from what I’m sure will be an ongoing series of questions. When we are putting together poems for a chapbook, a book, a reading, how do we order them? How do we even think about ordering them? What’s the weight, the flow, the phrasing?
I think there’s this idea that one reads a poetry book by picking it up, opening to a page, and seeing if that poem connects to you, sparks you. If not, go to another page, forward or backward, maybe scanning first or last lines. Definitely no pressure to read a poetry collection as we’d read a novel or short story, as if the structure and sequence were there to carry meaning. Goddess knows I’ve read poetry books that way.
So how then do poets plan for the syntax of their collections—the phrasing, the emotional sense built by order and how information is revealed or withheld?
Two examples from my current reading list; more in the near future. Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah starts with this bolded advisory on the dedication page:
These poems tell two sides of a story and are meant to be read in sequence.
While Toi Derricotte, in Tender, says this in her preface:
Tender is not to be read in linear fashion. Rather, it is a seven-spoked wheel, with the poem “Tender” as the hub, each “spoke” or subdivision radiating out from that center.
Dove’s work is then laid out physically in a way that supports her desired linear reading. Derricotte’s layout, though, actually works against her stated desire, as the poems are in sections numbered sequentially. What editor or editorial committee did that? Her work is definitely an example of what online technology could provide that most books can’t. With hyper-linked text, the small poem “Tender” could stand in the middle of a space surrounded by the other section names such that the reader would have no sequence markers. Okay, really original book making could do this too, if the sections were printed on different color paper, maybe without page numbers or other markers or symbols of suggested order.
What reasons do we have as poets for how we order our poems? Most frequent reason: the order I wrote them in. But is that syntax or chronology? Meaning, or only a matter of interest to some future dissertation writer?