A Drop In The Bucket?: The Why’s And Where’s of The Individual Poem Versus A Poetry Collection

When compiling a poetry manuscript, many things are in flux. Typically what ends up as the order of the book goes through many revisions in the same way a poem or short story or novel goes through revisions, at least mine did. A question came up recently about how an individual poem can be received in relation to the full collection it resides in.

Here are a few of things I think are important to consider:

Narrative

A book of poetry can be seen as a story in some ways. What is the story the poet is trying to tell? What sort of information do we get from the individual poem? How does having that information affect how we read other poems in the collection? Of course, it’s difficult to fully articulate how each narrative could function, and if there is a narrative at all, without having an example to pull from. But I’m always wondering how the whole of a collection is functioning together. Consider reading a collection like one short story: is there an arc? a denouement? are there consistent “characters” or archetypes? That’s a really good place to start and can help make sense of a poetry collection by the means of a more familiar format such as the short story.

Themes

Many poets will have recurring themes in their work. Whether or not they know it is another question. A well crafted book of poetry is aware of the themes it makes use of and knows how to harness them. For instance, a poet’s may like writing about water, therefore every poem has some relationship to water. If the poet doesn’t know they’re doing this, it may come off as redundant or repetitive. If the poet knows they like to write about water, they can use water in an extended ways such as inclusion of vessels or pipelines or in more abstract ways, metaphorical or ideological ripples, changing cultural tides or erosion. This examples are a little forced, but you get the idea.

Order

For better or for worse, poetry books are often not read in order. Most of us are looking for and at one particular poem, usually xeroxed, in isolation. This is fortunate because each poem should be able to stand on its own if it’s written well. We don’t necessarily need the rest of the book to “get it.”

This is unfortunate because individual poems can be informed and deepened by the collection the find themselves in. For instance say a poem about “loving your dog at sunset” would have a different feel if it appears in a collection about dogs versus a collection about sunsets. The surrounding poems have the potential to accentuate or diminish the individual poem.

Also when considering order, what difference would it make if we take the poem in question and put it at the front of the collection? What about the end? If the book is broken into sections, how does the section it’s placed in make a difference?

Titles

Some writers, and I’m one of them, believe the table of contents can act as it’s own separate poem. Even though the table of contents can seem like just another page or a helpful guide, the table of contents is really a roadmap of ideas and themes. Pick up any nearby poetry book and read the table of contents silently or aloud. Titles on their own should have a great deal of weight, but when compiled together, should provide some insight into the nature of the book. A good table of contents could answer the question: what is this book about?

Aesthetic

Lastly, poetry collections, more so than most other written forms, place a great deal of stock in visuals. How a poem looks on a page, the way it’s broken up, can have a heavy influence on the way it’s read both oneself and aloud. Because of the poet is aware of these forms, typically a collection of poems will vary in form from page to page. Unless you pick up a book of haiku or sonnets, then many of the poems will look similar.

I, for one, like visual variety when I read a collection. So if I find a large and lengthy poem, I’d appreciate it being followed by a lighter poem.

Some things to consider: Is the poem a visually dense poem? Does it look intimidating to read? How many stanza breaks are there, if any?

In Closing

There’s likely a lot more to cover here, but it’s a good start. I hope this is helpful if you find yourself digging into a collection for the first time.

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