So you’ve put in the hours (and days and months, maybe even years) of work, written a bunch of poems, and you are starting to believe that they could be made into a book. This in itself is a huge accomplishment, so congratulations! But now you might be finding yourself stuck when it comes to putting it all together. How are you supposed to organize a book of poems that will highlight your poetic talent and tell your story the way you want it told? Which poem should go first, which should go last, and what the heck should be done in the middle?
You’re in luck, because there are a lot of strategies for beginning to organize your individual poems into a cohesive poetry manuscript:
Get a Good Foundation
First, it’s a good idea to read some published books of poetry and pay attention to how the author has chosen to order their poems. When working toward any kind of new project for the first time, it’s always helpful to look at examples, right? If you’re not sure of the best way to discover quality poetry books, you can start with independent presses like Graywolf, Milkweed, Copper Canyon Press, Coffee House Press, Yes Yes Books, Black Lawrence Press, Tin House Books, and Sarabande Books. These presses are widely considered to be some of the best publishers of contemporary poetry out there, so just browsing their websites and choosing a book or two that looks interesting is a pretty safe bet (and because they’re independent presses, they could always use your support–plus many of them are nonprofits, which means buying books from them may also help fund their philanthropic projects, like community writing workshops). You might also find and read a few literary journals that publish reviews of recently-released poetry books, so that you can see which books people are talking positively about, and learn a little more about the book to get a better sense of what it’s like and if its themes will resonate with you. Or you can always check out the poetry section of your local bookstore, and ask for recommendations from other poetry enthusiasts!
Study the Table of Contents
When you begin exploring the book you’ve chosen as your example, study the table of contents. Many books of poetry are organized in sections, and each section might deal with slightly different topics, or have a specific theme or style to it. For example, if the writer has included a series of sonnets in their book, they might group them all into one section, or if place is really important in their poems, they might make each section the name of a different city and group the poems about each city together. If the major themes in their poems are about parenting, bird-watching, and their intense passion for ice cream, they might group each of these themes into their own sections (even if there is likely to be some crossover between themes, that’s okay) and so on. Sometimes, the sections of a book also have their own creative titles, and sometimes they are just signified with numbers.
As you continue to read, pay attention to the way the author orders their poems. What does the first poem in the collection tell you about their voice, style, and the subject(s) of the book? How does the next poem build off of that, and the next one? When you’re finished with the book, what feelings do you come away with? It might even help if you write some notes down as you’re reading (either on a separate notepad or in the margins of the book itself–authors love the idea of someone reading their book closely enough that they’re compelled to mark up the pages!) with things you notice about how each poem is in conversation with the one that comes before it and the one that comes after it.
Now that you’ve read some examples and have a general sense of how poetry books are organized, you might even have some ideas about how to order the poems in your own manuscript.
Curate Your Poems
First, you’ll need to decide which poems you like best and want to include in your book (in general, a poetry manuscript is usually 48-80 pages). Doing all this organizing on your computer’s word processor can get complicated, so I highly advocate printing your poems out, spreading them all over the floor, or taping them up on the walls! It gives you more creative freedom to move them around and literally be able to visualize the space they’ll occupy in your book, and because of the way our brains adjust to reading in different formats, you might even notice something you hadn’t before.
Start at the Beginning
At this stage, it might feel overwhelming to decide where to begin. In that case, just begin with the beginning! Pick which poem you think should come first. Remember that this is the very first piece of your work your readers will encounter, and from this first poem, they’ll decide whether or not they want to continue reading. So your first poem needs to be strong enough to “hook” them so they want to keep reading on. Think about it as an introduction; how do you want to introduce yourself and your poetry to your readers? There are a lot of different tones, styles, subjects, and forms of poems a book might begin with, but ideally, you should consider these questions when choosing your first poem:
What poem do you think is your best work? What poem will set the tone of the book in the direction you want? What poem captures your unique voice and style, and will give readers a good taste of what your book is about?
Once you choose a strong opening poem, you are going to need a strong ending. Depending on your process, you might be able to choose your final poem right away, or you might need to wait to see how the rest of the manuscript is ordered before you decide how you want to end it. The most important thing to consider about an ending poem, though, is what message or emotion you want to leave your readers with when they close the book. What do you want them to take away from the journey they just went on with you?
With a beginning and ending poem in mind, you can begin to think about everything that comes in-between. How do we get from the subjects and mood of the beginning to the subjects and mood of the ending? It might be helpful to group your poems by theme, style, or subject, especially if you’re planning on creating sections in your book. Look for what your poems have in common with one another, how they complement one another, and how they differ from or expand on the poems around them.
When in Doubt, Put on the Jams
Another option is what I like to call the “mixed CD strategy.” If, like me, you remember a time when making mixed CDs (or hey, even cassettes) for your friends and crushes was all the rage, this strategy will make sense to you (and if you’re young enough that you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can replace “mixed CD” with “Spotify playlist” for this example). Think of your poetry collection as a mixed CD you’re creating for your readers, and each poem is a song on that CD. You want to begin with a hit, to get your listener attuned to the mood of the mix, and get them really excited to hear more. You might include a mix of fast-n-loud and slow-n-sultry songs on the CD, and some songs might be really different from each other, but there’s a reason they’re all there: because you have some feeling or idea you want to communicate to the person listening that can only be communicated through music (or in this case, poetry, which is sort of like the music of literature). If you’ve just heard a slow acoustic song that made you cry, you don’t want the next song to be a loud death metal jam that snaps you out of the mood in a jarring way. You want to build the tone of the “playlist” in waves, maybe starting off loud and exciting and letting that momentum ride for a few poems, then working your way down to the quieter, softer poems, then building your way back up again to finish strong.
Find the Story in Your Poems
If the mixed CD example feels a little too abstract, consider your manuscript in terms of the story you want it to tell. Your poems might be about real things that happened to you, or they might be fictional and imagined, but either way, the order they’re arranged in will tell the reader a story. When thinking about how a book of poetry comes together, we can learn a lot from the familiar story structure that we see in novels, movies, and TV: in a typical story, a character starts out with their life one way, then something big happens, and we follow them through the journey of how they cope with that big event. There are obstacles and opportunities, joys and sorrows along the way. By the end, usually their life or the way they understand their place in the world has changed in some way from when we first encountered them. It might not be obvious, but this narrative structure is in our bones and in the way humans view the world, whether we realize it or not, and people innately respond to it.
That said, you may want to subvert that traditional structure and do something totally different and surprising. That’s cool, too! Either way, you want to think about the “story arc” of the book overall, and how each poem contributes to that arc. You need a beginning, middle, and an end, and you should think about what mood or insights you want someone to take away from reading your book. Maybe in the beginning your poems are about going through something hard, the middle shows those struggles play out as you work through them, and the end contains more hopeful poems about how you’ve grown from the experience. Or maybe the book begins with poems about being happy and feeling like life is good, then in the middle something difficult happens that changes your perspective, and the end propels us into uncertainty along with you. If you’re considering adding sections to your manuscript, you can think about each section as an “act” that moves us along through the story, gives us new information, or adds a new perspective on the information we already have.
To experiment with different ways of ordering your poems, you might try creating two different books: two manuscripts, each with the same poems in them, but in totally different orders. Notice what stories each tells with their orders, and how those stories might be presented differently in each, or seem to have different outcomes from one another. Think about what emotional or intellectual sensations you’re left with after reading through each. By playing around with different ways of arranging, you might even notice connections between poems that you didn’t realize were there at first!
Let it (and You) Breathe
If you’ve tried all of these steps and you’re still not sure if the manuscript is working how you want it to, it might help to step back from it and take a break for a few days, or even weeks. After looking at something so long, your brain gets worn out and may not be able to notice the things that need work. Put your manuscript in a drawer for a while, and when you’re ready, you’ll be able to return to it refreshed, with more clarity on what’s working well, and new ideas on how to fix what isn’t quite perfect yet. In the meantime, you might also consider reaching out to trusted friends, family, or colleagues to ask if they’d be willing to take the time to read your manuscript and give you feedback on how the order is working, and what might need improvement. Insights from readers who are coming to the manuscript with fresh perspectives can be really helpful for understanding if your intentions are coming across clearly.
Most importantly, arranging the poems in your manuscript should be as exciting and creative a process as writing them was. You’ve already done the hard work of bringing your poems to life on the page, and now you get to watch as your book takes shape and becomes one step closer to being a reality. If you find yourself feeling stuck, remember that we offer services to help you arrange your manuscript, edit it, and get it shining to its fullest potential!
Just like reading poetry is the best teacher for beginning to write poetry, studying the organization of published poetry collections is a great way to figure out how you might organize your own.
Decide what poems you want to include in your book, then print them out to make them easier to visualize and move around.
It can help to choose your beginning and ending poems first, so that you know where you’re starting and where you’ll end up. Make sure they’re both going to knock your reader’s socks off!
Consider grouping your poems by theme, style, or content to form sections.
Think of your poems as songs, and your collection as a mixed CD or playlist you’re making for your reader. Make sure transitions between poems make sense and aren’t jarring.
Think about the story you’re trying to tell, and arrange your poems to guide the reader through the progression of that story.
Get creative with structure, and try out different arrangements to see what works best.
If you’re still uncertain, take a break and come back to it later with fresh eyes, or ask a friend for their feedback.