A friend of mine recently chided her students on Facebook for having terrible titles. Things like "Seasons Passing," and "City Life," and "Today." How I remember swimming in those sorts of submissions--as a teacher, and now, as an editor. I can say with certainty that when I receive a packet of poems from a would-be Midway Journal contributor, if it has a sequence of painful titles, a great majority of the time, the poems are awful too, and I dig into the submission with trepidation.
I remember having a discussion in my thesis workshop about titling and how sometimes a title can feel more like a label than an actual title.
And I thought, what a fantastic opportunity for a lesson plan for my friend. And here I am, a teacher not teaching (or rather, a teacher with a single pupil, who is quite good at making poetic connections in this world, but mostly just good at coloring on things she's not supposed to color on), and I thought I would share some ideas on how one might talk to students about the crucial act of titling a poem (and how we, as poets, recognize how very mind numbingly full of pressure that can be).
1. The title that takes care of expository information so the poem doesn't have to clunk around with it:
- "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" by James Wright
- "I Go Back to May 1937" by Sharon Olds
- "Negroes Lie on Top of Weakening Levee and Save Day Near Greenville, MS" by TJ Jarrett
- "Traver K Sutton Will Write Letters to His Wife" by Molly Sutton Kiefer
2. Even titles that seem like labels can enhance the meaning of a poem:
- "Red Slippers" by Amy Lowell
3. Poems with titles that, without said titles, a piece of vital information would be missing
- "Mushrooms" by Sylvia Plath
4. Titles that have a double meaning or find other methods to otherwise give depth to a poem. I recently finished Sharon Olds' Stag's Leap, the title poem of which refers to both the wine, whose label is on the very cover, and her husband, who she compares to the stag on the label, and whose leaving is the springboard for much of the book.
- "The Cord" by Leanne O'Sullivan
5. Some titles are springboards right into the meat of the poem.
- "Emily Dickinson's To-Do List" by Andrea Carlisle
6. Some titles will help the poem itself become ingrained in memory. I think to Matthea Harvey's first book, Pity the Bathtub and Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form. Every time I hear the phrase, "Bathing the New Born," which is such a simple title but exactly right, I begin to recite the poem in my mind. More from the bathroom: "Bathing in the Burned House" by Karen Rigby.
I'd suggest to my students, for homework, to find a poem like this and bring it in to share next class.
As of this posting, this list is incomplete, and I invite comments to more poem suggestions and reasoning for title attention.