Feb 2009
Naming Our Children: A Brief Editorial on Titles
Posted in Musings by Tavel at 2:23 pm | 6 Comments »

Several years ago I heard the poet Richard Jackson (who would, coincidently, later be a teacher of mine) remark during a reading that he labored, at times tremendously so, with finding appropriate titles for his poems. I won’t run the risk of misquoting him, but the gist of his remarks—which he shared with equal parts wit and rue—was that selecting titles proved chronically problematic, and that he exhausted countless possibilities before he sometimes surrendered, counted X number of lines down from the beginning, and just chose a three or four word phrase to finish the damn thing. 

I assume these remarks struck the rest of the audience as the idle, friendly, and somewhat awkward chit-chat that poets ramble while reading their work publicly, but for me at least, it was one of those billiard-ball moments that happens in the life of a writer when a seemingly innocuous statement sends us hurtling in an altogether new direction. Ever since, I’ve tried to hold the titles of my own poems to a higher standard, and while I have no real regimen for this process, my sole commandment has been “thou shall not let the title be an afterthought.” (Though I confess I’ve sinned against this commandment several times, and a few of these sins are in print.)  Recently, I couldn’t help but recall this moment when I was reading a slender anthology by young American poets. Here’s a random sampling of titles from the collection: “Clothes,” “The Photo,” “A Prayer,” “Epiphany,” “Dad,” “Untitled.”
Speaking merely as a reader and fellow poet, these titles…well, they just plain stink. Whether we write poetry or prose, research papers or rock lyrics, the title of any composition that claims literary merit has an obligation to be expressive and representative. Let me quickly qualify this statement: I am not advocating any proscriptive system for choosing a title. That said, however, I cannot help but compare the aforementioned throwaways to the following titles that I found in a mere ten minutes from a haphazard treasure hunt through my home library: “Antwerp Rainy All Churches Still Haunted” (Joshua Clover); “Costumes in the Forbidden City” (Roger Weingarten); “Grass Fires” (Robert Lowell); “My Father Rode Great, Silver Birds” (Vicki Hearne); “Bayonne Turnpike to Tuscarora” (Allen Ginsberg); “The Three Susans” (Jane Kenyon), “The Atom and Hawkman Discuss Metaphysics” (A. Van Jordan), “The Sudden Light and the Trees” (Stephen Dunn).
I’m not arguing these titles are good; I’m arguing they’re effective. After a great deal of reflection, I’d like to offer ten guidelines to the Conte community as it may help us all be more selective when we name our children:
  • Like a good doctor, a title should do no harm.
  • A title is not a thesis statement.
  • A title should purchase at least thirty seconds of a reader’s curiosity.
  • Unless you are an abstract expressionist from the 1940s, “untitled” should be banned from your vocabulary.
  • A title should be specific enough to fit only one composition in your personal oeuvre. 
  • A title shouldn’t give away all the answers to the quiz.
  • If a quick-and-dirty internet search generates dozens of poems/stories/essays with your title, bury it behind the shed.
  • A title shouldn’t spoil the ending. A title shouldn’t spoil.
  • Whether it’s charm, wit, eloquence, poise, or candor, a title should have at least one redeeming human quality.
  • A title best not write a check your ass can’t cash.

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6 Responses:

Sandra said:

Thank you so much for this important essay on titles. I’ve often wondered why more editors don’t rant about this very subject. I think writers who shirk their title-writing duties do a disservice to both their own pieces and their readers. My only rule is this: write the title so that someone scanning the table of contents will read yours first. You say the same thing here but with much more instruction on how to get there. Bah humbug to lazy title writers. To slap a careless title on something and then just send it out in the world is to leave the house without your pants. Cheap thrill for you, annoyance for the rest of us. Just as bad as “Untitled” is the same title used over and over again with a different number on the end (sorry, John Berryman).

Arlene Mandell said:

Yes, you are saying what needs to be said. A poem with the title “Spring Flowers,” is uninspired and no doubt uninspiring. “Memories” promises to be . . . not worth reading. For every poem is composed of snippets of memories, not just of our life experience, but memories of what others have written, bits of the mind’s string too short to use. I believe in making my titles informative in some way and not stating the obvious. For example, I have one (published) poem with the title “Yosemite’s Triumph,” but see no need to repeat the location within the poem. Another, “At Beth David,” does not include the word “cemetery” or any specific mention of the religious affiliation of that cemetery. That information is there by inference. Sometimes, however, a truly inspiring poem just need a bit of an editor’s guidance. Though some may approach perfection, ere are no perfect poets.

Patricia L. Johnson said:

This is priceless advice. Naming a poem is so important. Like a handle on a suitcase, a title helps carry the luggage a poem bears/bares.

Christina Cook said:

“A title should have at least one redeeming human quality.” I love it–that will stick in my mind every time I write a poem now. It makes me wonder. . . would a nefarious human quality do, in the conspicuous absence of anything redeeming? Perhaps a title like this could provide texture, or movement (away from or towards redemption)?

Karen Maya said:

I swear, sometimes I struggle longer over the title than I did over the poem. This is a useful, if chastising, essay.

Infant of Montpelier said:

A Prayer for the Epiphany Photo of Dad’s Untitled Clothes.

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