For All I Knew

Sleepwalkers already were bedded. . . .

Generic Titles. These are ones that call attention to form, rather than content, as in "Sonnet," "Pantoum" or "Villanelle." (We'll learn about these form poems in later chapters.) Some poets, proud that they can execute a form as difficult as the pantoum, and not wanting readers to overlook that fact, cannot resist using a generic title.

Option: If you want to call attention to the form of your poem in the title, add a phrase as in, "Pantoum for My Side of the Family."

Untitled. Poems that use "Untitled" violate a basic pact with readers who look to the title to anticipate the contents of a poem. Use of "Untitled" became vogue after poems by famous people —I'm talking ladies and lords of royal courts —were found untitled and published posthumously. If you use "Untitled" for your poems, readers might wonder why you passed up an opportunity to grace your poem with a real title.

Option: None.

First-Line Titles. These types employ the same phrases, statements or questions as titles and as first lines. This too has to do with tradition. Some poems were taken from longer works, as in Shakespeare's "Soliloquy" from Hamlet or William Blake's "And Did Those Feet" from Milton. Other poems bore numbers instead of titles, as in Shakespeare's "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day" or Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop for Death." These were marked #18 and #712, respectively, in original manuscripts. So instead of saying, read me Shakespeare's 18th or Dickinson's 712th, people repeated the first line. Eventually, poets began mimicking the practice in an attempt to sound as immortal as Shakespeare, Blake and Dickinson.

Options: If you still feel that you should repeat the title, do so only if it is:

• So odd that repetition may enhance content. (See poem by Henry David Thoreau in the mini anthology.)

• An element of voice expanded upon in the first line. (See poem by John Clare in the mini anthology.)

You should use even these optional titles sparingly. Otherwise some readers will suspect that you're trying to elevate yourself to master poet status. Again, others may wonder why you are avoiding real titles.

Last-Line Titles. These poems use the same phrase, statement or question as the title and the last line of the poem. If you repeat the title as the ending of your poem, you're missing yet another opportunity to enhance the clarity or meaning of your work. Again, either rewrite the title or the ending so it echoes an aspect of your epiphany or peak experience. For instance, once I wrote a poem originally titled "The Boy Who Made the Wicked Witch Cry," for the actress Margaret Hamilton, whom I met in the late fifties at a flower shop. The poem ended naturally with the same line as the title, so I changed the original title to "After Oz."

Option: If your poem would be harmed by changing the title or the last line, keep the work as is. (The longer the work, the better your chances of getting away with a last-line title.)

To sharpen your understanding of the title as an element of craft, try these exercises:

1. Go through all the poems in a year's issues of a literary magazine like Poetry and identify the type of title: label, descriptive, suspense. This will give you an idea of how contemporary poets employ the various titles to enhance the meaning of their work.

2. Go through the collections of the last three Pulitzer Prize winners for poetry and identify the type of title in each poem: label, descriptive, suspense. This will give you an idea of how individual poets employ the various titles in a single long work.

3. Go through all the poems in The Norton Anthology of Poetry and identify the type of title: label, descriptive, suspense. This will give you a historical perspective about the use of the title as an element of craft.

To illustrate the basic types of titles, I have selected poems in the mini anthology that vary the same phrase in different works:

• "I Am" by John Clare as label and statement.

• "I Am a Parcel of Vain Strivings Tied" by Thoreau as suspense and statement.

• "Who Am I?" by Carl Sandburg as a descriptive and question.

After reading these and other poems in magazines, books and anthologies, you'll see how title writing can deepen the meaning and augment the message of your verse.

0 0

Post a comment