Putting Your Poems in Order for Publication in a Book

If you are thinking of publishing your poetry, one of the first things you’ll wonder about is which ones you should include and what order you should put them in. Here are some suggestions to ponder:

  • Try to see your poems objectively–stand back and look at them in a kind of 3D form so you can see each of them from a wide variety of angles.
  • Analyze how each poem and its parts connect with the other poems you plan to include. List each poem’s themes and subjects, as well as noting repeated words and images. Then separate the poems into groups based on theme or subject, count the number of pages in each pile, and note how many of the strongest poems have landed in each. Use that information as a guide to a successful ordering.
  • Choose a major theme for the book, overall, and within that, choose more specific themes that are related to the major theme. List each of your poems under the best sub-theme, in outline form. Does any particular poem not fit your major theme plus one of your sub-themes? Or does the poem fit too many of the themes–if which case maybe you need to rewrite it? Do you have a preponderance of poems in one sub-theme and not enough in others? Do you need to reconsider your outline, or even your sub- or major themes?
  • Why are you choosing a particular poem? Does it really fit the book and its theme(s)? Is it well-written? What have your beta readers and critiquers said about it? Does it need more work? Do you find yourself arguing, “But I just love it the way it is!”? Why are you so attached to it? Is it an emotional attachment or an attachment related to some important event in your life? Is that a good enough reason to include it even if it doesn’t fit in one of these other ways?
  • Do the poems you have chosen create a cohesive whole?
  • Are you including weaker poems or unrelated poems because you worry that the book won’t be long enough? Remember, “Strength, not length, makes a good book of poetry.”
  • Consider intuition as well as intellect. What order “feels right”? Have some other poets (or people who love reading poetry) read your draft. How do they “feel” about the order you’ve created?
  • Depending on your poetry’s style and goals, consider creating a narrative line or arc as you would for a novel, especially if your poetry “tells an overall story.” Group and/or weave themes and even poem plots to create a sense of evolution or growth, proceeding toward a conclusion.
  • Perhaps your poetry has an underlying musical kind of tone or a style that involves strong rhythm and/or rhyme. In that case, you might try a lyric ordering, in which each poem is linked to the previous one, repeating a word, image, subject, or theme (if you aren’t sure what this means, take a look through old hymn books which are organized in this way).
  • Do your poems have strong emotional underpinnings? Consider following a few emotionally charged poems with one or more lighter-toned ones that provide comic or other relief.
  • Do you tend to write poems that follow specific poetic formats? Perhaps you might want to group the poems according to their format. Alternatively, you might vary poetic styles, individual poem length, pace, tone, or emotion. Try out both ways. Ask beta readers to tell you which format they think works better and why.
  • Consider whether the collection needs sections and whether the sections will benefit from titles. If you decide on sections, begin and end each one with strong poems that create links between sections.
  • Will you useĀ ordering conventions such as prologue or epilogue poems, epigraphs and endnotes?
    of the list.
  • After you’ve gone through your original list of poems, ordered them, removed any that don’t fit at all, and set aside poems you’d like to include but aren’t sure about, take another look at that “maybe” list. Are there poems there that could fill gaps, or that actually do fit really well? Try including them in appropriate places.
  • Set your manuscript aside. Go and do something else for at least a month or six weeks. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and mind, sit down, and read through the entire manuscript, ideally in one sitting. Be prepared to make changes.
  • Finally, ask several people who write good poetry and/or love to read poetry, to sit down and read your manuscript. Ask them to give you “overall” comments on the flow, organization, appropriateness of the poems included, and so on. Invite them to get together for a meal, and discuss your manuscript together. Listen carefully. But in the end, remember these are your poems, from your being–and what you include and how you order them is your decision.

Here is another post I have found very helpful on how to order your poems in a book. It will provide you with other helpful ideas.

What are your recommendations for ordering your poetry for publication in a book?
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. We’d love to hear them.