Saturday 28 June 2014

Organising a poetry collection

There aren't many lessons to learn from how I put my poetry collection together. Mainly I picked twice as many poems as were needed, and let the editor do the rest. I started with a poem about birth, ended with a poem about death, and tried not to jump around too much in the middle.

Below are some more comprehensive notes. They all suggest that the first and final poems matter. Some suggest breaking the book into sections. All suggest that linking devices should be used - character, theme, setting, imagery, form or even contrast. Levine suggests that if poems are "written more or less in the same creative period", they might work well in a sequence. For some poets, books have more cohesion than that. Fiona Sampson said that "Really I write books of poetry; I don't write individual poems. ... It's only really when I'm over the brow of the book that I can see what kind of collection it is that I'm writing. Then I can rewrite it all", ("The Next Review", No.5, p.13). For the final sequencing, people often suggest printing a poem per page and laying them out on the floor.

The article from the Iowa Review (you might not have access to the online version) looks at structuring ideas from many published books. The others are more practically oriented.

The Poetry School offer for a few pounds a downloadable Towards a collection course by Pascale Petit. Clare Pollard's Putting a pamphlet together is free. There's even a book - Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems edited by Susan Grimm.


  1. I struggled with this problem for years and gave up. The only order I see my poems in is the order in which they were written and, ideally, the only way they should even appear in print is as a single volume which, at the moment, would include some 634 poems. It’s the closest thing to an autobiography I’ll ever write. Of course what makes it that is all the stuff that’s not in the poems that come to my mind—and my mind only—when I read these poems.

    The layout to This Is Not About What You Think was nothing less than inspired if I have to say so myself. What the collection needed quite simply was for me to grow old enough to have written sufficient poems to cover the seven ages of man and then to pick the best ones. I can’t do that a second time. I do have a group of 120 poems selected which I’m trying to get into some form of order but I probably will list them chronologically. They’re all poems about poems. Surprised I was to find I’d written so many but I think 120’s too many for a collection. Maybe not. They cover some thirty-five years so the quality varies but there’s also something nice about seeing the progression of me as a poet. What’s putting me off many of the older poems is not that they’re bad, it’s that they’re slight and don’t really deserve a page to themselves but a part of me is also reluctant to have two poems on a page. We’ll see. No rush.

    I’ve been reviewing more poetry than I used to and one of the first questions I ask myself is: What unifies this collection? Once I’m able to answer that—and it’s not always easy to answer—then I’m in a position to review it. But it isn’t always easy and just another way to put me off poetry.

  2. "They’re all poems about poems" - I think you should have a word with your agent ...

    "one of the first questions I ask myself is: What unifies this collection?" - sometimes it's the key to explaining some poems that isolated might be obscure. But there must be poets who, as a first draft, just put their 50 best poems together and hope for the best. I guess if there's a lot of competition between book submissions, a neat organisational idea might just tip the balance.

    I think the phase when a poet orders their work is useful because it makes poets repeatedly re-read and re-write their work in context. The resulting ordering often isn't crucial.