The Best Poems in Their Best Order

Four Poets Look Back on How They Assembled Their First Book

By The Editors on 7.15.10

Yesterday we asked four poets how the feel about the work they published years ago. Now, the same four poets tell us how they struggled to find the best order for the poems in their debut collection. The methods range from rudimentary to abstract, logical to magical. There seems to be no right way, but in each case the poet knew the moment it felt right. Here is Beth Ann Fennelly, Stephen Dunn, Eavan Boland, and Linda Pastan looking back on their first book of poetry.


Eavan Boland: I published my first collection, New Territory, when I was 23. No book I wrote or published afterward had as simple a framework: I just put together the poems as I wrote them and when I had enough they turned—magically it seemed at the time—into a book. Of course I never used that method of crude accumulation again. But at the time it seemed logical. And besides, I didn’t know any better.

Stephen Dunn: I tried to compile what seemed like the best poems I’d written up to that point. If anything held them together, it was voice. The manuscript was rejected for about two years. Then I wrote a long-ish poem in sections called “Sympathetic Magic,” and put it in the manuscript. It seemed to collect the other poems around it, and gave the manuscript a coherence it hadn’t had. It was taken almost right away, by the University of Massachusetts Press. The book is called Looking for Holes in the Ceiling.

Beth Ann Fennelly: I struggled to find a good organizational structure for Open House, because the poems vary pretty widely in style and tone. For example, there was a section of blank verse dramatic monologues, and a section comprised of a twenty page long experimental poem in the form of a writer’s notebook. The collection finally gained some cohesion when I decided to think of the different sections as rooms in a house. Each room in a house has a function different than the others; each room may have an awareness of the others, a communication between them, but has its own identity. When I thought of that metaphor, I came up with the title, Open House, and the book felt done for the first time.

Linda Pastan: Though many of my poems continue to reflect the changing seasons, nearly all of the poems in my first collection did so. Hence the title: A Perfect Circle of Sun. It was easy, therefore, to divide the book into four parts, one per season.

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