Word order is very important in English prose – there are definitely rules about where the adjective and adverb has to go and the various places that the nouns and verbs can live. In English you can say, “Bob eats cheese.” But if you can’t switch the word order of the sentence around and still have the same meaning: “cheese eats Bob.” Now, you have the the plot to a bad B-movie creature feature.
Word order is especially important in poetry where the poet is not only choosing the right word to give the right image, or plant the right idea, but also the right place for the word. Take the lines in Milton’s “Lycidas”:
At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue:
Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
The adjective “blue” is inverted with it’s noun to keep the rhyming scheme, but more importantly it lands at the end of the line to the most important point of the sentence giving it emphasis. This is the color associated with heaven. And the word “new” is most associated with the idea of rebirth. This gives the reader of a sense of transcendence and high ideals. The reader should infer that the poem wants to talk about the great beyond and other lofty, heavenly things.
So, in poetry the rules of order can take a bit of a back seat in order to address the needs of the poem.
As I said before, word order in important in English prose, but in other languages – Latin for instance – word order isn’t as bothersome. (I’m taking pretty much all of this from the textbook.) “A poet could lay down words in almost any sequence and, because their endings (inflections) showed what parts of speech they were, could trust that no reader would mistake a subject for an object or a noun for an adjective.” (An Introduction to Poetry, 7 ed., Kennedy)
E.E. Cummings though was always looking for ways to push English to its boundaries, to give it the freedom that Latin, or other languages, had. It was what makes his work so furry and lovable. You can’t help but read a Cummings poem and smile; it’s always endlessly delightful for its cheerful tone and the delight of discovery, “Oh, I didn’t know English could do that!”
Here is a poem that gives a good example of how he played with word order. He switches things around, yet the poem is still understandable, but, in essences, gives things a new meaning.
Anyone Lived In A Pretty How Town
by ee cumings
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.
Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
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
when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her
Someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then) they
said their nevers they slept their dream
stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)
One day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was
all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.
Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain