Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lambs and Clams and Titles

Donald Murray, a writing teacher from New Hampshire, says in one of his text books that any piece of writing requires me to make a long list of possible titles, like 30 or 50. I'm happy if I have two or three. Sometimes finding even one title feels like relief from a headache. But titles matter. How can I find the poem in my computer files if the title isn't distinct? How can an editor believe that her table of contents won't put people to sleep before they dip into the text? So, what makes a good title for a poem or a story?
  • Distinction--I want an individual name for a unique creation. I once had an editor tell me she very nearly rejected my poem because I had the word spring in the title and she was bored, bored, bored by spring poems. Lucky she read the poem and saw that it was unique and not just more lilacs-and-bluebirds sentimentality. Calling a poem "Spring" will not do.
  • Another thing is the energy gap that the reader must bridge between the title and the text, and a well-chosen title can make for more energy in that gap, especially if the title both leads into the poem and creates tension. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" intrigues me and leads me into an elegy. Surprise! Energy in poems, says Stephen Dobyns, comes from surprise.
  • Then there's tone. I had a real lol moment this week. I have a poem about the inevitable destruction that comes from human beings satisfying their appetites, a serious poem for a serious issue. I had called the poem "What Counts Mounts Up." My critique group critiqued that off the page, leaving me with a John Doe poem. It's in my revision folder, an unclaimed body in the morgue. But the imp of the perverse niggled my mind: I'll call this poem "The Sacrificial Clam." NO! Do not do that, my left brain shrieked, while my right brain giggled. Sigh, I won't do it.
Take any reputable anthology and study the list of titles. Which ones make you want to read the poems? Then study the relationship between the title and the text. Is it right? Will you remember it? Whitman, whether you like him or not, has good titles. Shakespeare has none, just a numbered list of sonnets, but he's Will Shakespeare, so, if we're smart, dedicated poets, we read his stuff anyway. You and I don't have that kind of name recognition. We have to study titles as if they are all we have. In a way they are.

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