Word choices: “Series” vs. “Sequence”

While an undergraduate at Rice University, I went off campus one evening with some other peers interested in poetry.  We listened to James Longenbach and followed along with handouts of poem selections.

The point of his talk, as I recall, was to distinguish between a “series” and a “sequence.”  While I cannot report what he said that day, I would like to offer my reflection on the words (which, I believe, is influenced strongly by what I heard from Longenbach).

Certainly both terms have their similarities: they entail an order, a linearity, a mode of episode.  But, I would say, they differ in how dependent each piece is on the whole: a series requires an understanding of the whole for each piece to make sense, while for a sequence, each piece can be understood as its own entity but all the pieces together can form an interesting whole.  (I recall Longenbach arguing that Ezra Pound’s Cantos form a series rather than a sequence, for example.)

In a series, there is more of an interdependent building from piece to piece; a piece as an individual is not as successful (a subjective term, but let’s pretend it makes sense) as the pieces understood as a whole are successful.  Certainly the judgment is qualitative (and dependent on the idea of “success”), but the aim is to distinguish quantitatively (as one has “more success” than the other).

In a sequence, this “success gap” is smaller.  A piece read as an individual should be just as successful as the piece understood as a part of a whole.

Another way to put it: a series is a piecemeal poem, while a sequence consists of poems put into a specific order for them to also comprise an entity as a whole (and the order must be that order—otherwise, the poems should be called a “collection” instead [although books and documents necessitate sequence, as their nature requires linearity/order]).

For more on this subject, please see On writing and reading series and On writing and reading sequences.

Do you think I have distinguished the two terms well enough?  Is there anything you would add?

Do you gravitate more toward writing series or sequences?  Neither?