Fluently

My pen-pal cousin used to send me Photographs, heavy in those blue envelopes Stamped "par avion." She posed in the sea, Small whitecaps splashing up her sundress. I think I loved her, even when she wrote In that strange tongue —so many Ks, Js and Zs My father had to translate.

I expected another blue envelope Announcing the birth of her child; Instead I get this card, my cousin's picture Printed alongside a cross, heavy with Jesus. I don't call for my father, Scan the inscription full of Ks, Js and Zs — At once making terrible sense.

The stanza break above does not emphasize the passage of time the way numbers do in the original. Instead the two stanzas suggest that the narrator may be a boy (or at best, a teenager) with a "pen pal," confusing the issue of the cousin's pregnancy. The original is superior because the passage of time implies a deeper bond between the cousins and a deeper sense of grief at her passing.

In sum, the best way to make a sequence is not to divide a poem but to preconceive and build one, choosing topics that suit the form. Before you compose a sequence, determine whether your topic has:

• Significant time elements. For instance, another of my sequence poems titled "The Extinction of Species" is based on the creation story and thus has seven parts, representing the seven days it took to make the world as recorded in the Bible.

• Definitive parts. Another one of my sequence poems, titled "Articles of Insurrection," is a series of lyrics based on the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

• Logical concepts. Another sequence poem titled "Platonic Love" analyzes four definitions of that term and so has four parts.

Those broad categories encompass most sequences. Another way to envision them is to consider ten basic groupings of such poems. I'll define each grouping and cite examples by famous poets whose sequences are too long to reprint here (though you should read them in books or anthologies).

1. The Stanza Grouping. Usually found in an ode, this type of sequence calls attention to the stanza as a self-contained unit. In "Intimations of Immortality," Wordsworth puts his life experience into perspective in eleven irregular stanzas. He begins by recalling the world "Apparelled in celestial light" and, ultimately, re-embraces the innocence of childhood.

2. The Narrative Grouping. Usually found in ballads, this sequence uses numbers to designate scenes or episodes that make up a story. In his "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Coleridge announces in a subtitle that his ballad will be told "In Seven Parts" or seven numbered episodes of a tale that the hero relates at a wedding feast, beginning with his killing of the albatross — "the pious bird of good omen" — and culminating in penance.

3. The Lyric Grouping. This type of sequence combines lyric poems that imply a story, probe a moment or reflect the mind. In his "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," Wallace Stevens (as the title suggests) presents thirteen perspectives on the bird, probing what it evoked in his mind (or imagination).

4. The Dramatic Grouping. One character (or several) speaks or interacts with others, as in a play. In Robert Browning's "Dramatis Personae," carrying the subtitle "James Lee's Wife," we overhear the character addressing her husband in nine settings ("James Lee's Wife Speaks at the Window," "By the Fireside," "In the Doorway," etc.).

5. The Song Grouping. An assembly of song lyrics that, when read in sequence, weaves melodies that resonate like a fugue. In "Three Songs of Shattering," Edna St. Vincent Millay presents three such lyrics about a singer who no longer is enchanted by spring, because of a severed relationship.

6. The Fragment Grouping. A poem divided by one or more asterisks (or other mark) and signifying disjointed thoughts, scenes or episodes. In "From the Sea," a type of love journal, Sara Teasdale jumps from thought to thought — through stanzas separated by rows of six asterisks—reminiscing on six aspects of a love affair.

7. The Argument Grouping. Each part of the sequence represents an argument whose sum equals an epiphany or reaches a conclusion. In Ralph Waldo Emerson's two-part poem, "The Informing Spirit," he asserts that the soul cannot be defined in physical terms, and he proposes that if we accept such an argument, a person can own everything, from Christ's heart to the cosmos.

8. The Mosaic Grouping. A mosaic sequence describes each part of a person, place or thing so we have to piece it together again to acquire new understanding of the whole. In "Transformations," D.H. Lawrence describes "The Town," "The Earth" and "Men," revealing a decaying universe.

9. The Seasonal Grouping. A person, place or thing is viewed in different seasons so that its true essence is revealed. In "Bronzes" by Carl Sandburg, the poet views statues in Lincoln Park in summer and in winter, setting them against the urban landscape and revealing their absurdity.

10. The Symbolic Grouping. An image is presented in each part and their sum is symbolic, depicting or implying a greater truth. In her two-part "Garden," H.D. ponders a rose "cut in rock" and the wind cutting "apart the heat" so "fruit" may drop. The rose/rock, wind/ heat and tree/fruit images also symbolize truths about life, imagination and hope.

After you become familiar with these basic types of sequences, you should be able to conceive a topic, align it with a grouping and build such a poem. But don't compose yet. You still need to envision what each section of your sequence has to accomplish and what, exactly, it will contribute to the whole.

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