On Titling a Poem.

There was a discussion recently on the Wom-Po listserv about titling a poem, the different rationales and uses for a title. In the course of the discussion, someone recommended the book, The Title to the Poem, by Anne Ferry. Having a bit of book money again thanks to the Dorothy Prize (not that the check has come yet, but I’m not especially patient when it comes to books I want*), I went ahead & bought myself a copy. On the very first page of the introduction I learned something:

The expectation of wording in the space above a poem is largely a development of printing. In the earliest European manuscripts, where poems were copied onto scrolls, longer ones were identified by some sort of name or label, usually given after the poem as a practical signal to the reader that the scroll had been unwound as far as the end of the poem. If any wording appeared before the poem, it most often consisted of incipit, “here beginneth,” followed by the opening phrase. The habit of identifying the work at its close was carried over, when it was no longer a physical necessity, to manuscripts in page form, and then even to some early printed books (often made to resemble manuscripts as closely as possible). At the same time titles, even for shorter poems, began to be placed more regularly above the text, although not with reliable consistency (except in some volumes prepared with special attention) until late in the seventeenth century. This shift in typography was at once cause and effect of profound changes in cultural attitudes toward the making and corresponding changes in the responses of readers to them.

What originated out of practicality is now what I consider an invaluable tool for the poet.

A title can set the tone, set the scene, add layers of meaning. A title can indicate that a poem is one of a series, like Carol Frost’s Apiary poems, which enriches the poem by association. Even a title that’s the first line of a poem, like the one by Helen Farish below, has a use, changes the flow, the intonation I use reading the poem aloud.

I think an untitled poem is a lost opportunity, and in fact, if I’m having difficulty titling a poem, it usually means for me that the poem requires more revision. It’s not about the poet’s intention, because I think intention is a provisional thing that shifts during the writing, but an understanding of where the poem has ended up. If you don’t have that, then the poem’s incomplete.

*It came, it came, hooray!!

From Helen Farish’s collection, Intimates (Jonathan Cape, 2005):

Let Me Tell You

about the emptinesses,
life punctuated
so rarely by an event:

that until you stop
looking through them,
even what you have

will fall away
like the sound a crow makes,
pure winter.

–Helen Farish

2 responses to “On Titling a Poem.”

  1. When I was in college, I used to title my papers by the name of whatever I was writing about. “The Faerie Queene, Book IV” is one example of my stunning lack of imagination. And then one day a professor told me that before I went any further down this sorry road, I’d better look at the table of contents to The Palm at the End of the Mind, the Wallace Stevens collection we were reading. I mean, really, how could I not try harder in the face of all that vigorous titling? I am still terrible at titles, but at least I try harder now.

  2. Excellent professor! But I find it hard to believe that you’re “terrible” at anything, Lily. xo

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