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Friday, May 25, 2012

How one poem leads to another and another in a poetry book or chapbook

In a novel or short story, one thing leads to another, giving the writer a means of plot development through cause-and-effect events or the actions-and-reactions of the characters. Similarly, in a poetry book or chapbook, one topic, phrase, idea, or image can connect one poem to the next, helping you to enhance or develop a basic theme, purpose, or subject.

The previous article “Getting poems together for a poetry book” talked about the importance of a specific theme to hold a book of poems together, which is also true – and, perhaps, even more of a necessity – for a chapbook of only 18 or so poems. In other words, a strong theme or dominant subject can connect the poems like a lively conversation that moves along but stays on topic.

The overriding theme, purpose, or subject will also let you know whether or not a poem belongs here. If the poetic lines do not tie into the theme, they most likely do not fit well in this particular manuscript. For a poetry book, however, you have the option of using two or more sections to separate your poems into Part I, Part II, etc., thus severing the need to stay with a single thread.

If I had divided the 100 or so poems in Living in the Nature Poem into sections, that might have made them easier to organize or arrange! But each poem had some tie-in to nature – ranging from human nature to an eagle’s talons to indigenous peoples who live close to the earth in a natural, non-industrialized lifestyle. I also liked the way those many aspects of nature intertwine into the natural life presented in the poems, thereby strengthening the idea of becoming at-one with ourselves, one another, the natural world, and the whole universe.

As one poem leads to another, the overall context broadens, too, so a weaker poem gains strength, meaning, or momentum from the surrounding poems. Or, as some (including me) have said, I like it when “one poem informs another.”

Sometimes following a time sequence will organize poems for you. And, sometimes poets or poetry editors easily stay well-focused on the big picture as they arrange poems – a trait I find admirable but not within my natural ability. For me stream-of-consciousness fits the way I talk (and write poetry), so I wanted to try something similar as I arranged the poems. Whether I succeeded will be for poetry critics or reviewers to decide, but I’ll give you a few examples in case you want to try some kind of poem-to-poem flow in your poetry book or chapbook:

“Tribulations of a Playful Poet” begins:

The alligator owns all rights
to the lily pads,
gliding by, right when I'm writing
about beauty,
about serenity.

So the next poem “Fashioned” follows the alligator image into a prose poem that starts:

In the dark of night, a flash of light in an alligator’s eye raves in a pair
of shoes, purse, belt, or baby gator flushed into the sewers of New York,
and then moves on.

The poem “Hunger” ends with these lines:

The silence becomes you –
fair as the light on a golden-
winged hawk, wheeling away
from the squirrel's worried cry.

So the next poem “Do Not Use the Word Bury in This Poem” begins:

Squirrels shop
the earth. Moles
have malls.

“Real Estate” says:

And the hills that climbed us
puffing for breath
exchanged their wildflowers
for houses

The next few poems pick up on changes that occur in the natural world and, ultimately, in ourselves. So dying just naturally enters that picture, too, with “Expiration” lamenting:

I can't seem to get over your dying like that.
Things I thought I knew about you
did not include this option –
not so soon.

Death is part of life, of course, but I wanted to keep the book focused on living. So, even in death, “The Escape” hopefully re-establishes the idea of Living in the Nature Poem.

The Escape
by Mary Harwell Sayler

Day after day I think of death
descending on us
like that fish hawk on the pond,
the dark wings
towering through each window
of our house and settling
on the sofa
where we like to rest.

Some call death
an osprey, kindly and benign
with its sweet brown and white
seersucker breast and tail,
but they forget
the downward hook of the beak,
the prickly spicules on the feet,
the claws that claw through the
thickest cushions, letting nothing,
get away but
love and spirit.

(The poem originally appeared in the Journey’s End anthology published 2010 by Two Friends Publishing.)

Other poems follow "The Escape" – some with humor, some not – but I hope you’ll find out for yourself by ordering Living in the Nature Poem to be published in June by Hiraeth Press - a traditional publisher of poetry and prose from an environmental perspective. Happy reading! And have fun looking for the life themes and connections in your poems.


© 2012, Mary Sayler, all rights reserved.



  1. I love The Escape and also your suggestions for organizing a chapbook--something I plan to do one day.

  2. Thanks for the good word on my poem, and here are good wishes for yours! I dragged my feet for years on putting together chapbooks and my upcoming book so hope you don't wait quite as long :)