The Title

Once I was a guest poet visiting a creative writing workshop and critiquing a woman's untitled poem. I thought she had missed an opportunity by not titling her work and told her so. She replied that she disliked titles. "Why?" I asked.

"Well," she said, pausing a moment to ponder her feelings, "it's too much of a commitment."

I couldn't have phrased it better myself. A title is just that —a commitment —promising a payoff if the audience will invest a little time to read your work. In essence, you are asking people to stop their lives and dwell awhile in yours. Why should they?

The title addresses that question. It promises that the poem will transform the ordinary — "Snowflakes," say, by Longfellow — into the extraordinary. Or it suggests that the work will make us wise —"Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," say, by Shelley —or will intrigue and entertain us: "The Rape of the Lock" by Pope.

The poet had better meet those expectations, or else readers will feel shortchanged. For instance, if you title your poem "Snow," the reader will anticipate learning about the mystery or beauty of that common noun and natural phenomenon. If you simply depict pretty flakes that melt when the weather becomes warmer in spring, the reader will shrug and complain: "So what?" Likewise, if you title your poem "Hymn to Intellectual Hunger," the reader will anticipate learning about ennobling truths and again will feel let down if you depict a person with an appetite for knowledge the way most people have an appetite for food. The reader will shrug and complain, "Hasn't that been done before?"

Typically, beginning poets do not appreciate the power of a good title.

Let's illustrate:

Picture a poem about an ex-radio announcer wasting away in a hospital for the criminally insane, taunted by "feeble-minded felons in pajamas" as he repents his sins and accepts his plight. Close your eyes for a few seconds and visualize this poor soul in a deck chair.

Ready?

Now title the poem "Ezra Pound," as Robert Lowell did after visiting the canto-writer at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington where Pound was detained because of his anti-American broadcasts during World War II.

As the anecdote illustrates, a title can transform an entire work. It's the first thing a reader sees . . . and the last thing that he or she remembers about a poem.

The real question for the poet, though, is what comes first —the title of the poem or the content?

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