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Rachel Dacus


The Challenge of the Title

In the many books in my library on how to read and write poetry, I have found only one chapter on what I consider an essential element in writing: the art of the title. It is in Michael Bugeja's methodical manual of verse, The Art and Craft of Poetry.

Puzzled by a lack of academic interest in this dimension of literature, I pondered my own interest in titles. Why should a title matter? First of all, a title may be the only reason you read many poems. In any table of contents, how many titles seem repetitious, clichéd, tired? The very qualities we work so hard to rid our poetry of. Why should a title be an exception to the standards of craft?

Often I have skipped poems online or in print as I leapt over their dull monikers to titles that intrigued or puzzled me. Often I have discovered beautiful poems under one word titles that betrayed boredom with the work of titling, turning the first words in a poem into a postscript or an embarrassing self-justification.

A recent issue of Poetry, that venerable institution in the world of verse, lists these poem titles:

At Coney Island
The Snow Leopard
Lying in Ambush

Contrast with these titles, from the same issue:

The Modern Greek for "Nightmare" Is "Ephialtes"
Umuzungu Wambere (First White Man)
Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps #52
To Two of My Characters

Never mind for a moment which titles were written by the well-known poets. Let us analyze the differences. The first set of titles gives away little of the poem's presumably original slant on ordinary objects, actions or places. "Hide" is ambiguous, so my curiosity is mildly aroused. But not compared to a resurrected dead man's footsteps or the Greek for nightmare. "To Two of My Characters" promises dialogue and narrative interest, while "At Coney Island" assures me I will be treated to tired imagery of a tired place.

How did the poems compare to their titles? "At Coney Island" (by John Brehm) lived up to its promise of the fatigue theme with an opening like this:

Strange tubas in my ears and the fat
yellow light lolling across
the boardwalk doesn't
exactly help and of course
elephants lumbering
through one's thoughts
remembering where they
must go to die is not
the pleasantest of situations.

A tired man at a tired place, as I suspected. You could say it was a fair title: we got exactly what it promised.

"The Modern Greek for Nightmare is 'Ephialtes'" (by A.E. Stallings) retains a high degree of mystery. We do not know why the nightmare should be in Greek, nor whose nightmare it is. The poem begins:

I think, what brought you to this pass?
Heroes lie thick, anonymous,

Blurred with honorable mention
In mass graves of fine intention.

After reading these opening couplets, I was still intrigued. I was given enough of a theme -- unrecognized heroes -- to get a vague idea of an epic that might connect up with the Greek of the title, but I had to read all the way to the footnote to be sure. The theme of the poem turns out to be treachery, not heroism, but it takes me two interested readings to get there. Then I re-read the title appreciatively. It has become part of the experience of the poem, an element of its own without which it would not be the same poem.

That cannot be said of "At Coney Island," in which we would know by the word boardwalk and the mention of hot dogs, cotton candy, roller coaster and several other predictable amusement park features what kind of a place we are in.

The first purpose of a title -- to capture a reader -- may be its most important, but my preference is for the second purpose, to add a unique dimension to the poem as a whole.  In a brief poem, the title may constitute as much as 45% of the words -- a significant proportion of its impact. Why waste the space?

The more I have thought about titles, the higher my expectations have grown. I look for titles that serve as the opening gambit in a literary game. Whether the title is a thematic summary, a lure, a puzzle or a deception, I want to be both strongly engaged and a little mystified. Make me read on. Make me buzz with ideas and impressions before I even begin the poem. As in a novel, where a good first sentence entices the reader in, so a poem title should provoke a reaction that leads you into the poem.

What makes a good title? As much originality as the poem itself. Some of the same strategic tools: image, assonance, alliteration, etc. Some different ones: a thematic summary that isn't too "telling," a seeming non sequitur that turns out to be a riddle only the poem itself can solve, an intriguing plot synopsis.

Here is an excerpt from Bugeja's article on how to title poems:

"A descriptive title depicts content, a suspense one sparks interest, and the label variety is just that -- a word or two as on a can of vegetables: "Beans" or "Creamed Corn" ... There are problems associated with all titles. Descriptive ones can be boring, safe. Label ones, cryptic. Suspense titles, confusing. Here's how you can lessen the risks... A descriptive or label title is deceptively simple. It seems at first to define content or set the scene so the poet can continue. True, it does that. But if that is all your title accomplishes, then it has fallen short of its mark. A descriptive or label title also has to convey another level of meaning -- usually associated with an epiphany or a peak experience ...

"In the hands of a good poet, a label is elusive, changing how we view the world, as Longfellow illustrates in his famous lyric 'Snowflakes':

"Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and Soft, and slow
Descends the snow.

"Even as our cloudy fancies take
Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
In the white countenance confession,
The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels.

"This is the poem of the air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
to wood and field."

Bugeja's book is a good basic manual on elements of craft, and this chapter on titles is invaluable.

Perhaps the lack of interest in this aspect of writing reflects the recency of the title itself. Poet A.E. Stallings has looked into the history of literary titles. It turns out that titles are rather new. In classical times, poems were simply known by their first lines, or by author and general subject (example: Homer's Iliad). A work's title as a separate element seems to have come into being with the printing press.  For a long time, even after the invention of the book, libraries shelved books with the spine facing inward. It became obvious that on an outward-facing spine an identifying phrase could help locate books (duh).  Title as a separate element seems to have been invented around the time of Shakespeare.

The idea of an individual poem creatively using a title seems relatively recent, basically a phenomenon of the 20th century. Our poetic era has developed a heightened focus on imagery and an insistence on rhythms more complex than iambic pentameter. Perhaps one of the poetic topics of the 21st century can be the art of the title. It seems to have lots of room yet for innovation and exploration.

There's the challenge. Something must be done, it seems, to avert the flood of verse lurking behind such captions as "Untitled."

Note: Thanks to Alicia Stallings for providing historical background on literary titles.

© Rachel Dacus