A single poem may be the sum of its parts and, as much as any poem can be, its own end and beginning, but when a poem appears in a collection, under that collection’s title, as well as its own, it becomes part of a larger narrative (be it literal, emotional or conceptual). While the order of poems in a collection may appear arbitrary, this is more to do with how collections are read than how they are written. By virtue of its design a reader is free to read a collection however they wish; to pick and choose from the contents page at will. While ‘dipping in’ is a reader’s privilege, for someone putting together a manuscript, ordering the poems and deciding on sequence is a carefully thought-out process. It’s an odd time too because it calls for a certain amount of self-awareness, a sort of accounting for what it is you have written. It may, in fact, be the first time you think of your poems with a reader in mind.
While there’s no hard and fast rule to the process (and for the most part it’s something that is done intuitively), there are a few things worth considering if you’re trying to bring your manuscript together and make it cohere. A good place to start is with your first and last poems, or with a poem you have identified as being of particular importance within the collection. Paul Muldoon calls this a ‘keystone’ poem and this is an apt description as such a poem has the capacity to open up, or unlock, the poems around it. If you have a definite sense of one or all of these, you can begin to shape your manuscript from here. Find the first poem, find the poem you want to come after that poem. Find the last poem, find the poem you want to come before that poem. Identify a keystone poem, and find the poems that fit around it, and so on.
Cohesion is often achieved through pattern, so trace the patterns of your poems. Identify the recurring or obsessional themes, their imagery, their rhythms and their forms. In addition, ask yourself where the first poem of your manuscript takes you and where the last poem leaves you. Consider how individual poems in your manuscript speak to one another, either directly or obliquely. Think about the word that begins your collection and the word that ends it—a famous example of this is Sylvia Plath’s Ariel where the opening word is ‘Love’ and the final word is ‘life’. This can be very useful from poem to poem as well. How does the last line or word of one poem connect with the first word or line of the following poem? Does it echo the idea or emotion of that poem? Does it reassert it or does it contradict it? Carol Ann Duffy has said that she tried to order the poems in Mean Time ‘in a way that the collection shares the coherence of a record album’. It’s an insightful comparison as it places emphasis on the emotional tempo of the collection, something that is important to keep in mind when putting poems in order.
These are all valid questions to consider and once you’ve done so you can decide on whether these connections or contradictions are something you want to emphasise, draw out or leave hidden. It is also useful to look at collections you admire, and to ask yourself what it is about the poems, collected as they are, that appeals to you. Try to trace what it is that makes the poems remarkable not only individually but collectively. That said, it is worth keeping in mind Frost’s statement ‘No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader’. While ordering poems requires a certain amount of self-awareness, this should not be done to the extent that the element of discovery or surprise is eliminated. You cannot ‘will’ order, so don’t force connections for the sake of it. Whatever your method, your best guide will be your instinct. You’ve written the poems, and this has undoubtedly been a process of both surprise and discovery; there’s no reason to think that this should end in the ordering. So begin at the beginning, or the end, or the middle, as the case may be. Trust your intuition and be surprised by where it takes you.