Chickenegg Question

The answer is simple: whatever works for you. Some poets need a title to help clarify or enhance content. Others think a working title — one they plan to revise —eases stress and eliminates writer's block. And some prefer to compose the poem without a title, worrying about that requirement later. A few do all three, depending on the content- or difficulty of the poem. These poets realize that sometimes the title will come naturally, sometimes not; when it doesn't, they use a working title or none at all in the early stages.

Allow yourself that freedom. What has worked once —or even often for you — may not work all the time. If you force yourself to adhere to rigid rules, title-writing can overinfluence or even block your poems.

Say, for instance, that you always need to know the title before you can write a poem. If so, you don't have to spend hours thinking up various versions of titles in search of a final one. To get going, simply compose a working title, a few words or a phrase that you plan to revise later. Base it on your epiphany.

Consider this scenario: One night, before writing a poem, I wandered outdoors and felt betrayed by a full moon that was supposed to inspire romance but seemed instead to be passing me by. Later I based a working title on the experience: "Swearing Never to Write About the Moon." As soon as I wrote that, I knew that it sounded clunky, as many working titles do. But it did the job, jump-starting my muse.

I began:

Worse, Oklahoma moon. Big, luminous,

Pure enough to read poetry by

Shakespeare, the balcony scene,

Our hero ababble with love, high

On star and simile, run out

The rest of the poem came easily, describing how a man walks alone in a city and pays a late-night visit to an ex-lover, silhouetted with another man in the window. The poem ends: "You'll say your wherefores soon/Enough. And I shall sing no more of love,/Whose mask is still the moon."

Now it was time to return to the title. I was using a Romeo and Juliet allusion to power my poem and wanted the final title to reflect that. By the time I had finished the lyric, I knew the content so well that the final version was a snap to write: "Moon, Love: Whereof I Swear Never Again to Write."

I would have blocked the poem if I had spent hours trying to come up with a title like the one above. And then, if I did, I would have run the risk of letting such a title overinfluence content. The solution, then, was to employ a working title and concentrate on content, worrying about the final title after the poem was completed.

If you use working titles to help you concentrate on content, don't be awed by the power of your lines and then put off writing a final title. I suspect that my poem would never have been printed if I hadn't reworked the "working" title.

But suppose you have an easy time with titles, knowing what the final one will be from the start. If so, by all means compose the title first. Just don't let it overinfluence content or else your poem may sound forced or artificial.

On occasion this has happened to me.

Once I visited the Oklahoma City zoo and saw the dolphins there leap for a fish in return for a little attention. Their plight reminded me of desolate lovers. By the time I drove home and settled in to write, I knew that my poem would be called "Dolphins." The opening lines came easily enough:

All day as we wander again Miles apart, I take in show after show At the aquarium. The dolphins Begin to notice me, deadpan By the holding tank, their lingo Primal as love. . . .

But the poem bogged down as I tried to describe dolphins using biological terms. My voice changed from sounding plaintive or yearning in the opening lines (appropriate for a love poem) to one that sounded dull and scientific. In other words, I was forcing my lines to conform to the title and limiting the scope of what I usually discover during the writing process, how one word sparks another, how one image melds with another and so forth.

A final title is important, but not if it blocks the poem (as was the case here). So I scrapped my title and composed without one, concentrating as much on lovers as on the dolphins: "They have two names/As we have two names. 'Dolphin'/Is pretty enough, but 'por-poise'/Sounds too much like another word,/Purpose. What is the purpose/of a dolphin who leaps 18 feet for a fish?"

Again, the rest of the poem came easily; so easily, in fact, that I was able to use my original title after all.

Here's a third scenario: You're in such a hurry to compose a poem that you skip the title. Maybe the muse has paid you an unexpected visit, and you can feel your lines forming already inside your head. Quickly you reach for a pen or a keyboard. All you want is to get your words down so you won't forget them. In this case, content comes first.

Again this has happened to me. Once, after a winter storm, I wanted to write a mood piece featuring a man who has stayed awake all night watching snow and worrying about a relationship. The lines came relatively easy, but the title didn't:

All night, as I lay in the spare room Thinking of us, the snow has been falling On the car, on the evergreen and hedge. It grows Sudden and cold as our love. We should revel tonight In sub-zero, cover the tracks: our souls are together, Twined as any limb. I can't even wake you. In the blue-grey light the window allows, you'd see me Stroking a lock of hair from the delicate cheekbone I might kiss, and ask me What are you doing? Why Are you awake? You would brush my hand like snow. I want to whisper, we are alive. We feel the same Love for the other. But you sleep and I watch The flurry outside conceal what remains Of metal and wood. By morning, the snow May drift like a dream and embed us Or may melt like beauty and be gone.

To come up with a title, I had to go through each line and word of the poem, circling words for inspiration: "sudden," "cold," "love," "snow," "drift," "melt," "beauty," etc. In essence, I was compiling an "objective correlative," a term coined by T.S. Eliot that means, in plain talk, a string of words or images that in itself tells a story.

Every poem has a correlative upon which you can base a title. Typically, your list of words will also indicate a deeper level 6i meaning. In my poem, the deeper meaning was obvious: Love can be as cold or as fleeting as snow.

After several dozen attempts, I came up with: "The Brevity and Permanence of Snow."

If your poems usually come first, without regard to titles, you have to be disciplined. The tendency will be to give up the search too soon, going with what actually is a working or half-baked title. But if you circle words as I did in the above example and ponder your correlative, you should be able to come up with a title that enhances your work.

Now that you know the three methods to compose a title, let's review the three basic types.

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