The trouble with titles: A love-hate relationship

Do you write your title first? Last? Does it depend on the poem? Is it like a blind date? Or bumping into someone in the grocery store? Or is it like hoping, hoping, hoping the phone will ring?

I love a good title. I love reading a table of contents filled with good titles. I’ve been reading Sarah Gridley and Cole Swenson, and it’s a pleasure to read all those titles.

I especially enjoy a collection that has groups of similar titles. Structurally. A pattern. For example, in Oliver de la Paz’s Furious Lullaby: “Aubade with a Book and the Rattle from a String of Pearls,” “Aubade with Constellations, Some Horses, and Snow,” “Aubade with Bread for the Sparrows.” Or “God Essay,” “Penitence Essay,” “Mysteries Essay.” And others.

I also like finding a book with poems that have the same title. In The Wild Iris, Louise Gluck has 7 poems called “Matins” and 10 poems called “Vespers.” Immediately, I’m intrigued. I want to know what the differences are between the poems. Recently, I’ve found the “Gravesend” poems in Cole Swenson’s Gravesend and the “Baroque” poems in Sarah Gridley’s Green Is the Orator. Ooooh…

I remember hearing Maureen Owen read at Saint Marks, and how she gave her poems two titles: “This poem is “x” or “x”–and each title sounded amazing. Wow. Coming up with two titles.

I love what Martha Silano says about titles in her post Are Your Titles Like a Limp Handshake?

I love what Dean Young said at Seattle Arts and Lectures about a title being the most important line in the poem (I think; I’m paraphrasing).

Yet, with all this wonderful help, I struggle mightily. Often, I hate my titles. I write and rewrite them. I want them to be intriguing without being confusing. I’m wary of one word titles even though some people write great one-word titles. I want them to invite you into their poems.

Sure, every once in a while I find a title I like or even love (especially the long ones) without a long journey first. And I like to use titles as starting points (write 5 titles, pick one, write a poem for that title), because I can always change it (and there I am, back to hunting for that perfect, compelling title).

But today I’m talking about the titles that are stumping me, the poems that I think are working, reading, well except for that, um, kind of boring title.

Especially one title. That I’ve been working on for four years. I’ve tried thinking (and thinking, and thinking). I’ve gone back to old drafts, looking for lines I loved but had to cut (okay, that should be a warning sign). I’ve printed out the poem and written alternate titles in the margin. I keep hoping one of them will jump out and say, “I’m here!” That I’ll know it’s the one. (This is sounding like a bad romance novel.)

The right title hasn’t shown up yet. Am I reduced to throwing darts? Do I have any darts?

How do you find a title, when it hasn’t found you?