My grateful thanks go to James for publishing it in Mimesis, a magazine which sadly doesn't still appear to be active.
What's In A Title?
A title is a title is a title. Right? It’s a simple framing device, a doorway into the world of the poem. The title of a poem is the ‘in’ just as the last line is the ‘out’. It’s about yin and yang. What else is there to say on the subject?
Perhaps you’ve read the occasional theory on this, thought about it in passing, frowned over an inapposite choice, made the right one unerringly yourself - or made the wrong one and been unable to do a thing about it. All of which suggests that it’s not so simple. That maybe a title is rather more than a doorway and a framing device, that maybe there’s something compulsive and instinctual about the selection of a title, something deeply linked to the poem’s psyche.
In exploring this question further, I don’t intend to look at the titles of collections in this context, because those serve a different overall purpose than the simple poem title. Instead, to kick off the discussion, here are some of the words, phrases and images that occurred to me when playing around with the basic question, ‘How to define the title of a poem?’
Amongst other things, the title of a poem is a handle; a moniker; an entrance; an epiphany; an overview; a hinge; a first glimpse of the narrator; an illustration; a cover blurb; a foreword; a container; a puzzle; a mnemonic; a dreamscape; a proto-metaphor; a clue; a red herring; an impression; a surname; a signpost; a subtext; a précis; a brochure; a ritual; a contract; an escape clause; a souvenir; a programme; a translation; a polyglot; a market stall; an all-you-can-eat buffet; a description; a label; a magician’s hat; the secret name of the muse; an asylum; a safe house: a double entendre; an invocation; a spell; a charm; a warning; a skeleton key; a portmanteau; a joke; a mystery; a gesture; a flashlight; a tablecloth; a plot; a deception; a cast list; a question; an answer; a command; a suggestion; a conundrum; a kiss; a sword; a formula; a surprise.
Let’s unpack some of those, and bring in examples to help with that process. I’m going to choose most of these examples at random, by scanning down the contents lists of collections near my desk in search of titles which might illustrate some of the phrases above, but a few of these titles were already in my mind when I sat down to write this short essay.
1. Ted Hughes: Examination at the Womb-door2. Tobias Hill: A Bowl of Green Fruit3. Jacob Polley: Votive4. Joanne Limburg: The Fall5. Alice Oswald: Dunt6. Ezra Pound: In a Station of the Metro7. Don Paterson: The Forest of the Suicides8. Jane Griffiths: Travelling Light9. Catherine Smith: The World is Ending Pass the Vodka10. Sylvia Plath: Lady Lazarus11. David Morley: To Feed the Dead Who Would Come Disguised as Birds12. U.A. Fanthorpe: Not My Best Side13. Moniza Alvi: I Would Like To Be a Dot in a Painting by Miro14. Geoffrey Hill: Ovid in the Third Reich15. Stevie Smith: Not Waving but Drowning16. Katy Evans-Bush: The Life Mask17. Vicki Feaver: The Gun18. Elizabeth Bishop: At the Fishhouses
This first title, Ted Hughes’ ‘Examination at the Womb-door’, may be comic (who gets quizzed whilst being born, after all?) but in the context of the poem is actually quite a straightforward title. It comes early on in his macabre 1970 sequence Crow and does more or less what it says on the tin, though with the usual Hughes twist: ‘Who owns these scrawny little feet? Death./Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death.’ So this title comes under the following headings: first glimpse of the narrator; a joke; a gesture; a ritual; a (literal, here) entrance; a cast list; a conundrum. Entertaining, yes, and ironic too, but not particularly layered with mystery and potential. Indeed, Hughes rarely does the heavily-laden poem title. He tends to present a bare-looking stall; you only see the rich and strange when you stop to ‘examine’ it.
Joanne Limburg’s ‘The Fall’ looks far more promising. So little is given for us to work on, yet paradoxically so much; immediately we need to ask questions, begin to whittle down the possibilities. Is this poem about the past or future? Is it about one person? (An incompetent mountaineer, for instance.) Or is it a biblical reference, encompassing all of humankind? Or perhaps it’s the American term for autumn and we should expect something Keatsian here from Limburg. With ‘The Fall’, we can’t choose between options until we start reading, so this title must be, variously, a subtext; a magician’s hat; a double entendre; a mystery; a tablecloth; a question.
So now categories of poem are beginning to emerge from the earlier list of possibilities. Some titles are straightforward; they describe the contents of the poem in an - apparently - unmetaphorical manner. Others provide a more oblique approach; they suggest rather than describe, leaving interpretation up to the reader.In the first category, we could at first glance put Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘At the Fishhouses’, Catherine Smith’s ‘The World is Ending Pass the Vodka’ and Tobias Hill’s ‘A Bowl of Green Fruit’.
But no, you start reading, and even Hill’s innocent-sounding title, so reminiscent of a still life painting, proves deceptive: new love turns out to be like unripe fruit, and lovers must wait patiently for it to mature, for ‘kisses//sweetening in our mouths,/ the hearts softening,/the riddles undoing themselves.’ By golly, it was a metaphor!
How about Oswald’s ‘Dunt’, then? The name of a river - like her long poem ‘Dart’ - this one has got to be straightforward description. And so it could be. Except that it’s such a short, hard name, Dunt. Reminds me of ‘dunce’ or ‘don’t’ or ‘shunt’ or ... other similar words. And somehow the poem itself can’t get started, anymore than the river can get flowing. It stutters. It repeats itself. It bangs up against the intractable, like a ram obstinately headbutting a fence pole. ‘Try again,’ it orders us (or the river, or the poet). Like a poor page upload or an engaged telephone line. ‘Try again.’
So even what seems like a straightforward name-as-title - here, ‘Dunt’ - may actually be working hand-in-hand with the poem that follows it as a proto-metaphor, its impact based on sound and repetition; a subtext; a charm; a ritual; the secret name of the muse; a cast list; a command.
The second category, that of the slippery or suggestive oblique, is easier to fill. Poetry abounds with such titles, being a medium perfectly adapted to the metaphorical. Here we might put Jacob Polley’s ‘Votive’, Jane Griffiths’ potentially straightforward ‘Travelling Light’ (reminiscent perhaps of Don Paterson’s pun-based ‘Landing Light’) and ‘Not My Best Side’ by U.A. Fanthorpe. We could hazard a guess at what’s going on here, judging by these titles, but even our best guesses would lack substance. Because of their slippery nature, it’s impossible to get a proper grasp on the poem from such titles; first the poem has to be read, and understood, and then the title can be returned to, for re-evaluation, to add an extra dimension to the reading experience.
Some extremely oblique titles, however, are rather good at conjuring up the world of the poem without presenting the poem itself. Try Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving but Drowning’. The poem is hilarious and poignant and hugely memorable. Yet you could actually imagine all of it simply by concentrating on the title alone; the title is so brilliantly comprehensive, the poem itself is almost superfluous to requirements. So ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ is an all-you-can-eat buffet; a précis; a portmanteau; a label; a mnemonic; a joke; an illustration.There is a third category though, which seems to straddle the other two: the semi-metaphor or false-friend. This is the deceptive title, the one which appears to be leading you in one direction, and indeed may do so to a certain extent, but then suddenly you find yourself in an unexpected place, without the guidebook or companions you were expecting. Titles from the list above which might fall into this category include Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’ and Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’. You could even slip Vicki Feaver’s ‘The Gun’ in there too.
In Plath’s poem, her shining energies and serial poetic violences wipe away the comfortable Biblical reference to Lazarus redivivus, leaving the reader disturbed and off-balance. Ezra Pound’s apparently straightforward ‘In a Station of the Metro’ would seem to promise a realistic, peopled, urban poem - and indeed gives us one, but packed into very few words; an impressionistic snapshot of modern life, taken with a soft focus lens.
And Feaver’s simple ‘The Gun’ might suggest something politically correct, or perhaps tragic, the accident or act of violence that ruined someone’s life; instead, the poem seems almost to revere the power of the gun itself, and its ability to change our lives with the mere fact of its presence. Is Feaver playing devil’s advocate here? The title gives us no clues; only reading the poem line-by-line may bring us to a deeper understanding of its purpose. Such a title, highlighting some elements whilst missing vital others, apparently friendly but designed to trip us up or lead us astray, is a magician’s hat; an asylum; a red herring; a warning; a gesture; a flashlight; a deception; an escape clause; a sword; a surprise.What difference does the category of a title make to us as readers? The ‘in’ of a title can be a critical aid when the poem itself is fairly opaque - a clue, thank god! - or a delightful provocation when the poem seems at first glance suspiciously simple. It is also a way for the poet to make first contact with the reader.
For instance, on reading a playful or ironic, tongue-in-cheek title like Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ or Moniza Alvi’s ‘I Would Like To Be a Dot in a Painting by Miro’, you know instantly that you are to be entertained as well as sung to. That this is not merely a joke, but the title as first glimpse of the narrator; a signpost; a brochure; a market stall; a safe house; an answer; a kiss.The title, then, is a pact with the reader (though some pacts - as we have seen above - are based on a relationship of deception, often by prior arrangement if the poet is well-known for such trickery). But the metaphorical is more satisfying, on the whole, than the straightforward and the downright deceptive. After all, if we wanted to read something simple and self-explanatory, we would hardly be turning to poetry for that experience.
And as poets, of course, a substantial number of us like to butter our own egos with the more slippery title, with references that demonstrate our wide reading and metaphors that challenge the reader to play catch-up.
For where there’s no mystery, there’s no allure. Right?So we might see ‘The Forest of the Suicides’ on a contents list and wonder, is Don Paterson about to entertain us, depress us, frighten us, or leave us none the wiser? Here, the title tantalises and suggests. It paints half a picture: the poem completes it. Katy Evans-Bush gives us ‘The Life Mask’ and we think, yes! before even turning to it, the metaphor is so powerful.
And what of David Morley’s eloquent but mysterious ‘To Feed the Dead Who Would Come Disguised as Birds’? Here we find the poem as epiphany; a puzzle; a dreamscape; a polyglot; a spell; a cast list; a conundrum.But the title remains a viable entrance to the poem throughout its various, deceptive changes of appearance and purpose. The best titles are linked symbiotically to the poem which they open; with these, poem and handle exist side-by-side with complete naturalness and no amount of imagining could bring a reader, once familiar with that poem, to think of it with an alternate title.
When everything is working in harmony, the title as doorway to the poem is greater than itself; in other words, like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, the good title is bigger on the inside than the outside. (It may even travel in time.) So always stop and examine it. To neglect the potential significance of a title, to read it in haste or forget to glance at it on your way in, is to enter the poem not only without knocking, but without any idea of what you may find there.
And with good poetry, that might just prove dangerous.