so that the reader considers the melancholy nature of the speaker in this moment.

This tiny adjective inversion technique is used masterfully in Bishop, Hopkins, and Lee’s work to catch readers unaware. It forces the audience to consider each word as a raw material again and ask how that raw material reacts in the specific context of the poem. When “royal order” is upset, the audience cannot rely on their understanding of words, which they gained by reading prose or in conversation. Using this technique is a way to startle the reader awake into a state of extreme active reading. It has also helped me to appreciate the intricacies of rhythm-making on a higher plane as well.

Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications (2015). She is also the author of four chapbooks of poetry and lyric essays. Her poetry appears widely in Poet Lore, Blackbird, Ecotone, Southwest ReviewSubtropics, and elsewhere. Sandy’s essays can be found at The RumpusFansidedMid-American ReviewBarrelhousePleiades, and other venues. Sandy earned an MFA in Creative Writing—Poetry from George Mason University and now serves as the Coordinator of Tutoring Services at the College of DuPage in the Chicagoland area. She currently serves as the Poetry Editor at River Styx Magazine.