Solving Common Problems

A good descriptive or label title is deceptively simple. It seems at first to define content or set the scene so the poet can continue. True, it does that. But if that is all your title accomplishes, then it has fallen short of its mark. A descriptive or label title also has to convey another level of meaning — usually associated with an epiphany or a peak experience.

Let's use another excerpt from the poem by Judson Jerome to illustrate this concept.

In the middle stanzas of "Oil of the Pecos Valley," he writes:

The first million years were likely the most absurd, until, in its gully, indifferent, reluctantly fertile, it ran more like plasma than blood, like lymph in the land, colder than night in the night, colder in sunlight, slick under bluffs, greener than thorn trees, and while rabbits drink elsewhere, cedars absorb it, and cottonwoods, continuously quivering, turn it to pulp and pale green.

When we finish the poem, we realize that oil pulses through the land as plasma pulses through the body, a "lifeblood" analogy endowing "Oil of the Pecos Valley" with a second level of meaning. This helps to convey Jerome's epiphany. Thus, his title succeeds.

Label titles especially need to encompass more than one meaning. Consider this made-up poem "Corn":

It sells for four bits per can or a nickel per ounce or 0.02 pennies per kernel. You can afford it.

Boring stuff. The title has one meaning: "corn." Worse, the content doesn't convey much either: "corn's cheap." The title remains static. Now consider this made-up poem "Beans":

Somebody buy me a can, quick. You can afford it. I weigh my life in beans, bites.

The second poem is better than the first because the title harmonizes with content and thus increases meaning. We read the poem and contemplate "Beans," which now suggests poverty as in "I don't have beans" and frustration: "Beans!"

In the hands of a good poet, a label is elusive, changing how we view the world, as Longfellow illustrates in his famous lyric "Snowflakes":

Out of the bosom of the Air,

Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,

Over the woodlands brown and bare, Over the harvest-fields forsaken, Silent, and soft, and slow Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take

Suddenly shape in some divine expression,

Even as the troubled heart doth make In the white countenance confession, The troubled sky reveals The grief it feels.

This is the poem of the air,

Slowly in silent syllables recorded;

This is the secret of despair,

Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded, Now whispered and revealed To wood and field.

As you can see, each time Longfellow describes "snowflakes," we realize that he is comparing them to words — "silent syllables" — to explain how nature mourns. Since reading his poem, I often think about snowflakes as "divine expression." Longfellow has transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary by endowing his poem with a deeper level of meaning. Such is the beauty of a good label.

Nonetheless, you will want to use a suspense title occasionally because a good one can entice a reader and is a welcome change of pace. First a word of caution: Suspense titles sound more sophisticated, artsy; but, in reality, they are the adjectives of titles. Use them sparingly as you would use adjectives in your prose.

Think of a suspense title as a slogan or an advertisement that promises a big payoff to pique the audience's interest. Many ads do not live up to expectations, but at least we usually know what product is being peddled. This is not always the case with poems employing suspense titles. Often the reader, attracted by the title, will scan the opening lines, still not know what the poem is about, and lose interest.

If you decide to use a suspense title, be sure to define the topic or set the scene as soon as possible. This way readers will be grounded in the poem from the start, able to understand content without feeling confused. To illustrate, consider how Hilda Raz grounds the following poem in the first four lines:

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