Working Title; or, Poetry Titles, Oy

I’m not saying it was necessarily because of the title changes, but I had the experience once of radically changing titles of two poems that had been rejected several times from lit mags and suddenly and immediately got an acceptance for them. Coinkydink? Possibly. But it certainly made me sit up and take notice of what titles can do.

– A title can situate a poem in place or time, so you don’t have to use up vital poem real estate with that information. Yeats sets us right on “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” so we’re already in place when he begins. But you may run the risk with that of overemphasizing time or place when the point of the poem is to transcend time or place. You have to ask whether the time/place title helps or distracts or gives too much attention to itself.

– A title can emphasize a certain je ne sais quoi that the poem is getting at. But you run the risk of beating the reader over the head. A title that basically says “Be Prepared to Feel Sad Ahead,” or “This Poem Is About Grief” just aren’t that interesting. But you can suggest it slantwise with an image, perhaps, or an echo of sound or word/words from the poem. I mean, sometimes it’s the only good solution to name a poem about daffodils “The Daffodils.” But maybe it’s a lost opportunity.

– A title can carry some of the weight of the poem, in that you can ask it to act as another line, the first line, in fact. You can ask the title to address the same things that the poem addresses, or hint at them, or choose a title that creates a resonance. A long and searing poem of several parts tracing a personal and family history Ocean Vuong titled “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” There is nothing about earth nor beauty particularly in the poem, but the title captures a tenderness toward the fallible humans considered in it. It prepares our heart somewhat for what lies ahead, and when the poem is done helps settle a kind of grace on the experience.

Or you can choose something completely innocuous, I suppose, and not ask much from a title at all. Modern visual artists do that all the time — “Painting #7 of a Series of 10,” for example. But visual artists don’t have to work in the medium of words; poets do. (What if visual artists “entitled” their work with splashes of paint or visual gestures instead of words? I think that would be helpful sometimes.)

But we poets work in a world of words and white space, and the title has a particular status at the top of the page. It sits lordly over the poem text, wearing its white robes. It offers an opportunity to capture something about what lies ahead or provide a way to loop from the end back into the beginning again. It can provide crucial information for the reader to find her way into the poem, or set a tone, or cast a lifeline for the reader to hold as he walks through the poem, then out and back in again, or out and out and out into the world.

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