Friday, May 18, 2012

On Creativity: Titles

My poem yesterday, “Still Life with Lit Dynamite,” got me thinking about the importance of titles. I was thinking about how dependent that poem is on the title. I started wondering, what percentage of a work’s overall meaning does a title carry?

Naming a project always helps me to begin it (it seems attached to the same reason that I love a good theme). For instance, the local reading series that I run is called “Paging Columbus.” It goes beyond my love of the pun--finding precise words to describe my intentions makes me feel more creative.

My blog is another example. The idea for it came after staring at The Sartorialist’s site (repeatedly, for many hours!). The word “story” came to my mind while I was imagining backstories for the people in his photos. It was funny....I remember thinking that a poetry companion site to The Sartorialist called The Storialist was so OBVIOUS. I googled a bit to see if anyone else had created that already (what a strange thought, in retrospect!).

I don’t always title my poems before writing them. Sometimes, I think of the title after (usually, it’s that feeling that I mentioned before--that the title is so obvious to me, is so clear). But I am always curious about those artists who do not title their pieces (although “Untitled” can be a title, I guess). The funniest is “Untitled” with a very specific parenthetical after “Untitled” (Queen of the Jellybeans) or “Untitled” (after Oscar the Grouch).

Let me ask you: how do titles function in your creative projects? When, in your process, do you decide upon them? How do you know the right title? What makes a good title? (Feel free to link to your work.)


  1. I title everything at the end of writing. Titles are a summation of whatever impression I get from the verse.

    I'm not sure what makes a good title. Relevance, probably.

  2. I like the the reading series title. We are talking of starting one here, and I had not thought of titling i

  3. What I see often in poetry is title as a tool to position the poem so that you don't have to use the body of the poem to do that. I personally think Untitled poems are the sign of a lazy writer. Or, maybe I'm being harsh. Could be the title just hasn't happened yet, and will. I just know I am not satisfied with an untitled poem. Another pet peeve I have is a title that reappears again as a phrase in the body of the poem. I think the title should ADD to the poem. Although I should say here that some of my titles do repeat in the body of the poem - because I haven't thought of anything better -- yet. I don't have a set process on titles. Sometimes they are great starters. Other times I struggle to find them after.

  4. What a great subject, Hannah! To me, title are extremely important. "Untitled" annoys me. A title alone can make me itch to read a poem. Your poem yesterday is a perfect example. A title gives me a clue as to how much heart and imagination and labor an author has put into a poem. Something titled "Flowers" is boring me already. But something like "Rommel Drives Deep Into Egypt" (Richard Brautigan) or "A Woman Is Talking To Death" (Judy Grahn) makes me want to read the poem.

    A title like "The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock" has already told me that this poem will be contradictory and cerebral.

    As for my own, it varies. Sometimes I start with a title, or come up with one before i have written more than a line or two. Other times, as with my newest poem "Tiger Swallowtail", I have to re-read my poem again and again for it to tell me what its title should be. Still other times, the title gives crucial information, as with my poem "Lies", letting the reader know from the start that the narrator is confabulating.

    I disagree with a previous commenter about using a piece of the poem itself as the title. To me it can be a signal that here, here is the heart of the poem.

    Finally, I like my titles to have snap, and make a person want to know, oh boy, what is she on about THIS time? or to convey tenderness or melancholy, if that is the mood of the piece.

    My favorite title from among my own is "The Monster Of Birmingham's Last Words", which sounds all true crime-y, or Victorian mystery-ish, but the monster turns about to be a self centered modern little debutante.

  5. Fireblossom is a modern master of poem titling, in my opinion -- so cool that she writes in as I'm making my comments. I love your discussion, Hannah. I remember when all your poems were tied to the Sartorialist photos and only titled by the place and time that the original photo was taken. There was something really cool about that, identifying the inspiration in time and place. I’m not a fan of titles that are required to understand the poem. To me the best ones ("Prufrock," “The Man-Moth,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” etc.) hit you slant to provide an emotional resonance that poem itself weaves around like a vine. I decided long ago to title every poem (a rule I violated on my blog for the first time this week). This poses particular problems for short poems, which much harder to title than long poems (like slow songs are harder to play than fast songs). I almost always write the title at the end, like a preface (kinda interesting that the first thing the reader reads is the last thing the writer writes). There aren’t many rules except whatever it takes to balance the equation. Looking over some recent titles, I see they can be descriptive of the time, place or mood where they were “inspired” (“Once More in the Intergalactic Sweatlodge,” “In Duck With Maddy and Dean”), involve literary references (“Whores for Eleuisis from Baltimore,” which comes from a line in Pound’s “Usura” canto) or catchy stabs at the multiple meanings of the poem (“M’Aider Parade”), based on the unusual circumstances of its composition (“Poem Composed While Asleep” which really was), or the feeling behind the poem’s composition (“The Continuing Search for the Perfect Comeback”), while sometimes there’s a key line pulled out as a title (“Down Confetti Road”), and sometimes the title is a gloss on the poem (“The Conflicted Self Finds Peace at a Mirage”). I rarely achieve the interplay of title and poem I want, that mirror image so obscure neither side can recognize itself, but the reader can at least feel their way through. There are a few examples though of when I got it right, like this. Thanks for asking!

  6. Great discussion here today, Hannah.

    I've always admired your skill at coming up with titles, especially when they add humor or wry comment. Like the art that inspires the poems, your titles function on a number of levels; they're not dispensable.

    I rarely keep what I might put down as an initial title; often, I come up with a title only after completing a poem.

  7. I think titles are invaluably and at times inconceivably important, because, whether they are seeds out of which a work of art grows, or the fruit produced by the process, either way they are seminal features of the work of art as art. One of the reasons I love a Bob Dylan tune, an Ashbery poem, a song by Thelonius Monk, etc., is because these are very, very intense creative thinkers, and so naturally the name they give their art is always going to be, in some way, a kind of sly gesture that shows us, their audience, that they in some ways know what they're doing, (while in other ways simply sit back and let the creativity flow hard and long). Well, hope that's helpful or whatever!

  8. I've always believed that titles can make or break a good poem, too. Though it's difficult to control all of the variables enough for a legitimate scientific experiment, I was very fond of one of my poems that could never get published. I eventually changed the title and then it got accepted by a journal. It might have just been a coincidence, but...

  9. I, too, title once I'm finished with the poem. If I cannot think of a title, the poem gets filed in the "Waiting to Happen" file until one finds it. :) Love this discussion!

  10. When I write a poem or a short story (or a significant part of a novel in progress) the work emerges first, and a title comes afterward, usually quite rapidly, as soon as the poem is complete or near complete, or the first draft of a story or several novel chapters are written. I don't work for a title- it just comes to me, an "organic" process. Sometimes my titles become a preface to the poem, or a summation, and/or may be integral. They may extend the poem or short story in some way. They may repeat a key phrase or element. There is no one way they function for me. I can't always explain them, but they seem right. In your discussion, I like your example of Untitled coupled with a description. I think I maybe have done that a time or two. You've prompted me to want to check my titles and reflect, but not too much- For me, I think a good title emerges from the work, rather than structures it. But we all work in our own way. I love your titles, and how they work with your poems. You may remember I had suggested to you that you begin to title your poems, and I'm glad that you do! I think the right title almost always adds to a work.


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