Sequences in poetry

On sequences



Sequence- synonyms
–  arrangement, array, progression, string, chain, concatenation, cycle, flow, procession, row, skein, streak, perpetuity, track, catenation.

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes).”

Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’ from Leaves of Grass

‘.. a poetic sequence is a whole that, however beautiful its parts, becomes something greater because of the connections, either explicit and logical or resonant and psychological, between its sections.’- Keith Taylor, Sequences and Symmetries: Michigan Quarterly Review

The quotation directly above is something to aim for, at least.

I’ve written three sequences (two have been published). The first, Leonardo, appeared in my book ‘The Sun Bathers’. The second, Traces is a twelve-poem sequence reflecting on my time as a nurse working in coronary care and is at the heart of my new book.

Each sequence provided its own challenges and rewards. Each allowed me to revisit and explore a theme and its associated images; to gradually apply layers of meaning in a bid to build a partial picture. Or to utilise another metaphor, to lay down roots. In  Traces I definitely wanted to revisit and consolidate my experience; to define a territory in which to travel emotionally, to cover the ground within its borders (and to occasionally transgress or blur them by bringing in imagery or metaphor from other areas of my life) in order to investigate aspects of the terrain that could not possibly be covered in a single poem, unless of course it were the length of Homer’s Iliad.

A poem sequence can be viewed as an exciting opportunity to write in different ways about the same subject, to approach it from a multitude of angles, to use different forms in order to take differing perspectives. It might be regarded as a chance to play multiple variations of a tune in styles ranging from jazz to rock to orchestral to plainsong. It is also a chance to play every instrument in the band.  A quick internet search reveals that, as with most topics in poetry, there are differing ideas as to what constitutes a poem sequence.  A glance at the list of synonyms above shows how even the word ‘sequence’ provides a chance to interpret. For example, an ‘array’ seems to suggest something very different from a ‘track’. And of course a track can be linear or circular. A ‘skein’- a length of thread or yarn, loosely coiled and knotted- would provide a very different metaphor for a group of poems than a ‘procession’.

As a reader, I have often enjoyed the sense of progress, development and interaction between pieces when reading a cluster or sequence of poems.  We can learn the terminology of the poet’s ‘sequence world’ – for example, a sequence might be in a setting, such as a hospital,  that has its own specific language. We can absorb this setting, feel and think ourselves into a sequence much in the same way we can become absorbed in a film.

However, writing a sequence has its own pitfalls. Repetition, or rather, unnecessary repetition perhaps being the main one. By their very nature sequences are likely to utilise a certain amount of repetition. The challenge lies in approaching a subject from various angles and in achieving that fine balance between fortifying and over-engineering. .

When reading sections of my own sequences or listening to other poets read theirs, I’ve perceived a deepening of engagement from the audience; a sense that the listeners are charged with an awareness of the subject matter through the repetition or reinforcement a theme.

There is no ‘correct’ way to write or order a sequence of poems. Sequences can approach themes in a linear fashion in order to unfold a story or events in time,

Eclissi solare del 15062011 - Time lapse

or they can play with perspective and memory in order to create collages or impressions.


Or both.

My own sequences came about in different ways. Most of the twelve poems that make up Traces were written in a kind of trance and with the sort of flow that poets, including me, dream of. One evening a couple of years ago, I wrote several interlinked poems in quick succession. Once I had these poems I added others over a period of a year or so, sometimes consciously identifying what I considered to be ‘gaps’ in the story or narrative of my experience. It felt important (and unavoidable) to restate and revisit themes, and it seemed only right to try to cover as many aspects of the experience as I could in order to do it justice.  I can liken this process to walking beside my own tracks on a beach, occasionally stepping on a previous imprint. Looking at the sequence now I can see that each poem makes sense when isolated i.e,  the subject matter of each is clear and can stand alone. This is probably a reflection of my own style and tendency to try and make poems that can be read  in isolation.  I am aware that many sequences contain poems which rely on those around them in order to provide context and meaning. I’m thinking particularly of some of the poems in Karen McCarthy Woolf’s ‘An Aviary of Small Birds’ which are all the more moving and powerful because of their relationship to the poems that come before them in the book.

The sequence in my first book was very different to Traces, although there were similarities in that I had to keep asking myself (after the initial flurry of writing) if I’d approached the subject with enough variety of form and perspective to maintain interest. I mention form because personally I found using a range of forms helped me to find the variety I was seeking. But it isn’t necessary to vary form in a sequence. Sometimes the power of a sequence is enhanced by its utilisation of, for example, a single form such as the sonnet.  Sonnet sequences enable the poet to challenge themselves to work within the criteria and constrains of the form. The uniformity of a sequence such as Nick Drake’s ‘Boxes’ from his Bloodaxe collection, From the Word Go,  enhances its impact.
Each of Drake’s ‘boxes’ is exquisitely made. The subject matter (his relationship with his father and his illness and death) is explored with great subtly and  craft. The poet has used all his skill to create a set of sonnet ‘artefacts’  in remembrance of the relationship . The sequence in this instance, is a labour of love.

My own sequence about Leonardo Da Vinci differed from Traces in that it required some research and was a much more conscious effort to synthesise historical information. I hesitate to say it was less personal since all my poems are in some way personal. However, it did not draw directly from my own lived experience in the way as Traces did . Having read a biography of Leonardo and travelled to his birthplace, I was originally interested in writing about his whole life. But after visiting an exhibition of his anatomical drawings I became focused on a smaller canvas, namely an imaginative exploration of Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings and the processes and circumstances surrounding their production. It was important to scale down the scope of the sequence in order to make the project manageable.

In my experience sequences can provide the writer with the feeling that they are rich in material; that they have ‘something in the bank’ and that even when not actively producing poems, there is a subject to return to an explore.

Once a number of poems have been written, the next challenge is to select poems and lay them out in the order that works best.  One absorbing aspect of assembling a sequence is deciding which poems to include and to work out the relationships between poems so they work together to their collective advantage.  While it is undoubtedly hard to write a batch of poems that maintain a consistently high quality, it is  important to try and recognise any weaker poems and remove them or risk weakening the impact of the whole sequence.

I can think of a few reasons for writing a sequence of poems. A desire to achieve closure; to visit or revisit a subject repeatedly and from different angles.  To attempt, as we often do in individual poems, to make sense of a subject.   To honour a subject and try to capture some of its multiple facets. To build a monument in words (see definition of ‘perpetuity’ in the list of synonyms above. )To challenge our skills, ingenuity, and stamina. To experiment with different ways of working around a theme or subject.

Images used here are to be found at