Putting Your Poetry in Order: The Mix-Tape Strategy

Katrina Vandenberg
From the May/June 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

You are allowed—even encouraged—to have obsessions. While you don't want poems that are "too much alike too close together," you also don't want a book that is so scattershot it has no focus—a flaw first books are more prone to than later ones, because beginning poets are often still trying on styles and finding out what their obsessions are.

Poet Nan Cohen, author of Rope Bridge (Cherry Grove, 2005), has read thousands of applications for fellowships to the Napa Valley Writers' Conference and other programs, and says that beginning poets are often too embarrassed by their own strangeness. To prove range, they hold back and include only two poems about their mothers in their writing samples, when seven poems talking together about her might make them more compelling, and give their samples depth. Order can make a poet's obsessions more interesting.


Theodore Roethke insisted he had set his greenhouse poems in The Lost Son and Other Poems in no particular order, but critical pieces were still written about whether the sequence is structured to mimic the feel of manic depression, or to trace a boy's coming-of-age. Poetry readers read white space. Their imaginations want to fill in the shapes you provide.

The white space between one poem and the next, like the white space between two lines or stanzas, can function as a form of innuendo. Think of the way a reader can watch power and mood shift in the white spaces between Marilyn Nelson's Homeplace poems because of the way she ordered them in her volume of selected poems, The Fields of Praise (Louisiana State University Press, 1997). The poem "Balance" tells us Marse Tyler watches his slave Diverne "like a coonhound watch a tree," that Diverne parades by and "hone(s) his body's yearning to a keen, / sharp point. And on that point she balanced life. / That hoe Diverne think she Marse Tyler's wife." The next poem, a sonnet called "Chosen," abruptly shifts mood; here we learn that "Diverne wanted to die, that August night / his face hung over hers, a sweating moon," and we find that Diverne's rape by her master has given her a child, Pomp. The title of the next poem, "Daughters, 1900," tells us that at least forty years have passed. It begins "Five daughters, in the slant light on the porch, / are bickering," and we learn that they are educated and want to become teachers. It isn't until their father lowers his newspaper near the end of the poem that we realize he is Pomp, the boy begotten years earlier. The poems are not merely arranged chronologically. Their order, highlighting shifts in tone, point of view, and mood, deepens our reading of each poem—what is calm becomes bittersweet; raw terror leads to life.


Finding the right order is more art than science. Brian Teare said he knew he was done ordering his first book, the Brittingham Prize winner The Room Where I Was Born (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), when he felt that if he "pulled out so much as one poem, the entire structure would come crashing down."

"It felt done, in a way that it hadn't before," Beth Ann Fennelly says of the end of her struggle to find the right order for her first book, Open House (Zoo Press, 2002). She had been arranging a group of early poems in a wide variety of styles, tones, and subject matter when she began to think of the book as a house, with various sections like rooms. "The experience was like my first fishing trip," she says. "I kept asking, ‘Is that a bite? Is that a bite?' when it was only me moving the rod. When a fish finally hit, I didn't need to ask: I knew."


After all this, the average reader of poems probably does not notice a book's structure. I almost never read a book of poems in order. Yet I don't believe for a minute that structure is not important. Order implies a coherence, a polish, a form of regard for the reader—or for the contest judge.

We value the book of poetry, in part, because it is as thoughtfully constructed as a Japanese bento box. Its title is carefully chosen; its cover enhances a theme with design and color; its sections develop a theme, sometimes with titles; the order within its sections makes individual poems sparkle. Its whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It's a poem made from all of your poems.

Whether or not a reader immediately notices a book's structure, she notices its effects. The right order does for poems what our mothers said the right dress would do for us—flatters, minimizes flaws.

11. "SO IT GOES"—NICK LOWE (2:34)

When Tim died in his midtwenties, I did what he once told me every man fears a woman in pain might do. I sold his record collection. The copy of Sticky Fingers with the working zipper? The Led Zeppelin album with the brown paper cover? All of them. All of them.

And why only four stars? From fifteen years away I hear it: "The reader should be able to record the songs that begin each section in order and have a tape that sounds good—the form should be functional." Imagined point well taken. But as Tim also thought art rock sacrificed craft for concept, let this coda serve as a warning: Don't get wrapped up in a book's concept at the expense of its poems. We've all seen books so focused on a theme that their individual poems are as bloodless and forgettable as the songs on an Emerson, Lake & Palmer album. For what it's worth, the Rolling Stone album guide calls Sgt. Pepper's not a triumph of songwriting, but of production.

Katrina Vandenberg is the author of Atlas: Poems, published by Milkweed Editions in 2004.

Click here to download a playlist of songs from this essay. (The iTunes player is required for this download.)

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Thanks for the good techniques. I'll be sure to try them out in my future works.

Great Stuff!

I like this a lot.  And it comes to me at a perfect time: thesis manuscript season for me and I'm sure a bunch of other MFAs out there.  Thank you.

Listing order

How about listing poems in alphabetical order?