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How does one choose which poem should be first in a manuscript? Ben Lerner’s new book, Mean Free Path, begins with something resembling a love poem. Joshua Beckman’s latest book, Take It, which I’ve been enjoying lately (click here to see the Believer’s review), uses a kind of apostrophe:

Dear Angry Mob,

Oak Wood Trail is closed to you. We
feel it unnecessary to defend our position,
for we have always thought of ourselves
(and rightly, I venture) as a haven for
those seeking a quiet and solitary
contemplation. We are truly sorry
for the inconvenience….

This is fairly witty–simply to put a short little charmer of a poem out front to ease the reader in–but it also overdetermines my reading of the first few pieces that follow. Then again, where else could such a poem go but at the beginning? I’m at a loss.

Today’s question: How should books begin?

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Evan Hansen lives in San Francisco. He drives across the Golden Gate Bridge and looks at tourists every day on his way to and from work. His poems have appeared in the Burnside Review, Cimarron Review, Cortland Review, Drunken Boat, Juked, Maggy 1, and a variety of other publications. He and his fiancée are adopting a puppy.

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  • Stuart Krimko March 21, 2010, 10:57 pm

    with the first one you wrote, chronologically speaking

  • Stuart Krimko March 21, 2010, 10:58 pm

    that should read, ‘with the first WORD you wrote, chronologically speaking’

  • Adam Fitzgerald March 22, 2010, 1:43 pm

    You mean the first words I wrote back in kindergarten, Stuart?

  • Adam Fitzgerald March 22, 2010, 1:50 pm

    Christopher Ricks likes to say, Was there ever a greater first poem in a poet’s first book than Eliot’s Prufrock? I don’t know. Crane begins in a quieter mode, riddlesome poem Legend, from White Buildings, with these marvelous lines:

    As silently as a mirror is believed,
    realities plunge in silence by

    I remember spending a few hours trying to unpack the relationships of that wedged logic. I availed. Stevens begins with a sillier, absurdist wink in Harmonium, with a poem about Oklahoma and stomping around a stump, if my memory serves me well.

    Oh, I also love how Bishop begins with The Imaginary Iceberg, or does she begin with The Map, in North & South? I guess part of the trick is to set the tone early, without giving away all the goods. Poets seem to be adverse, trickier, slippery, difficult ones, to punching the reader’s face too early on. I find that verges on coyness – sometimes – but the Myth of the General Reader lives on – and we must pamper the uninitiated, even as we silently tell ourselves, no one but poets reads poetry.

    Ashbery has summed up his strategy for compiling as follows: I like to begin with a good poem, end with a good one, and try to put everything else in the middle. How about that?

  • Mary Sayler March 23, 2010, 9:17 am

    Novels often start with action related to the main problem, and a nonfiction book needs to establish what it’s about, but we have no clear guidelines to help us sort and arrange our poems for a book. Tricky business! So I agree with Adam’s assessment that “part of the trick is to set the tone early without giving away all of the goods.” Ashbery’s idea of starting and ending with a good poem is right on too, but then a problem comes in deciding which poems best fit that description. A poet’s personal favorites might not mean as much to the reader or the overall theme, but a poem that starts with the fiction/ action or nonfiction clarification might work. Hmm. I think I’ll give that a try! Thanks for the discussion.

  • Rix December 5, 2010, 3:50 am

    I rarely read the poems sequentially, but rather begin with the more interesting titles in the table of contents. It is sometimes my intent to foil a poet’s manipulation of my reading.

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