I’ve read many poetry books where I paused at some point and asked myself, “why is this poem here?” The sad thing is, many of these are very good poems, they simply don’t appear to belong where they are or even in the book.
Perhaps the greater art than writing the poems is arraigning their placement within a manuscript. It’s an agonizing task, but an important one none the less. The paint artist gets to work his or her subjects onto the canvas as the picture is coming into being, but the poet must take individual poems and piece them together like working a giant jigsaw puzzle.
I imagine most of the time poems are written without future consideration for a broader manuscript. I realize there are exceptions to this, but even when one is writing with a broader manuscript in mind, it is unlikely that the whole manuscript will be written in a concise order or that all of the poems will end up in the final manuscript.
I heard Katrina Vandenberg read in Kansas City sometime in the past couple of years. She is the author of Atlas, published by Milkweed editions in 2004. This week I read an extraordinary piece in P&W on the subject of ordering you for manuscripts that was written by Katrina.
Putting Your Poetry in Order sounds a bit like planning for one’s death but it’s not. Still, there is something very final about a manuscript. How and what you place in a poetry manuscript may well have a lot to do with how a potential publisher views the work and it certainly can be important to the consumer once the book is published. I know I have read some poetry books that seemed so disjointed that I will likely not give the poet a second try for a subsequent book of poetry.
If you have wondered about creating a reasonable continuity to your manuscript, and don’t have a clue other than thinking you must have a strong opening poem, then I recommend reading Katrina’s thoughtful approach. It may startle you to know that the placement of poem number two is as important as that first one.
My wife would laugh at what I am about to write here. It is helpful with poetry to have a reason to what you are doing. I find that if I have a reason for a word, for a line break, for an order to copy, then there is a greater likelihood I am creating something that will work.
Will everyone see “your” reason in the work? Probably not. But some will see it, and when asked by others, you’ll have something better to say than, “It felt right.”