Nine Ways to Structure a Poetry Collection

Targeting Your Ideal Reader with a Book of Poems

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So . . . you want to publish a book of poems . . . but where do you start? Well, I like to think of a book of poems as a conversation. Poet Edward Hirsch says that a poem is like a message in a bottle. You’re sending it out in the world, hoping someone on a distant shore will pick it up and read it, but not just that—that they will experience the joy of connection.

If a poem is a message in a bottle, a book of poems is a story told by a fireside. The goal is to have a collection that a reader wants to sit down with and savor. Or else the goal might be to have a collection that the reader picks up here and there, perhaps leaving by their bed to enjoy before sleep. Either way, a collection targets its ideal reader by reaching them from across a vast well of time and space.

When thinking about how to order your poems, consider your own tastes but also those of your reader. This is just one topic we’ll be covering in my upcoming workshop on writing the book-length poetry collection:

Writing the Book-Length Poetry Collection
DATE: 4 Weeks Starting April 4, 2024
TIME: Asynchronous, Self-Paced via Writing Workshops Dallas
Price: $299
Learn techniques for putting together a book-length collection of poetry (chapbook and full-length). Explore how to choose poems, sequencing, and submitting your work.
For new poets, the task of writing enough poems to fill a book can be overwhelming. In this workshop, we will distinguish between chapbooks and full-length poetry books, discuss the importance of theming your poetry, and teach you how to write poems that interact with each other. Additionally, we will cover methods for selecting poems for a full-length collection, including ordering and sequencing, as well as adding epigraphs and author's notes. This workshop aims to equip you with the skills necessary to successfully publish your own book of poetry. For all genres of poetry.

The Right Structure Serves the Writer and the Reader

As a freelance editor, my main goal in editing a book is to help the writer find that connection to the reader. What makes the reader want to keep reading? What intrigues them? Whether it’s genre, style, structure, or story, every reader has preferences. In crafting a poetry collection, the poet should be thinking about their potential reader, a specific person with whom they want to connect.

I love what short story writer George Saunders has to say about this (it applies to all writing!):

The same concept applies to how you structure a book of poetry. As a person who loves poetry, and in particular, loves experimental poetry, I can handle a lot of reading “work” when it comes to figuring out what a book of poetry is trying to tell me. But for the more average poetry reader, a simpler way of ordering the book might be a better option.

With that in mind, here are some common ways poets structure their books and what type of reader they might appeal to:

1. Linear Narrative

The most common poetry book structure is what I call the “linear narrative”. Here’s what it looks like in terms of process:

The poet chooses poems that form a narrative and places them in a linear way in the book. The “narrative” might be a story or else it might just be an emotional theme. The poems progress through the book in a logical, linear way, starting from the beginning to middle to end of the “narrative”.

This method works great for most poetry books, and it appeals to all types of readers. Using a linear narrative mimics most fiction books. Stories are told from beginning to end, with a natural progression that arcs into a story climax.

Some readers are looking for a narrative in a poetry book—they enjoy piecing the parts together and want to be led on a journey.

Poems at the beginning of the book may be about beginnings or the start of an important event in the poet’s life. The poems will grow in intensity as the book progresses, ending in the most dramatic or emotional poems.

2. Thematic Parts

The second most common method of ordering a poetry collection is by different themes separated into parts. Let’s say you have more than one thing you want to say in your collection. Maybe you have several poems about one topic that are related to another group of poems, but they don’t necessarily go together. A way to group them is in parts.

Poets often give the parts names, number them, or else use epigraphs to separate each group of poems. This works great for collections that have several themes that overlap (grief + death + ghosts, memory + romance + nostalgia).

Poetry books with complicated thematic parts are more appealing to readers who are willing to read a book in a linear way. Having a few simple themed sections can be appealing to a reader who wants to pick up a book and read poems based on the theme they find most interesting.

One example is Maya Angelou’s first collection of poems, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971). The first part is “Part One: Where Love Is a Scream of Anguish,” which focuses on love as a theme, and the second is “Part Two: Just Before the World Ends,” which focuses on black experience and survival. Parts can be as simple as one word, as is the case in Sam Sax’s Bury It, with titles like “Rope”, “Draw”, “Stone”, “Toll”, and “Suspension”.

3. Numbered Lists

Lists can be satisfying for a reader, if social media marketing is any indication! One of the simplest ways to order ideas is in a list. There’s a reason we are drawn to list poems. Like a list poem, a poetry book collection can also be arranged in numbers.

While it may seem tempting to simply number your poems based on their importance (or by the linear narrative option in #1), I encourage poets to explore numbered systems that have a second meaning.

For example, 2500 Random Things About Me Too by Matias Viegener is a book based off of those Facebook that have users list “ten things about me”. The poems are numbered from one to 2500. The book itself looks like a list: It’s long and skinny.

At the very least, if you title your book as a list, then the structure should reflect that! Your reader might feel confused if the numbers in your least are meaningless. I always get a tinge of disappointment when I open a book that is titled “x ways to y” but the poems aren’t arranged in numbered lists!

A list is essentially a found format structure, which I’ll discuss in more detail later in this post. Making a list can be a great exercise to get you started on structuring your book: Print out your poems and number them. Don’t think too much about why you chose those numbers—just go with it. Later, read the poems in the order you chose—can you see a pattern?

4. The Seasons

Since the first publication of individually authored poetry collections, the seasons have been a common structure for exploring the vast metaphor that is nature. Indeed, many anthologies dating back to the 1700s-1800s were often structured in this way. This kind of cyclical structure is pleasing to a reader who may want to return to a book over and over again throughout the year. The idea of a “poem a day” has always been appealing to readers who want to read poetry regularly but perhaps struggle to choose which poem to read.

Haiku is one poetry form that relies on seasons, using certain words to indicate the seasonal setting of the poem and, thus, its emotional heft. The seasons are commonly used in poetry as metaphors: spring as the blushing bride, winter as death. Poets may also find joy in writing throughout the year in different seasons—using inspiration from the world around them, exploring their personal experiences of the year in poetic form.

Shannon Connor Winward’s book The Year of the Witch is an example of a book that utilizes this structure to explore a speculative theme, with sections titled by celtic and wiccan seasons: “Spring Moon Ritual” “Beltane” “Lughnasadh”. Mary Oliver’s book A Dream of Summer: Poems for the Sensuous Season focuses on one season, summer, as inspiration.

5. Alphabetical

Language’s first order is the alphabet. A simple way to organize your poetry book is alphabetically, starting with the poem’s titles from A-Z.

But again, I encourage poets to think beyond this strategy and come up with a reason for the poems to be alphabetical. For example, I am currently writing a book of erasure poems inspired by the Encyclopedia Britannica. Each poem is a black-out of an entry in the Encyclopedia. So it makes sense that I will organize the book from A-Z.

Another example of this is the book Orakl by Daniele Pantano. Pantano is a translator who created the book using the poems of Georg Trakl, an Austrian poet who died in 1914. Pantano then ordered the lines in alphabetical order by their first words. Orakl is an example of a found poetry book: It uses lines found by translation and then re-arranges them using the alphabet as a way to find new meaning.

6. Definitions

Poets are often concerned with the book as object. One meta way to draw attention to the fact that poems use words and are about words is by using the definitions of words to arrange a collection.

Definitions can be used either correctly, or, as I’ve often seen, imaginatively (i.e., to imagine new words). Neologisms are new words that are made up. This kind of jargon provides additional depth into why the poet chose the word/s for each poem and section.

Bryan Thao Worra’s second book of poetry, Barrow (2009) uses different definitions of the word “Barrow” to segment sections. Worra has made it available for free to read online since it is out of print, so I suggest checking out the above link.

7. Time

One way to arrange your poems is chronologically in the order they were written. A poet might wish to draw on the personal story behind the poems, exploring a period of time in their life. Many poets have written books this way, using the “poem a day” method and then publishing the poems as a book-journal of their lives.

The poem’s writing becomes part of the story of the book. When considering this method, look at the events of the poems. When did they happen? Do the dates of the poems impact the reader’s interpretation of them?

While this method is commonly used in omnibus collections by well-known poets, it also works well to create narratives in collections about a theme. Just like in fiction, just because the poet is using time as a way to structure the collection does not mean that time must be linear. Consider: A poetry book made up of flashbacks; A poetry book that tells a story in reverse; A poetry book that flits back and forth between two timelines.

One clever meta example is The Cyborg Anthology by Lindsay B-e, which imagines a future where all robots have been destroyed. The book’s sections "are chronological in an imaginary timeline, starting with “Early Cyborg Poems” and ending with “Cyborg Poets: The Next Generation”.

8. Found Structures

These days, most contemporary poets choose a unique structure for their book vs. opting for no structure at all. In poetry, we refer to “found” devices as text or structures that exist outside of the poetic genre. For example, “found text” is text that has been lifted from another source, usually nonfiction, and used in the context of a poem to create new meaning.

Found Structures are structures that exist elsewhere, such as lists, recipes, emails, social media, dictionaries, and so on. This is also called the “hermit crab” style because like a hermit crab, the book “borrows” the structure of something else.

One example is Amelia Gorman’s Field Guide to Invasive Species of Minnesota, which is a series of poems laid out in the form of a nature field guide (a popular found format I’ve seen used in other poetry books!).

Found Structures work well for readers who are willing to do a little bit of thinking while they read. When used well, they encourage the reader to use their imagination, exploring the metaphor a found structure creates.

It helps if the found structure you choose reflects the topics of the poems. For example, a book of poems about food might be well-suited to be structured like a faux cookbook. Look around at what text exists in the theme of your poems, and you’ll likely find interesting texts you can mimic in your collection.

9. The Table of Contents Is a Poem

Okay, I admit this is one I made up. You may have noticed that I’m fascinated by structure! When I was writing my first full-length collection of tiny poems, The Smallest of Bones, I realized I didn’t want to title each poem. Without a title, it became a challenge to try and figure out how to organize the poems. I realized many of my first lines could fit together and ended up making each poem’s first line a part of a larger poem in the table of contents.

I also structured sections of the book using different parts of anatomy—different bones in the body. Each bone reflected a story about gender in the idea of the body.

The right reader loves this kind of nitpicky strangeness. I’ve gotten tons of comments from readers who loved discovering the TOC—and feeling like they were in on the secret!

Find the Structure that Works for You and the Reader

These are just a few structures you might play with in putting together your poetry collection. I suggest trying them out—but also consider creating your own structure if you can’t find one that exists in the world for your book. Every book is special, so if you need to make up a structure, go ahead!

In the end, the best structure for a poetry book should be based on the poems themselves. Do what feels natural and organic, and show off your unique voice as a poet.

Holly Lyn Walrath is a writer, editor, and publisher. Her poetry and short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, Analog, and Flash Fiction Online. She is the author of several books of poetry including Glimmerglass Girl (2018), Numinose Lapidi (2020), and The Smallest of Bones (2021). She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. In 2019, she launched Interstellar Flight Press, an indie SFF publisher dedicated to publishing underrepresented genres and voices. As a freelance editor, she provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best.

Upcoming Workshops from Holly Lyn Walrath

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