Sequence (1)

Once the opening line of a poem has set the reader off in the right direction, the next challenge is to keep him or her involved. A coherent sequence is important, every line leading clearly into the next. A comparison with camera technique helps. Especially in description, the poet needs to draw the mind’s eye from point to point along a continuum.

A good example of coherent sequence is “Country Cemetery” by W.J. Keith, where the eye slides from far to near. The scene begins in open country:
          Miles from anywhere
          (when there were still miles),
Then the narrative moves in closer, among scattered farms:
          in a land of collapsed barns and ruined silos,
          of sagging fences and abandoned lots,
Gradually, the poetic camera dollies closer:
          down a deserted one-lane dust road:
          this ancient graveyard,
          the stones weathered,
          defaced, some fallen,
At last the reader is close enough to see the inscriptions:
          all indecipherable yet eloquent,
          announcing that it was once possible,
          if not to live, at least to die here.
Of course, a sequence need not be only from horizon to foreground, but can work in reverse, from close-up to long shot instead. The direction doesn’t matter. It’s the orderliness of the advance or retreat that counts.
Choosing the kind of sequence to use depends also on the mood to be created. A distanced politeness? The middle-ground camaraderie of two teammates bumping shoulders? Or the passion of a nose-to-nose confrontation? Two contrasting views of a mountain goat illustrate how distance affects feeling. The first example keeps goat and reader far apart.
          High above, crag to crag,
          a white dot skims
          blue emptiness.
High up the mountain, the goat is something literally beyond reach, even mysterious, a mere “white dot”. The second example places the reader beside the goat.
          Shaggy yellowed beard
          nuzzles daisies
          deep in warm grass.
Now the reader is near enough to see its yellowed beard waggle. Close up, the mystery vanishes; the goat feels much more ordinary and familiar. In other words, physical closeness begets emotional intimacy.

Whatever physical and emotional points of view the relative distance is meant to create, consistency is what counts: as new descriptive details are added, they should not jump hither and thither around the picture, but draw the eye, cinematically, along a smooth path.

The orderliness of a poem’s descriptive details is easy to test with a simple exercise. Using a sheet of paper, cover all but the first line of the poem, then draw a picture of what that line alone describes. Move the paper down one line and draw again. Do the new details fall into place with what’s been drawn already, or skip to a far corner, the bottom, or top of the page? What happens with the next line? And the next? If the details don’t build one on another, or the drawing becomes confused, the sequence needs rearranging.