Ordering poems becomes a familiar act if you consider the lyric poem in its original form—the song. And if you were the kind of incessant list-maker Nick Hornby describes in his novel High Fidelity, the kind who also made mix tapes from your album collection. If you were the kind of geek my college boyfriend, Tim, was and—admittedly—the kind I was too.
Our love affair began with a trade of tapes, and from there things got competitive. When we were twenty and camping in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, we spent our hikes making up imaginary tapes. One of us would suggest a topic—songs with a Bo Diddley beat, revenge songs for ex-lovers—and we would alternate naming titles until somebody was stumped and lost. Once, when we spent a year apart, we sent tapes through the mail. Instead of thanking each other, we rated them on a one- to five-star scale. By the time we moved in together, making the tapes had become a speed game. We assembled them together, alternating songs. Before the other person's song ended, you had to cue up a new one that fit or face humiliation.
Our pride and pains were immature, but I now think of that serious play as a beginning: It taught me one way to think about a book of poems. We were relentlessly critical of each other's sensibilities. (As Hornby's character Rob Fleming says, "Oh, there are loads of rules.") And we cared about the game, about solving a problem within a form. We titled the finished tapes, rubber-cemented cover art we cut from ads into the plastic cases. Tim even had an imaginary label, P. Pineapple Productions, so called in honor of his unrequited lust for a girl in his dorm named Pam. And years later, I remembered the obsolete art of the mix tape when I sat on my living room floor, surrounded by every poem I'd written, to order my first book for what would turn out to be the last time. The old questions still applied: Can I be surprising and still make sense? Can I intrigue someone I respect?
I no longer own even one record, but I have compiled the best advice on poem order I've gleaned—from books, editors, other poets, and experience—to make you, Dear Reader, this mix tape. Though I can already tell you, Tim would not give it more than four stars.
When Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in 1967, according to Rock of Ages, Rolling Stone's history of rock and roll, it was the first time anyone had asserted that an album itself made a whole. Before that, bands put out collections of unrelated, randomly sequenced songs, not unlike the way poets once put out collections of unconnected lyrics and called them Poems. It's now hard to imagine that an album, or a book of poetry, might not be a cohesive entity. But the good news for the poet is that the songs on Sgt. Pepper's aren't much more related than those on earlier Beatles' collections. In some ways, the album is more eclectic.
What's changed is that, like any good piece of writing, Sgt. Pepper's enters into a contract with its audience. Its title and cover art announce that the Beatles are donning the persona of a psychedelic vaudeville group; what you are about to hear is its performance. The Fab Four's glitzy costumes and the icons crowded around them on the album jacket hint at the showbiz razzle-dazzle, the grab bag of musical styles they will momentarily reach inside.
The result? If you think of a work of art as a physical space, the Beatles have performed the trick of enlarging their space by claiming to narrow it. H. Emerson Blake, former editor in chief of Milkweed Editions, says a poet can perform similar sleight of hand: A title and any section titles or governing conceit probably work best if they expand, rather than limit, the reader's understanding of the book. And when titling your book, in addition to asking, "What do all these poems have to do with one another?" he says you might also ask, "Who is the author who puts all of these poems—these marmalade skies, tangerine trees, and the Albert Hall—here in one place?" In the Beatles' case, a psychedelic vaudeville group.
Of course, poems are not necessarily autobiography—but if you were to consider the governing persona who speaks in your poems, how would you sum him or her up? Take a look at any of the following to see how poets can draw their versions of this character loosely: The Brass Girl Brouhaha by Adrian Blevins (Ausable Press, 2003), M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A by A. Van Jordan (Norton, 2004), and She Didn't Mean to Do It by Daisy Fried (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000).
A poem is an accumulation of different kinds of repetition. When you repeat a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, you get meter; when you repeat sounds you get alliteration, rhyme, assonance; when you repeat images, you get a motif; when you repeat an idea, a theme. A poem's natural compression heightens these sensations of repetition. Something like this can happen over the length of a book as well, as various kinds of repetitions take place over a series of poems.
You can create cohesion in a manuscript by linking poems not just according to the obvious issues of theme, chronology, or similar forms, but also by repeated images, colors, and shapes. You can juxtapose: Follow a long poem with a short one; let a poem argue with whatever the last one asserted was true. Break up a group of similar poems to make the reading experience less symmetrical—intersperse, say, narrative poems from the point of view of a specific character with lyrics about objects that appear tangentially in the narratives. In this way the relationship among poems becomes more subtle and complex, more unexpected and, therefore, more exciting.