P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.16 - September 2017
I’m a sucker for those anthologies you sometimes see gathering bad poems by good poets. When Dickinson describes a tiger’s eyes as “His Mighty Balls,” it’s hard not to giggle and wonder if that formidable woman ever learned the colloquial meaning of “balls.” And long before William Carlos Williams was writing chiseled modernist masterpieces, he was offering up half-baked and not too skillful Romantic fluff, rich with faded poeticisms like “Lo!” and “O,” and containing lines like “So art thou broken in upon me, Apollo” and “The loud clangor of pretenders / Melteth before you.” (These lines are not juvenilia: they appeared in book form when the poet was thirty years old.)
But it’s not just wicked fun to mock the famous. To witness how the peerless Dickinson occasionally wrote an awful line or to learn how long it took Williams to develop his mature style is inspiring, in its way. It lends hope to poets like me, way back in the cheap seats, to see how the immortal ones sometimes swing and miss, just as the rest of us do. Masterpieces don’t reliably arrive via inspiration; they occur, usually, via diligent and careful revision, and, yes, sometimes a bit of luck, which increases in frequency with practice. And even the best poets sometimes aren’t very good.
A particular category of nodding geniuses recently caused some lively discussion over at the Verse-Virtual Facebook page. I speak of titles, both for books and for individual poems. Turns out some very great poets have struggled to compose memorable or effective ones. Take Walt Whitman, for starters. Granted, “Song of Myself” is a truly splendid title, utterly unforgettable and pathbreaking and deeply interpretable; but did you know it took Walt twenty-six years to settle on this fabulous phrase? In the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 it was untitled. The next year he experimented with “Poem of Walt Whitman, An American,” a clumsy mouthful that even he must have realized was pretty bad. By 1860 he was calling his masterpiece simply “Walt Whitman,” which though dull at least has the virtue of being less awkward. In fact, it wasn’t until 1881 that he finally hit on the pitch-perfect title for this revolutionary piece, and it became “Song of Myself” at last.
Likewise, it’s fun to learn that the best title Whitman could think of, at first, for the wondrous “I Hear America Singing” was (I am not making this up), “American mouth-songs,” a title so tin-eared that it actually undercuts the musical theme of the poem. I’m kind of surprised I didn’t think of it myself, since I’m here to tell you that finding effective titles often gives me conniptions; my journal is sadly littered with embarrassing missteps. (No, I’m not in the mood to share any at this time. Buy me a beer, and maybe. . . .) Often I find myself settling for a flatly informative label, on the theory that it is better to be bland than unintentionally hilarious, as some of Whitman’s worst titles assuredly are. Who but old Walt would actually see into print titles like “Me Imperturbe,” “O Me! O Life!,” “On, on the Same, ye Jocund Twain,” or the mind-boggling doozy “O Hymen! O Hymenee!”? All of these were, I hasten to add, his final revisions. It really does offer mere mortals like myself some hope.
Whitman was also capable of more than his share of dull, schmaltzy, or vaguely abstract titles, such as “Life,” “Tears,” “Twilight,” and, so help me God, at least a half-dozen simply called “Thought.” Old Walt would have gotten seriously red-penciled in one of my poetry workshops for any one of these limp efforts. Even so he’s not in Frank O’Hara’s league for shameless sloth along these lines: by my count in his collected poems, O’Hara called no fewer than fifty-seven of his sparkling poems simply “Poem.” Alan Dugan did much the same in book form, each of his volumes being called, one after the other, Poems, followed by a number.
So there do seem to be at least two broad ways one can go wrong in titling: either by being dull or by attempting cleverness, which too often leads to unpronounceable, opaque, or unwittingly funny titles. The crucial problem, though, is that one person’s awkward embarrassment is another person’s quirky bit of genius. Gather any group of poets and ask them to name some favorite titles by other poets, and you’ll soon have an argument on your hands. Even more so if you ask for worst titles.
What do you make, for example, of Stephen Dobyns titling a book The Day's Last Light Reddens The Leaves Of The Copper Beech? My friend Eric Nelson hates it, and I tend to agree. It’s trying too hard to sound loftily poetic, in my view. As Eric says, it sounds like the worst sort of sentimental haiku. I sometimes wonder if we have Google and the internet to blame for what seems a proliferation of stridently odd and absurdly lengthy titles lately, such as Matthea Harvey’s Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form, which to my ears is god-awful, but I can imagine the author Googling the phrase and being pleased that no one in the history of the internet had ever employed such a sequence of words. It is original, I’ll give it that.
Another of my least favorite show-pony book titles is Hayden Carruth’s Tell Me Again How the White Heron Rises and Flies Across the Nacreous River at Twilight Toward the Distant Islands, which you only have to read aloud to feel the pretentious sound of someone who thinks a poet is no ordinary person and need not sound remotely like one. Maybe I’ve lived a sheltered life, but I don’t believe I have ever heard another human say aloud the word “nacreous,” come to think of it. (Carruth is a poet I dearly love, but he had trouble finding the sweet spot between flat and pretentiously baroque.) The late James Tate bestowed a number of oddball titles on his books, including The Oblivion Ha-Ha and Riven Doggeries, both of which illustrate that a title need not be lengthy to be confusing. When I asked Tate once what the latter phrase meant, he just grinned and said “shredded puppies!” Yet his first book’s title, The Lost Pilot, is in my view a classic of both clarity and evocativeness. It passes the jealousy test, in Seamus Heaney’s marvelous phrase.
Not that I haven’t been seduced by quirky titles in my day. I remember spending quite a lot of time when I was starting out as a poet just reading over Wallace Stevens’s table of contents. What wonders awaited me following titles like “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” “The Worms at Heaven’s Gate,” “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman,” “The Bird with the Coppery, Keen Claws,” or “Frogs Eat Butterflies. Snakes Eat Frogs. Hogs Eat Snakes. Men Eat Hogs”? Well, many of the poems were wonderful indeed, and their titles unforgettable. But I had to notice that sometimes the titles bore little relationship to the poems; and a high-spirited, jokey title seldom sat atop a funny poem, for reasons I could not fathom. Some titles remain opaque to this day, and at least one poem remains unreadable, due to the casual racism of its title (“Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery”), that casts a baleful light on more than just this single poem.
So personally, I prefer a generic but reasonably clear title to one that strains too much for clever or “poetic” strangeness. Except when I don’t (“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself”). For example, take Tony Hoagland. He's a poet I admire greatly, but his last two books have carried hard-to-remember jumbles as titles. First there was Unincorporated Persons In The Late Honda Dynasty, which I imagine was intended to be funny in his patented breezy manner, but which I find just strained, not to mention unmemorable (which is worse).
So then he followed that book with his latest, titled Application For Release From The Dream, which to me sounds like it was translated from a more graceful phrase in Greek or French. It also resembles a tin-eared parody of a DMV form, as I fear it was intended to. Ah, well. This from a poet who started out his career with the title Donkey Gospel, which I personally like--odd, unusual, multi-faceted yet easy to remember. And he has also published What Narcissism Means To Me, which is the kind of look-at-me wordplay that I typically loathe. But for some reason I do find that one genuinely both humorous and pointed. Go figure.
Not every title is going to be a stunner like Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” so simple & resonant; or Rich’s similarly brilliant Diving into the Wreck; or Milton’s unimprovable “Paradise Lost,” naturally. Readers have no right to expect that every title will be striking. Even so fine a poet as Robert Frost was prone to generic poem titles, such as “Directive,” "Mowing,“ “The Mountain,” or “The Fear.” We should even forgive Wordsworth for calling his magnum opus “The Prelude,” since it contains so much wonderful writing.
A common strategy, of course, is to borrow a title from an earlier poet or poem. Shakespeare is such a monumentally inventive phrase-maker that many poets have succumbed to such borrowings. I’ve always regretted that Proust’s English translator stole Shakespeare’s phrase “remembrance of things past” before I could use it myself for a poem. And some passages in Shakespeare have attracted multiple poets lifting gems—both Ronald Wallace’s The Uses of Adversity and my own “A Sermon in Stone,” for instance, come from the same much-quoted scene of As You Like It. Dickinson is similarly rich with inspiring phrases. I think of Carolyn Kizer’s book Mermaids in the Basement, for one example.
When I was teaching I was very critical of the common student habit of leaving poems untitled. I’ve never understood why so many young poets remained adamant about this affectation. It isn’t just laziness or lack of inspiration. What students often said was that they didn’t want to control a reader’s experience of the poem unduly; a title, in this view, was too directive. Hogwash, I say. A title can be too directive, sure; it can also be lame or redundant; but that just means it’s not the best title. A poor title doesn’t suggest that all titles are useless. There is a reason that newspaper stories all bear headlines, along with magazine articles, web pages, books, etc. Readers make choices about what to read, at least initially, from clues in the title or headline. Furthermore, a good title can not only intrigue and delight; it can, if you’re fortunate, offer ironic contrast, humor, symbolism, surprise, and more. Titling is one more tool in the toolbox. I don’t see the point of abandoning any opportunity to reach and move or maybe just inform your reader.
Yes, yes, it’s true, even the great Dickinson failed to title her poems. But I would say her poems are excellent despite the lack of titles, certainly not because of that fact. And besides, when a poem is left untitled its first line becomes the de facto title used in tables of contents and indexes. And Dickinson happened to be an absolute genius at first lines, from “Drowning is not so pitiful” through “This world is not conclusion” and on to “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” “I heard a Fly buzz when I died,” and “Because I could not stop for Death.” That’s what we call these poems, even if they are technically untitled. So leave your poems without titles, sure; just be sure you’re as good as Dickinson was at first lines. Or O’Hara, for that matter: we remember “Lana Turner has collapsed!” as a terrific title, even though it’s actually the first line of yet another “Poem.”
If I had to declare my deepest preference, I guess I’d go with something Eric Nelson also said. Like him, I’m very fond of simple, brief titles that nonetheless can be taken in more than one way, that resonate metaphorically or symbolically. Frost’s “Home Burial” would be one example—at the surface, a plain description of what happens in the poem, but at a deeper level, a suggestion that the poem will dramatize the symbolic burial of a marriage. Nelson’s own Some Wonder also fits the bill. Other book titles that work like this for me might include Lucille Clifton’s Good Times, Ted Kooser’s Weather Central, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Claiming Kin, Jim Harrison’s Saving Daylight, or Pattiann Rogers’s Geocentric.
I know that for some readers these titles will seem bland, but for me they still seem preferable to something like B.H. Fairchild’s Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest. I know it’s a risk to employ a common-as-dirt phrase, as Seamus Heaney does in calling a book Seeing Things; nonetheless for me the title resonates aptly with multiple meanings that are quite relevant to the book’s themes. I love it that “seeing things” can refer to at least three different states of mind: delusion (seeing things that aren’t there); spirituality (seeing things that are real but invisible, like God or the soul); and plain realism (seeing things in the sense of looking closely and appreciatively at the things of this world).
For me the possible multiple meanings add to the book’s impact. But if you want to take the title more at face value, the poet won’t object, and the book won’t suffer. To my mind, that’s the ideal situation.
© 2017 David Graham