the art of titles (or, title discourse ft. seething jealousy)
Titles are tricky things—and, for whatever reason, titling your own work, specifically, is the trickiest. That’s how I feel, anyway. I can help my friends and students and classmates come up with titles but, when it comes to my own poems, titling often is an impossible task.
Unfortunately, it’s a task that’s also necessary. A title, really, is part of the poem: it offers context, establishes a tone/position, or prepares readers to pay special attention to a certain line or lines.
Sometimes, I want titles to be simple, easy. Other times, I think: if someone saw this title in a literary journal’s table of contents, would they be inclined to flip to its page? Would it catch their attention? Would it stand out?
For some poems, there is power in a “simpler” title. Mary Oliver’s titles, for instance, are pithy and accessible, which complements her poems and writing style. A few include: “At Black River,” “August,” Banyan,” “Breakage,” “Fall,” and “The Hermit Crab.”
For other poems, there is power in the more verbose or detailed titles, though of course this also depends on the poem and the poet. Kayleb Rae Candrilli is a master of good, long, and clever titles, and these feel appropriate for their writing. In their second book, All the Gay Saints, the table of contents reads like a poem in itself, beginning:
WHEN I TRANSITION WILL I LOSE MY TASTE FOR THE STORM?
ON WANTING TOP SURGERY IN THE FASCIST REGIME
WHEN FACE TO FACE WITH FASCISM
MY SHADOW LOOKS MORE LIKE A MAN THAN I DO
SINNERS MUST LIVE WITH WHAT THEIR SINS SOW
THERE IS A POINT AT WHICH I TIRE OF MY OWN FEAR
Kayleb’s titles always tickle me. These titles are different from Mary Oliver’s because they should be different. These poets’ poetics are different, as are their poems’ tones, their voices, et cetera…
Beyond these examples, though, what has been most useful to me has been thinking about titles as fitting into different categories. As poet Jennifer Chang explained in a workshop several years ago, there are five different kinds of titles.
The Helium Title: gives new meaning to the poem, expands the meaning of the poem
The Greased Pig Title: title that runs away from any specific “title” duties, avoids giving any direct/obvious meaning to the poem
The License Plate: so as to “announce” itself—what type of poem this is going to be
The Spotlight: pulls out a phrase or word and shines the focus on that word(s)
Not Wearing a Tie(tle): “untitled” poems, poems titled with numbers, letters, etc.
Consider your own poems, or look at your work-in-progress’s table of contents. Do you utilize one kind of title more than the others? Is there another kind of title that might better serve one of these poems?
If you, too, struggle with titles, another thing that my own work has benefitted from—making me less reliant on friends (thank you, Kayleb and Marissa!) for title help—is keeping a list of titles I admire. Here are a few titles I love, all from poems that you can read online.
And a few more:
AUBADE TO A COLLAPSED STAR
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY HUNGERS
THE CITY HAS SEX WITH EVERYTHING
[POEM IN WHICH EVEN YOUR ABSENCE IS MISSING]
WEST VIRGINIA NOCTURNE
“Self-Care ft. Impending Doom” is a MOOD. Maybe I’ll try a “Back on Tinder ft. Debilitating Depression” poem, because that’s also a mood, right? Anyways. I hope my mom doesn’t see this.
If there are any title-experts out there, please share your wisdom with us. How on earth do you do it?