Sequencing in Poetry, and a Connection with Music

As a rule, I tend to be a right bastard when it comes to the sequencing of a manuscript, as you should be as well. I have to be able to articulate why a particular poem goes first, why another goes last, and where to place those poems I still like but must recognize are somehow weaker than others. (Let’s be honest; we all do that, every last one of us) If I can’t do that with each poem, justify its place, that poem has no business inside that manuscript. It belongs somewhere else, maybe in a file until a better home can be found for it.

I know for certain that my friends in poetry are the same. Mary Biddinger reminded me recently of her own obsession with the subject, and the fact is this is a make-or-break issue for the poet. If, when I’m done reading a poetry collection, I have a problem with its sequence, it doesn’t matter how good the poems are on their own anymore; more than once I’ve been tempted to literally cut poems out of their binding in order to move them where they’d be a better fit, but of course that would be wrong.

OK, then. So what do you mean by proper sequencing?

Earlier, I said there are three essential areas to consider:

1) Opening—by this I don’t just mean the first poem in the sequence; actually, I mean the first, say, quarter to a third of your manuscript. Again, the sequence has to make musical sense (more on that in a bit) as well as textual sense. Obviously, your opening poem must deliver the goods; it needs either a good deal of power, or if you’re going for a brief open like W. D. Snodgrass in The Fuhrer Bunker you want something soft; no matter which, you have to know why you’ve made this choice. (Note: usually I work these matters out in a journal; it takes months, years sometimes, but it’s worth that much effort)

2) The mid-section: I’ve long thought it’s good to remember the work a reader does when sitting down to confront a book, and make sure that there’s no filler (some poems, again, will be less strong than others, but that doesn’t necessarily make them “filler”). Note, for ex., how Alice Fulton does it; in a couple of collections, she places her longer, more difficult pieces more or less dead-center, where they work very well. Placing them elsewhere, at the end, for ex., would affect the way we read and receive the collection as a whole. Bear in mind that when the reader reads, s/he is considering each poem sequentially; therefore, the collection needs a program—maybe not necessarily something easy to follow or obvious (never be that obvious), but something you can both justify and articulate.

3) The close: Again, I’m talking about the last quarter to a third of the manuscript. When you were a kid on a long car trip with your family, it wasn’t just reaching the shore or the end of the drive, it was everything leading up to it that fueled your anticipation of the end. So it is with manuscripts. The good sequences leave you in no doubt about the program the author has in mind; inferior sequences leave you wondering what the writer was thinking. Good closure begins some distance from that last poem—which is where I like to see the honest-to-God home-run swing, or….

The analogy I prefer making here is to music, concert performances in particular but some albums as well. There’s a reason why Frank Zappa used to begin his concerts with a tune like “Zoot Allures,” or ELP in 1973 starting with their version of Copland’s “Hoedown,” or why FZ’s “Muffin Man” is such a powerful closer. What we’re talking about is sometimes referred to as dramatic flow; I dislike the term flow in poetry because it’s applied too generally, but in this case let’s make an exception and consider a musical example everybody’s familiar with: Sergeant Pepper. That album is a masterpiece of sequencing, from the first track to the last long note that ends “A Day In The Life.” Everything makes sense; after all, the album’s supposed to represent a literal bandstand group’s performance, so there’s the concert-sequence requirement to be considered, and that of course determines the sequence of the album. In 2011, we no longer have to deal with any flip-side, which in 1967 was a kind of tool to be used: the halfway mark in the listening experience. Any wonder, then, why “Mr. Kite” is the last piece on side 1? It’s not quite the natural closer that “Day In The Life” so clearly is, but it’s also effective.

Unlike some folks in poetry, I embrace the idea that as poets we can learn quite a lot from musicians and from music in general. Every once in awhile this debate flares, in which one side says poetry has to be kept pure from such other-disciplinary sources, and the other side says Go fuck yourselves. I’m in the latter camp, obviously, for the simple reason that I’d never want to deny the possibility of influence from any constructive source; besides, to claim there’s nothing to be learned strikes me as a perfect response from someone seeking to prove s/he is in fact tone-deaf.

So as you sit down tonight with your manuscripts, bear in mind the importance of focusing on sequence. Trust your own ear. Be able to defend every choice you make. Oh, and please don’t put any faith in that old saw about Robert Frost and how he threw the contents of his first collection into the air and he determined the book’s order by which poems he picked up at random. It’s an interesting thought, but like a lot of stories about Frost, that one simply isn’t true. He worked at it like you and I have to do, with every sequence we organize. As poets we have to think a bit like musicians or producers, and judge sequencing by how well one piece sets up the next, or how one piece perhaps answers or complicates the piece before it, and so on.

And then, at a certain point, we hit Print or set up the file as an attachment. And then we let it go, hoping all the pieces are in the right order. It’s wonderful when someone else notices the work you’ve put into that aspect of your writing, so it also has to go out in order to be appreciated. Here’s to it. Cheers, and all good wishes.


About johnwylam1957

I'm a poet and teacher now living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
This entry was posted in Poetry/Fiction, Writing in General. Bookmark the permalink.

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