January 18, 2007

Shaping a Collection of Poems

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Shorter poems are sometimes set in a sequence, unified by one or more threads, such as narrative, form and theme. This unity need not be frictionless: the shorter poems may be dissonant with each other in some ways. For example, each part might take a different point of view, and the sequence as a whole provides the arena for this variousness.

Taken further, some poets order their collections carefully so that the poems in it, individually and as a whole, resonate in some way with each other and with the title of the book. In this way, the book itself becomes a type of poetic form – although you should be warned that many readers simply and naturally “dip” into a poetry collection rather than read it as they would a novel.

Begin reading your poems with these ends in mind. For example, do some of the poems share the same concerns, or even images, and might they be brought together in some way to make a more powerful piece? Are there leitmotifs in sound between poems that would be clearer if the poems were grouped in some sequence?

By shuffling and reshuffling your poems, is there some kind of narrative running through them, and might this be a sequence, or the best order for your portfolio of coursework, or first collection? If so, what title might illuminate these connections, or even challenge and subvert them?

Writers often use their notebooks as “commonplace books” to collect pieces of writing that impress them, show them something new, or speak to them emotionally and to their own need to write. When you have assembled at least two-hundred poems of these types, make copies of them, and begin looking at them all with the view of creating your own anthology.

What unites them? Are they mostly in form or free verse? What is the gender and background of the authors? Is there a theme or themes? In multiple permutations, try ordering these poems so that they speak to one another in sequence; and ensure the final order has inner logic from a reader’s point of view.

This is excellent practice for examining poems from many angles, and for developing discrimination. You will find it helpful for when you order your own poems into a portfolio, poetic sequence or first collection. Later, should you become a poetry editor (as many poets are, however briefly), this practice will be of use in creating a poetry magazine or a published anthology of poems.

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  1. I am so glad that you are writing about this as I think that it is really important. I love what you say about the book being a kind of poetic form – this is the way I see it too.

    19 Jan 2007, 08:35

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