Friday, July 31, 2020

Writing Great Titles for Your Poems

For many poets, a title is a necessary evil, a part of the work that the writer would rather not bother with. After all, the substance of the poem is in the body of the poem, right? What’s to be gained by adding some frilly header that repeats what’s already in the poem, or that only relates obliquely to the rest of the text?

 

But titles can play an important role in bringing the reader into the poem. I enjoy the titles that the poet Robert (“Bob”) Hershon gives his poems, so I interviewed Bob recently about his ideas on titles.


Poet Robert "Bob" Hershon

Q. Do you like to title your poems?

 

Bob Hershon: I do. One thing I like about a title is that it can do the work of several lines in the poem that you can then omit. A good title eliminates the need for that “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” type of filler.

 

Q. What’s your advice for writing a good poem title?

 

BH: Something that speaks to the poem without summing it up. I’m partial to “No poetry but in things,” to paraphrase William Carlos Williams. Your title should stand out, it shouldn’t sound like everybody else’s titles.

 

Q. What do you think about poems that don’t have titles?

 

BH: When I see a poem that’s just called “Untitled,” it seems like an opportunity lost. Many poets, including writers I’ve published and whose work I like, don’t use any title at all. In that case, it’s hard to identify the poem. For all practical purposes, the first line then becomes the title.

 

Q. What do you think of simple titles or one-word titles?

 

BH: I think a title should be fun. I know that many poets I admire and like personally take a different approach and use simple, generic-sounding titles. They’re entitled to their titles.

 

Q. Are there kinds of titles you just plain don’t like?

 

BH: There’s something terribly ostentatious to me about calling a poem just “Poem.” I also don’t particularly like a title with a “This and That” structure, such as “Truisms and Inconsistencies.” That particular construction annoys me, for some reason.

 

Q. What’s a recent title you’ve written for one of your poems, and how did you arrive at it?

 

BH: Recently I wrote a poem about the brain’s inability to forget old song lyrics. Initially I had a kind of flat title for it. This morning I woke up with a different title for it in my head, “An Old Cowboy Went Riding Out One Dark and Windy Day.” Some people might recognize that as a line from the old pop song “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” But even if you don’t recognize it, the title works on its own in a different way. Adding that title allowed me to cut a line or two from the middle and tighten the poem up.


Robert Hershon’s most recent book of poems is End of the Business Day. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He was executive director of The Print Center for 35 years and has been coeditor of Hanging Loose Press since its founding in 1966. Among his awards are two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.


Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe


Other posts on writing topics:


How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Friday, July 10, 2020

Does a Poem Have to Stand on Its Own?

An intriguing question came up in my poetry writing group the other day. One of the poets brought in a poem that had exciting language, and seemed to be about a fascinating topic. But no one in the group could quite figure out the general subject of the poem. Once the poet clued us in about the theme of the poem, all the pieces fell beautifully into place, and we could see how strong a poem it was.

The writer said that the poem made sense in the context of a collection in progress, where several of the poems that come before this one are about the same topic. The poet asked, “Should a poem be able to stand on its own?”

Great question! Thinking about it, I realize that we usually encounter poems differently now than we did before the Internet became the dominant source of information. In a collection of poems by the same writer, there are many opportunities for a poem to rely on the works around it for context and support of its meaning.

Books of poems where individual poems are just part of the volume or part of a series within a collection were once not unusual, such as William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, or John Berryman’s The Dream Songs

Handwritten manuscript of Wordsworth's The Prelude
Few of the poems of those books make a lot of sense when you read them individually, with no idea of the project of the entire collection, but taken together, each poem is understandable. Well, fairly understandable, in the case of Pound or Berryman!

But how often do we now read an entire collection assembled by the same writer? Usually, we read poems online, in literary magazines online or in print, or in anthologies, where poems are rarely in the setting of several other related poems by the same writer.

These days, authors are lucky if one to three hundred readers pick up an entire collection of their poems. Much more frequently, our poems are encountered one webpage at a time, experienced separately by a reader. This is one huge advantage that poetry has over other literary genres, such as fiction or drama—most poems can fit easily on a webpage. Why give up that advantage by requiring more context to understand a poem?

So my personal answer to the question, “Does a poem have to stand alone?” is an unequivocal Yes, especially in the era of the Internet.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry