The Poetry Hack is in the House: Titles for Writers and Readers

"Well, gee, Ward, what do you think the title should be?"
Reader, I've had a request. One of my po-friends wants me to blog about titles. What makes a title good, effective. What a title can tell us. How to write awesome titles. I confess, I feel I have no authority to write on this topic. I'm just a poetry hack! I have not read essays on how to choose one's title. I do not have formal poetry training in general or in specifics. I have not published a zillion awesomely-titled poems. And as for 'How?', I fall on my knees before the mystery of How in so many areas of my life, especially poetry.

But what I can write about is what my instincts tell me about titles and a few tricks I've learned for unlocking titles as reader and writer.

If I were to give a very short definition of what a poem's title should be, I would say this: It is a legend to the poem. Not 'legend' as in story handed down by tradition, but 'legend' as in map key. If a poem is a map, the title is the legend of that map.

Direction  If we look at a typical map legend, we always see a compass rose or at least an arrow indicating due north. In the same way, the title of a poem should give us a basic orientation from which to begin reading. Example: Recently I wrote a draft under the working title "Home-making, again." Since we moved I've been thinking a lot about how we make our homes in this life, and the mysterious qualities that make a house into a home. One of the first revisions I made to the poem was to change the title to "Home, Making." Why? Because the word home-making brings us directly to June Cleaver, which is not where I wanted my reader to start out with the poem. With the new title, the reader gets the idea that we are going to be considering two ideas: the idea of home, and the idea of making -- a very different starting place from my good buddy June, no offense to her.

Scale  If you're anything like me, you have often held your finger up to that little line in the map legend that tells how many miles from the tip of your finger to your first finger joint. Just as a map has its scale, so does a poem. The title can give us a hint about what scale the poet has in mind for her poem. Example: In this post, I excerpted Jane Hirshfield's poem, which in her book, Come, Thief, is titled "For the Lobaria, Usnea, Witches Hair,  Map Lichen, Beard Lichen, Ground Lichen, Shield Lichen." The same poem appears in The Atlantic online under the title "For the Lichens." My sense is this: under the longer, more specific title, we get a message of scale from the poet. She is calling our attention both to the great diversity, and the individuality of each lichen. We are to think of abundance, variation, uniqueness, and the necessity of each. Not a generalized look at things, but a message about every.single.one. To me, the two titles speak to different scales and encourage us to read the poem differently.

Symbols Every map legend tells us how to interpret the symbols that appear on the map: a teepee for campgrounds, different colors and widths of lines to represent county roads vs. interstates vs. seasonal roads (well, if you come from where I come from there are roads that close for the winter), blue for water, green for natural area, and so on. Just so, a title can tell us how to interpret the "symbols" (images) in a poem. Example: in Andrea Cohen's poem Self-portrait with Forgiveness, we know to interpret her symbols through the lens of one person and her relationship with the concept and practice of forgiveness. A fish in the shoe -- slippery, uncomfortable, blazing (orange!), and yet, at the end of the day, comforting.

If I were to tell you about the titles that I always fall for, I would tell you this: I fall for titles that (1) purport to be primers, how-tos, and survival guides (2) have a temporal and/or geographical location (3) are two-words separated by a comma (3) emulate titles of art (e.g., "Self-Portrait with Acorns"). I fall for titles that do something to shake-up the expectations we have around the above categories (such as "Self-Portrait with Forgiveness" above -- a portrait with an abstraction rather than an object).

I've learned a few tricks of the trade through trial and error. An important one is to put any exposition the poem requires into the title. I once wrote a poem that is a reinterpretation of the Hansel and Gretel story. The first draft tried to give readers information about setting and reinterpretation in the first stanza. As I revised, I realized I could do all that in the title if I named the poem "Gretel, Florida 1978." Goodbye to a clumsy, throat-clearing stanza, hello to compression.

As for how to write awesome titles, I truly do not know. I emulate the format of my favorite titles. I work under a title to draft the poem, let the poem rest, then decide what the real title should be. Sometimes I steal a bit of significant text from within the poem. Sometimes I ask my po-friends what they think the title should be. Once or twice I have been known to ask Husband, but really, he's an engineer. Sometimes I wake up from a deep sleep in the middle of the night with the title echoing in my head (this has also happened to me in my Previous Life as an economics major -- the solution to a complex equation swimming up from the subconscious, sleeping mind -- a miracle!). I allow an element of intuition to enter when considering titles -- I may just have a hunch about what the title should be; I trust that intuition even if I can't, at first, articulate the "why" of the title. And then, sometimes I can't think of a good title no matter how hard I try and the poem stays in the resting drawer forever and ever.

If you are a writer or a reader and have good tricks for decoding or creating titles, or title formats you always fall for when you're reading, share them in the comments. And here's a little poem to enjoy in which rock-star poet Billy Collins takes on the subject of titles (thanks to Drew for this link).

This is the Poetry Hack, signing off. Thanks for joining us today.

P.S.: Snagged the photo of June Cleaver from modernretrowoman.com


CitricSugar said...

insightful. I might save this to use in my English classes one day, if you don't mind. :-)

drew said...

Professor Molly,
This is most helpful. You've left me with much to ponder, and many titles to re-write. Thanks for the insight!

drew said...

p.s. You are no hack. :)

Molly said...

C-S, I don't mind at all. Drew, glad it was helpful to you. Now excuse me while I go blush ;).