What’s in a Title

This_is_totally_my_manuscript_title

This month it was finally time to come up with a title for my manuscript-in-progress. And let me tell you, it was a fun-filled process of head-banging, hand-wringing and silent weeping. No, I’m just kidding, it wasn’t that bad. But it did keep me occupied when I was driving, washing dishes or trying to fall asleep.

A poem’s title functions as an introduction, and first impressions matter. You want the title to be as compelling as the poem is. Even more than that, you want the title to add an extra layer to the poem. The right title expands the impact of the poem with a kind of feedback-alchemy, as the reader finishes the poem, looks back up at the title, and maybe discovers it means something different now.

Maybe because a title is so small a unit, you can get away with even less laziness. As with every other element of the poem, you have to throw away the first four obvious choices, and then you have to throw away the next four clever choices, and only then do you start getting somewhere.

Some title techniques I’ve used and abused below.

“Untitled”

I used this on a fair number of poems when I was a teenager. Maybe this is why I’m unwilling to ever use it again, unless it actually has something to do with the subject of the poem. There’s just something painfully self-conscious about it.

Long statements or sentences used as titles

I love this kind of title, so naturally I’m no good at writing them. I especially love it if it seems like a completely different topic from the poem proper, and extra points if it’s funny.

Using the first line of the poem as the title

A respectable solution to the problem. But like any other technique, it can be a crutch. I’ve tended to overuse it, so now I back off when I’m tempted by this technique.

No title at all

You know, lots of terrific writers do this. Personally, I feel like I owe it to the poem to try to figure out its title.

“Sonnet,” “Villanelle,” “Poem,” “Song,” etc.

Everybody’s writing ghazals and pantoums these days. If you are in a writing workshop or MFA program, you have more than likely tried your hand at one or the other (or both!). I’ve read some brilliant examples, but dare I say, not all of these exercises should end up published? Yep, I just said it. The thing that makes it even worse for me is when the title of the ghazal is “Ghazal”. Sigh. It’s not necessary to point out the technique you used to write the poem because we all recognize it by now. Even if we didn’t, the intelligent reader will still perceive that there’s a poetic form involved. If you believe in the poem, give it a fabulous title to go with its fabulous self.

On the other hand, the idea of titling something “Sonnet” when it clearly isn’t is intriguing. It really all goes back to: does the title add something?

To come up with a title for my manuscript, I read through every poem and pulled out words or phrases that I liked, and then I combined two of them that spoke to the themes of the whole. But I should mention, before I get too smug, that I don’t know whether my current title will stick. I’d be interested in hearing what other people’s go-to title techniques are.

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2 thoughts on “What’s in a Title

  1. Jeanne,
    Titles can either be easy or very, very hard–I’m speaking here particularly of titles of books of poems, though of course this generalization can also apply to individual poems as well.
    I attended the Colrain Poetry conference, and let me tell you, editors can get very worked up about titles.
    Your idea of taking phrases from some of the poems in the collection and trying to combine them is a good idea.
    Right now the fashion tends to be against naming a collection with the title of one of the poems in it. The fear is that the poem won’t be “good enough.” Admittedly, I find this strategy a little defensive, but it is worth considering.
    I very easily titled my chapbook, and had a devil of a time titling my book.
    Finally, after making many lists, I sat down in desperation with Leonard Gontarek, with whom I’ve studied for about 7 years (I think it is, anyway) now, and he agreed that nothing on my voluminous lists of phrases from within the poems worked well enough. I had originally thought of using a title of one of the poems, and then he suggested using the title of another poem. At first I wasn’t sure, but Leonard has never steered me wrong, and I was desperate so I trusted him.
    As it tuns out, I do think it’s a good title (Kiss), perhaps more for my work as a whole than for the book, but it works for the book. Leonard’s idea is that a title should be memorable.
    Due to the pressure of contests, that is, the pressure on readers and judges of contests, there’s a great vogue right now for very narrowly-themed books. I’d love to hear what you think of this.
    As for myself, there are some themed collections that I love, where I think the theme is large and compelling enough (a rape, for example, as in Francis Driscoll’s The Rape Poems, or the murder of a daughter, as in Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno’s Slamming Open the Door), but a lot of collections I like aren’t as tightly themed–a kind of like the idea of a collection of poems as being like a record album–I show my age–there are thematic links, but not necessarily always obvious ones, more unconscious than too overtly conscious.
    Though I can see how having a tight theme is helpful to a contest judge who has to discriminate between many manuscripts. Anyway, I think that poets are turning out themed collections rather cynically, because that’s what is winning contests right now.

  2. Alison, my experience has been very similar. I shied away from titling the whole manuscript after one of the poems, even though the poem is a good representative of the overall themes and also a catchy title (The Story of Asteroids). I definitely worried that the one poem couldn’t carry the weight of the whole manuscript.
    The themed vs. “generalist” issue is one I think about a lot, and I’ve wondered if the theme trend is “novelizing” (or “memoir-izing”) the idea of what a poem collection is. I’m still seeing a lot of what I think of as generalist books. It’s just that “theme” books are naturally catchy and memorable. (Like dance music!)Ultimately, “generalists” like me (singer-songwriters?) just have to hope that quality, structure, and a great title play just as important a role in getting a manuscript noticed.

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