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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Are Your Titles Like Limp Handshakes?



Every poem’s title is like a handshake, your first chance at making a strong impression. An editor friend often confides in me about poems that cross her desk titled "Rain" and "Insect." Poems with bland and uninspiring titles like these just don't demand to be read. Not one bit. But a poem with a title like "The Gargantuan Muffin Beauty Contest"?  Who could resist? 

Here are a few ideas for how to extend a hand to your reader that he or she will definitely want to shake:

1. The title repeats the first line (or is part of the first line).

Examples: 
Wendy Videlock’s “I Don’t Buy It
John Donne’s “Death be Not Proud
Wyn Cooper’s “Chaos is the New Calm
Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman” 

2. The title is the first word or line.

Examples: 
Eduardo Corral’s “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes" 
Bob Hicok’s “Thought

3. The title repeats a phrase or "hook" from the poem.


A title can repeat a particularly compelling word/s or strong phrases from within the body of the poem. This is especially effective if the phrase in question is found near the end of the poem, creating a sort of “book end” effect, but also works well, in the case of the two examples below, when all or part of the title keeps getting repeated.

Example: 

Julian Stannard’s “The Gargantuan Muffin Beauty Contest” 
David Rivard's "Otherwise Elsewhere


4. Name the poem the form the poem is written in. 


Kinda boring, so to spice things up add a flourish, rhyming or riffing off the form you are writing in. 

Examples: 
Mark Jarman’s “Unholy Sonnet 1
Kathy Fagan's "Saloon Pantoum"
Doug Lang's "Tina Sestina"

Note: in general, just adding a bit more detail to your poem--instead of "Rain," "My Cat Does Not Like the Rain," or, as in the case of this poem by Wallace Stevens, ""A Dish of Peaches in Russia" -- just by adding "in Russia," I so much more want to read this poem, don't you? And yet, to go all very-well-I contradict-myself on you, what's wrong with Sara Miller's title, "Cairo"? Maybe it's because it's Cairo, not Portland or San Francisco, but I was drawn in, just saying (no one said anything about these decisions being easy, or if they did they were, well, deluded). Sfumati, as my Italian teacher used to say, as in permutations, as in the gray area, as in the ability to hold two paradoxical ideas in one's head with relative easy, aka gone up in smoke, where we all should be when we're writing poems.

5. Answer a question.

A title can quickly clarify in-medias-res beginnings that could possibly interfere with the reader immediately being drawn in.


Example: 
David Wagoner’s “For a Student Sleeping in a Poetry Workshop
Kit Frick's "Lunar Eclipse
Paisley Rekdal's "Mae West: Advice

Thanks to Frick's title we are well-oriented as to what's being described right from the get-go, while in Wagoner's poem the immediate question, whose eyelids? is dealt with straightaway. Same goes with Rekdal's title -- without it, we'd have no idea who was giving the advice, making the poem way less fun. 

Note: Beginning writers sometimes have this notion in their heads that they can't use their titles to explain crucial details about the poem--setting, impetus for the poem, allusion--right from the outset, instead attempting to either a) leave the reader guessing, or b) create strained "hints" throughout the poem. Some might not agree, but I like to be clued in right away with what the heck is going on. Unless you are intentionally setting out to write a riddle,  or you have some other genius reason to hold off with what's going on, it's usually best to cough up the situation/setting/trigger subject before you begin line 1. No one wants to feel like they're being left out on an inside joke, least of all a reader. 

6. Add detail.
A title can clarify something that would be cumbersome to include in the main body of the poem, often a particular necessary for the poem to make sense. 


Example: 
Jan Heller Levi’s “Waiting for this Story to End Before I Begin Another”  

7. Use your title as springboard.
A title can provide a jumping-off place for the reader to enter into the poem. 


Example: 
Patty Seyburn’s “On Cooking a Symbol at 400 Degrees

8. The Non-Sequitur. 
This one can sometimes backfire, but you can at least give it a try if you’re stumped (especially if you’ve written a dreamy/surreal kind of poem). Open a book randomly and steal a title by titling your poem the first word your eyes find. Or … title your poem after the name of a painting, a type of food, or an Irish high cross. You may find a connection randomly (which is always fun) or delight in the fact that the title and poem have absolutely no connection that you can find.

Examples:
I was coming up empty-handed, but my pal David Graham helped me out by mentioning Wallace Stevens. How about his poem "Earthy Anecdote"? Okay, the poem is somewhat anecdotal, but earthy? It's about a herd of bucks and a ... firecat. And what about "Metaphors of a Magnifico?" Surreal, these titles -- kinda perplexing ... and mysteriously, comfortingly wonderful. Can you think of any others? There are lots of poets that do this, but I am coming up blank. 

9. The quirkier, more enticing, the better.

Examples:

Kerrin McCadden's "If You Were a Zombie Boy" 
Marcus Wicker's "Creation Song in Which a Swift Wind Sucker Punches a Transformer
Cynthia Marie Hoffman's "The Calciferous Substance Speaks to the Sleeping Fetus
Dafydd Wood's "The Graduate Student in Comparative Literature Weighs the Merits of a Career in Pornographic Film

Which of these approaches to titling will work best depends, of course, on the poem. Err on the side of unusual, if not a little bit strange, and at least you won't run the risk of making an editor/reader snore. 

6 comments:

Justin Evans said...

I once attended a workshop conducted by William Kloefkorn, all about the titles of our poems. In his book, Ludi jr., He works the name into every poem, as in:

midway through the survival hike, ludi jr. has second thoughts

ludi jr, nipped by crocker's dog, plans revenge

ludi jr sits quietly through the passing along of his father's advice

Martha Silano said...

Hi Justin,

This is quite a quirky way to title one's poems. I love that part in a gazelle when the poet has to reference him or herself. And yesterday I was reading the new issue of APR, and in one of Rivard's dozen poems he says something about Rivard. Oh, and what about Paul Zimmer? He has a whole slough of poems titled Zimmer does this and Zimmer says that. I need to go look some of those up ...

seana graham said...

Just for the heck of it, I'm going to do some cross-pollination here and post a link to another blogging pal, Nathanael Green's post about titles. The difference is that he is both a copy editor and a fiction writer. The post is here.

Martha Silano said...

Thanks for sharing this link, Seana.

Martha Silano said...

Paul Zimmer's "Zimmer in Grade School": http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2008/09/18

seana graham said...

Glad to do it. Nate was happy to learn of yours as well.