I’ve been spending a bit of time lately trying to think of better (or at least more interesting) titles for some of my new poems. Having three current ones that languished as ‘untitled’ was one of the things that prompted me, as was getting a copy of James Wright’s Above the River: The Complete Poems. I don’t know of anyone writing non-humerous poetry who has better titles – flicking through randomly, there’s “Having Lost My Sons, I Confront the Wreckage of the Moon”; “Arrangements with Earth for Three Dead Friends”; “A Gesture by a Lady with an Assumed Name”; the epic “A Message Hidden in an Empty Wine Bottle That I Threw into a Gully of Maple Trees One Night at an Indecent Hour”, and my current favourite:“Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me”. And that’s just from a brief flick through some of his more obscure poems – another one that most people will have come across is “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” (where there is only one fewer word in the title than there are lines in the poem). It can get too cute of course – too many fancy names, and they all blur into one gigantic heading. And there’s always the risk that the title sets up expectations that the poem can’t fulfill.
I had an argument about that when I was coming up with the final title for my Tinterrn Abbey poem (and yes, you can even read it for yourself here). (That’s the poem; not the argument.) I wanted to use the phrase ‘freezing my arse off’ in the title; others felt that it was too colloquial, and set up the expectation of the poem being a bit raucous, and certainly a bit amusing. I argued then for the title it was originally published under, which substitutes the word ‘bum’ for ‘arse’, on the basis that I quite liked throwing people a bit off balance, and surprising them with a poem that turns out to be an elegy, but which still ends with my most shameless pun ever. (The others were not convinced, but hey, it’s my poem.)
Sometimes it’s the title that gives you the poem – I came up with the title for “In the House of Fallen Roses” first, and then had to write a poem to match it. Same sort of thing with roughly half of the Venery poems – the title suggested something, and so I had to write my way towards it. (Easy to do with “A Superfluity of Nuns”; proving less so with “A Blush of Boys”.)
On the other hand … I’m reviewing David Beach’s Scenery and Agriculture for the NZPS (overdue – sorry Laurice!), and he numbers his poems under headings, rather than giving them a title. So we have “Scenery 1” to “Scenery 12” and “Agriculture”s “1” to “46”. It does make remembering which poem a paricular image came from a little tricky, but it fits with his style quite nicely. Louise Glück did something similar in The Wild Iris – there are seven poems sharing the title “Matins” for example, with no numbering to distinguish between them. (But again, it does fit with what the collection as a whole is trying to do.) I think it’s probably not something that works unless you either have a strong framework for the whole gathering of poems, or are Emily Dickinson.
Away from poetry, I came across a wonderful thing called the Diagram Prize (more correctly, ‘The Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year’). It’s for the strangest title published in a given year, and the list of previous winners is truly awe-inspiring. (I am seriously thinking that this is either a killer workshop exercise, or possibly the basis of a new poem-sequence.) (Or both.) (Mwa ha ha hah.)
Apparently it’s gotten to the point where publishers are suspected of coming up with “too many self-consciously titled entries – presumably in a bid to emulate the 2003 champion, The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories” …
The mind boggles. (And then has a game of cribbage, to calm itself.)