Monday, November 05, 2007

The Stratigraphy of Poem Titles 2

Some further elaborations on the topic of coming up with good titles for one's poems:

I tend to think of titles as integral to the experience of the reading the poem: they're the front door, the front porch, the invitation inside, the first encounter with the poem. The title is, therefore, actually the first line of the poem: it's what gets you to read the rest of the poem. It can be thought of as integrated into the poem, as part of the whole. It can also be thought of as artistic marketing, of course.

I prefer to choose titles that lead into the poem, or give alternate meanings to the poem's body, as though viewed from a slightly different angle. When I'm looking for a title, and feeling stuck, sometimes I pull an evocative phrase out of the body of the poem and move it up to the title (and replacing the line, or not, as I feel called to). I often come up with titles late in the writing process, or even in revision, after the poem's been written. It's atypical, if not completely unknown, for me to come up with the title first, then write the poem on the theme as given by the title.

Reading a poem's title in an anthologoy, if it catches my attention, will intrigue me enough to read the poem. A generic, bland or boring title is far less likely to catch my attention, except (as has been mentioned) in the case of an author whose work I already am familiar with and like; then, I want to see what they've done, regardless of the title, but having a great title still helps.

On the other hand, sometimes a poem is so integrated, so monadic, that I cannot find a title for it that isn't more than a simple repetition or restatement. So I have in fact published poems labeled with that cop-out word "Untitled." Ditto some of my visual artwork.

Maybe this means that a title just hasn't emerged organically from within the poem (or artwork)—yet. But in some cases, years later, it doesn't seem likely it ever will, so I'm stuck with Untitled for the indefinite future.

The poem (and the artwork) knows when it's done, and when it's time to stop working on it, or trying to "fix" it (don't fix what ain't broke), or come up with a brilliant and original title. I tend to listen to what the poem wants. Sometimes the poem tells me it doesn't need a title, or won't say that it does (a subtle difference, if you think about it).

So I must remain content with Untitled poems, at least some of the time. Better that than a boring or bland title.

This may seem inconsistent, but what is really is, is an acceptance of uncertainty, ambiguity, and mystery. I don't obsess with coming up with brilliant titles—that's too much like brainstorming in an advertising agency corporate boardroom—I give it my best shot, then let it go. I think any aspect of creative work can become a pathological neurosis, if you take it too far, or try to apply it too universally in an inappropriate manner. There are levels of consistency and congruency, and not all levels exist on the surface, to be superficially examined. As Emerson once wrote, A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. (Emphasis, one imagines, on the word "foolish.")

As for known "name poets," or famous poets, or poets whose work I'm familiar with: even though the name recognition factor might induce me to read their poem, when I'm in the process of reading the poem, I still tend to read it as I read all poems new to me: with as few expectations as possible, as objectively as possible with regard to the elements of craft, and hoping for musicality and those ineffable elements beyond craft. In every case, I want the poem to create an experience for me, to be an experience in its own right, rather than merely tell me about an experience the poet might have had. I want to be invited in, seduced if you will by the poem's creative eros. A great title really opens the door to making that seduction happen.

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