Before graduate school, I didn’t give much thought to titling my poems. I titled them, but haphazardly, almost as an afterthought. But once in graduate school, one of my poetry teachers stressed the importance of our titles, and suggested that after we’d written a poem, that we start listing as many possible titles as we could think of at the top of the page, just before the poem began. She said to list them indiscriminately. Initially this exercise in titling should be something like freewriting, my teacher said: just get the ideas out, and make sense of them later. At first, I found the process tiresome, and annoying, if I’m honest. I figured the poem was done, so why did I have to spend all this time with titles?
But I persisted, and what I realized as I listed title possibilities was that what I was actually doing was asking myself what the point of the poem was. I was asking what the crux of it was, what the main message was. And sometimes if I couldn’t boil it down, or come up with more than a couple of ideas, the poem was bad. Not unsalvageable, but not quite right: in need of revision. The process of titling became part of my process of revision.
I soon learned that titles are important. Whether you write novels, poetry, plays, or short stories, the title of your piece is the first thing the reader will see. The title is often the determining factor as to whether the potential reader will read further. Sure, the cover may have something to do with propelling the reader onward, but often it’s the title you judge a book by.
Shakespeare wrote: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but this logic does not apply to titling your creative work. A title by any other name does not smell as sweet. Or to put it another way: a bad title does not coax a reader onward. A bad title is the equivalent to a bleach smell at a restaurant: off-putting and uninviting.
The title is the entry point, the way into the piece. With poetry, the title is often the key to unlock the mystery of the poem, the last puzzle piece that completes the picture. The title might be a single word that pinpoints the topic of the poem. The title might be a line from the poem itself; maybe even the first line, as is often seen with Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The title might be a few key words found sprinkled throughout the poem. The title may, seemingly, have nothing to do with the poem at all. The title might lead into an epigraph: a quote that inspired the poem in some way. The title might lead directly into the first line of the poem by starting a sentence that the next line finishes. There are many ways to skin a cat, as they say, and of course, as with any other aspect of writing, this engenders a certain amount of self-doubt. With all these possibilities, how can you possibly choose the best one?
Despite the self-doubt, lately I’m in favor of one word titles. I never much liked this strategy before, seeing it as somewhat lazy. But in the ever-constant pursuit of clarity and economy in my writing (keeping poets like Kay Ryan and Louise Gluck at the forefront of my mind), I am playing around with this approach. I’m keeping in mind this idea of the title being a key to unlock the heart of the poem, and that the key can be simple: one groove, one tooth.
Of course, choosing just one word can be daunting. What if that word doesn’t do it for the reader, both in terms of beckoning the reader onward or in terms of unlocking the message? Wouldn’t more words result in better odds?
Still, the one word title is a worthy challenge. I suppose it’s an exercise in sparseness, but in vulnerability, too. Sometimes those extra words give too much padding, too much obfuscation. Sometimes, it’s interesting to see if you can boil all your other words down to one, to see if it beckons, to see if it’s sweet enough.