Tone-deaf to sequencing? Try some Zappa

By Harriet Staff

John Wylam writes on his blog about the connections between sequencing music and sequencing poetry in a manuscript: if there is no justification for where a poem goes within a collection then maybe it should be left out entirely. Poor sequencing produces such a strong reaction that Wylam speaks of more than one occasion when he would  have liked to surgically re-sequence a book of someone else's poems. If the poems are packaged together, than they should work together as whole and it makes no sense to then ask that the poems be considered on their own individual merits.

To approach a proper consideration of sequencing, he first divides a manuscript into thirds: the opening, the mid-section, and the close. The process itself can take him months or years to work out, so to demystify it a bit, he's helpfully introduced a few albums to get you in the sequencing frame of mind.

The analogy I prefer making here is to music, concert performances in particular but some albums as well. There’s a reason why Frank Zappa used to begin his concerts with a tune like “Zoot Allures,” or ELP in 1973 starting with their version of Copland’s “Hoedown,” or why FZ’s “Muffin Man” is such a powerful closer. What we’re talking about is sometimes referred to as dramatic flow; I dislike the term flow in poetry because it’s applied too generally, but in this case let’s make an exception and consider a musical example everybody’s familiar with: Sergeant Pepper. That album is a masterpiece of sequencing, from the first track to the last long note that ends “A Day In The Life.” Everything makes sense; after all, the album’s supposed to represent a literal bandstand group’s performance, so there’s the concert-sequence requirement to be considered, and that of course determines the sequence of the album...

Unlike some folks in poetry, I embrace the idea that as poets we can learn quite a lot from musicians and from music in general. Every once in awhile this debate flares, in which one side says poetry has to be kept pure from such other-disciplinary sources, and the other side says Go fuck yourselves. I’m in the latter camp, obviously, for the simple reason that I’d never want to deny the possibility of influence from any constructive source; besides, to claim there’s nothing to be learned strikes me as a perfect response from someone seeking to prove s/he is in fact tone-deaf.

Originally Published: March 16th, 2011