Friday, September 01, 2006

The Stratigraphy of Poem Titles

The question is asked, How do you come up with poem titles?

In the case of many of my best titles for poems, or at least those poem titles I am fondest of among my own writing, most of them started out as lines embedded in the poem, that I later moved up to the title, and pulled out of the body. Usually those are lines further down in the poem, not the first line.

I almost never set out to write a poem with a topic or idea already in mind. So, I usually don't start with a title or topic in mind. I'm going to write a poem about pain, and title it "Pain." No. Most of my poems start with demanding images or situations that appear before the mind's eye, even as visions, sometimes. Most of my poems do not begin with ideas, or topics, or intentional poetic arguments. That's how I set out to write an essay, not a poem.

The title is usually the reader's first contact with the poem: it needs to be what the poem is about, even if it's oblique or layered in meaning. Superficially, titles tell us how to intrepret the poem's meaning. (As if every poem was a cipher to be decoded.) The problem with this is that titles become obvious and blatant, bludgeoning the meaning of the poem into the reader; this is a common beginner's mistake.

Much more resonantly and deeply, a good title will evoke the poem's meaning and contents, but also add another layer to the poem, when you go back and re-read the title after having read the poem.

A great title pulls us into a poem because it is mysterious, evocative, compelling, explicit yet offbeat, and so on. Then when we go back to re-read the title after reading the poem, the title's meaning has changed in our minds, too. Everything has changed, and keeps changing. We see the world through new perspectives. This is what I mean by resonance in poetry: you can always find more layers of meaning, more depths, more turns and changes.

Great titles are usually much more than one-word labels, which are often obvious or give away the whole affair. A poem about pain could be titled "her teeth, gritted" or "white room silent jitters" as well as "pain" or even "the problem of pain." This is where oblique thinking can be very useful: coming at the topic from a different direction, or from the body or an image, rather than an abstract word like "pain." Use a concrete word that describes the pain, that evokes in the reader's shared experience, rather than just bluntly saying "pain": for example, needles, a stab to the thigh, his knee begins screaming again.

So I would recommend this: don't start with the title, and don't make the title be the topic of the poem. Let it emerge during the process of writing.

Sometimes you do start a poem with a great title, that kicks off the writing itself. Lots of poets talk about how single lines came into their heads, and they were off and running. Sometimes those ended up being in the body of the poem, sometimes they end up in the title. (This is one form of poetic inspiration, it seems almost too obvious to mention.)

But sometimes you don't know what a poem is about when you're writing it, until you're writing it, and until you're done writing it. You sometimes discover that as you go along. I rarely ever start a poem with the title: the title comes later, when I know what the poem is about, and that's why I often pull an evocative line from the poem that becomes the title.

This is the essence of letting go of creative control, and just letting the poem happen; some poets never seem to be able to do this. writing using this process doesn't guarantee a good poem will result, of course—but then, neither does the opposite method of planning out everything beforehand, and writing purely from argumentative intention.

Not every poem has to have a title. Don't put yourself into an unnecessary bind by assuming you have to have a title. (Or that your poems have to have any other element, for that matter. For example, assuming a poem has to be in metered rhyme is clearly a fallacy, at this point in time.)

The very best way that I know to get out of a rut is to just write.

Write without purpose, write without goal, without intending to end up with a poem. Especially write without intending to end up with a good or even average poem. (Have you ever set out intending to write a bad poem? That can be a liberating exercise, too.) Write without intention.

Just write, and let the writing take charge of direction, and see where it leads you. It can be like automatic writing, or it can be like spewing out your guts into your journal, or it can be like writing down everything that's going on around you, purely a list of descriptions of your surroundings, and the people in them. Sometimes it's all crap, and sometimes you end up with a little gem you can pull out and turn into a poem. Sometimes you get a single line. Sometimes that can be enough for one day.

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Blogger Rus Bowden said...

Hi Art,

I recently read Banjo Paterson's "Lost" for the first time. As you say, there is "another layer to the poem, when you go back and re-read the title after having read the poem." But in this one, there is also a reverberation to get "lost" in that adds its own further layers. Here, I thought, is a case of a great one-word title.


8:16 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Rus—

You're absolutely right, and Paterson's "Lost" is a great example. There are indeed many layers to this poem that the title resonates with. (The style of poetry that Banjo Paterson and Robert Service wrote is not at all what I write, or usually read, but damn! it's great stuff at times.)

I should clarify that I didn't mean that there were no great one-word titles; just that most great titles tend to be more than one word. Obviously, every time one proposes a truism, there will immediately be examples to the contrary. I tend to find titles with layers and nuances to be more complex, typically, than short, semaphoric titles.

A great movie title that expresses the idea of resonance and changed meaning is "The Insider." When you start watching the film, the title obviously refers to one of the two lead characters. But by the end of the film, you realize that the title applies equally well, if not more so, to the other lead character. I thought that was very deftly done.

8:29 PM  
Blogger {Minion} said...

yup, i so struggle to title things.
but then, i don't actually struggle to write crap poems :)

i find it liberating to write a good one, well, i hope it'll be liberating when i do...

btw, very good pics further up, and some rather good words with most of your stuff, glad i drifted in this way, shall pop back and dredge through the archives :)

bye for now.

2:32 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Minion—

Thanks, and welcome aboard.

5:22 PM  

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