Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Intrigue of Poem Titles

In browsing through lists of poem titles, in anthologies, in collections, in journals, and in some of the online critique forums, I see a lot of bland and boring titles: poem titles that all too often seem to be clichés in themselves, or generic, or that telegraph what the poem is about (already telling rather than showing), that are summations of the poem as if the moral of the story were given before the fable itself.

There are a lot of complaints about the mediocre quality of published poetry these days. I think many of those complaints are justified, although I also note that few of the complainers have any pragmatic suggestions towards effectively remedying the situation. Nevertheless, the complaint about quality can be extended to include mediocre poem titles. Even otherwise great poems can have mediocre titles, or generic titles.

(Note: I am, perhaps arbitrarily, excluding from this discussion those poems labelled "Untitled," even though I could make a strong argument that an untitled poem (excluding those anonymous fragments and epics from the ancient past) is more often (in modern times) the sign of an uninspired poet than it is of a poem so strong that it needs no title. Many poems in certain forms, on the other hand, are conventionally not titled, such as haiku and sonnets; and so I will exclude that practice from this discussion, as well.)

Why not make a poem's title as exciting, as intriguing, as self-contained, as vibrant, as the poem is itself? Why settle for less? Why settle for something generic? Why settle for something bland? Frankly, to settle for something less seems lazy, or worse, a cop-out. What, you worked so hard on the poem itself, that your poor brain cells are fried and you can't come up with anything else? That's a feeble excuse. The solution is to come back later, when you're fresh again, and find a good title. Finding a good title is part of the process of writing the poem; it's more than just the stamp you put on the envelope, it's an integral part of the letter. Treat it is as part of the writing process, and don't treat it as an afterthought—as apparently so many writers do. Furthermore, laziness in one area of the writing life is probably indicative of a more general laziness: laziness in coming up with a good, fresh title is purely laziness in writing; and if you're going to be lazy about writing your titles, you're probably going to be lazy about writing your poems, too. Hence the decline in quality, overall.

Now, let's talk about writing more eye-catching titles.

With the exception of poems you read because you already know and like the poet's other work, in which case the title is part of the overall experience of reading a new poem by a familar author, here's the truth about titles:

The title is almost always the first thing any reader sees about the poem. The title is what catches our attention. The title is what pulls the reader into the poem. The title is what inrigues us enough to want to read the poem. To put it in terms as absolutely crass, mercenary, and cynical as I am able: A good title is good advertising. This is typically true for any poem by a poet who you haven't read before. (Again, in the case of reading a poem by an author whose name you already recognize, it's the name that brings you in as much as the title.)

I've written eariler here about how poem titles can change meaning after the poem is read; about layered, resonant meanings in both poem and its title; and about titles that emerge organically from within the poem.

So, the title needs to entice while at the same time reflecting on the poem's contents. A good title needs to be a pleasure to read, even before you've gotten to the poem. Maybe a good title is one that pulls you into the poem but doesn't telegraph the meaning, or tell you too much about the poem. Maybe there needs to be in a good title a little mystery, a little surprise, a view of the poem's subject from a slightly oblique angle.

I like titles that are a little mysterious, a little oblique. I like titles whose meaning has changed after you've read the poem. I'm not advocating puzzle-play or word-play, and I despise playing mind-games with the reader simply to prove one's mental superiority (this is the last refuge of the insecure). But I think a title that gains resonance after the poem has been read through is a good thing.

I also like titles whose meaning you can't figure out till after you're read the poem: titles that themselves seem to be a miniature poem. I can recall some intriguing titles that seemed themselves to be ahiku-like, intense focused and concentrated, and then, when re-read after reading the poem, suddenly made sense on new, even deeper levels. This is one way in which a poem achieves musicality: rhythm, repetition, resonance, harmonic counterpoint. A good title can make or break a poem's musicality.

Sometimes coming up with a good, unique, compelling title, can be the hardest part of the whole project. I grant that. But again, I think it's necessary to do the real work of writing: which includes doing the real work of writing a good title for your poem.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:50 PM  
Blogger LAEvanesce said...

Interesting article. I looked at some of the old poems I wrote a couple years back (at 14), titled as "Love", "Pain" (there's that one), and "Care About You". Guess you have to start somewhere, no?

10:43 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hey,, we all start somwhere, absolutely. It's where we go after that, that matters.

I wrote a good poem titled "Death" some twenty years ago. I still think the poem is good, but I have to find a new title. It's not a title I'd ever use now.

Update: Jessica Schneider provides a delicious list of bad poem titles here.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Jessica Schneider said...


All this brings back fond memories of the UPG, and I recall when Dan showed us this bad poem written by some young kid and it was about the world coming to an end because he had zits, or maybe it was because he flunked his algebra test, but we all said, 'I've written this poem. Hell, We've ALL written this poem!'

As for bad titles, I can't believe I forgot "Insanity". That's just "Sheer Madness". Oops, there's another one.

Happy early New Year.

9:34 PM  
Blogger R.S. Mallari (SpK) said...

Right on target. You have done a good job here my friend. Thanks for the tips. In my experience (at least my own) it's the organic way that always works for me. title comes out naturally after I wrote the last lines or at least I believe so.

Nevertheless, One thing I've learned is to take time in coming up with titles, which is why i came across with your article.

5:51 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, R.S. Those are good thoughts to add to this discussion.

8:35 AM  

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