A poem by any other name…

…is a completely different poem. I had the pleasure of introducing Walt Whitman to the 8th graders this week at work, and they are now writing poems inspired by his style and ideas. After seeing seven or eight drafts that were titled “Whitman Poem,” we had a discussion about poem titles, how they are so much more than labels, how they can create a context for every other image in the poem. (Of course, they pointed out that most of Whitman’s poems had titles that were first lines or clearly in the poem, so I could not exactly disallow that as a valid title strategy.) The best advice I could give them was to at least do the title last – to wait and see how a title could perhaps enrich the poem instead of just label or explain it.

This is yet another example this week of how I should probably take my own class and listen to my own advice. Today, due to an out-of-town husband and a head full of phlegm, I took a lot of time to work on revisions, including rethinking titles of many poems that have lately been rejected in journal submissions. I especially looked at the new series of “self-portrait” poems I’ve been writing. If they ever do decide to live together as a chapbook, they can’t ALL be called “Self-Portrait as…” – that would be annoying. Or maybe not – all of my pioneer wife poems start with “The Pioneer Wife…” Hmm. You can see why this is so confusing.

I have also received so many conflicting “tricks” for titles over the years that they can be overwhelming to think about. I have used many of them, though – links are to some of my poems that use (or try to use) that particular strategy:

  • Use song lyrics (up to seven words without having to cite) – from a workshop with Lee Abbott .(My favorite book of his, Living After Midnight, uses that strategy.) “Feeling Minnesota” at Freeze Ray Poetry
  • Count 7 lines up from the bottom and pick the best phrase.
  • Use/twist a familiar phrase “Bringing in the Sheaves” at Apple Valley Review and the title of this post
  • Use a specific place name for a poem that doesn’t mention a place (from a workshop with Katie Ford)
  • Make a list of six titles and ask six people which one would make them most want to read the piece
  • The title should be a “portal” to the rest of the poem, an open door that the reader wants to walk through. “Mailing a Snowflake” at Apple Valley Review
  • A good title makes the reader go back to it at the end of the poem and think, “Oh, that’s why the poet called it that.” “XXIX” at Literary Mama
  • A good title lets the reader know what he/she is getting into. “Navigation” at The Literary Bohemian

I’m sure there are many more – I would love to hear your best strategies and tricks for titles in the comments here or on social media. With your help and suggestions and all of the notebooks from all of the workshops and panels I’ve attended over the years, I could probably make this the longest blog post in history. (That would be a good title for a blog post.)

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