here's some regular business in the titling of a poem or any other piece of writing, some guessable things--in a title, for example, one might say what the piece is about, take the most important idea, use the strongest line.  Business like that.  This generalized approach works all right and it's in evidence most of the time.  But this passive strategy seems not altogether full of the energy that presumably goes into the writing of the poem itself, and this bears some real consideration.  A good poem, after all, deserves a good title.  Any good piece of writing deserves a good title, a worthy title.

Does a piece start with a title, or does one put the title on afterward?  Does it matter?  Isn't the matter more whether or not the title is a good title?  The only rule is perhaps the slapping-on rule--how good is a slapped on title?  Maybe very good.  Are you a betting person?  But are there better approaches, some other rules?  How does one begin to talk about titles--and do we use the same critical vocabulary as we do with regard to the poem, and do we have expectations of a title?  A title, after all, represents a poem, and often when the poem is not there, as in tables of contents and in conversations and so on.  The title is frequently all that we know--we know many more titles than the actual pieces they name.  And what about duplicate, and triplicate titles--those titles that seem like such a good idea at the time, but which also seemed like a good idea to hundreds of others, such as "Love."  Or "My Mother."  You know.

There's not much guidance in the how-to literature out there.  The matter seems left to intuition, to the "felt" sensibilities, to luck.  But this is both cynical and joyless.  For as much as there is to be said about writing poems, there ought to be some trickle-up theory, some job for the title beyond simply where to put it.

In his poem "Bestiary For the Fingers of My Right Hand," Charles Simic ascribes animal-like characteristics to each of his fingers.  In describing the thumb, he says something to the effect of, if it gets cut off, don't worry.  The thumb, that thing that separates us from the animals, it's tough, it'll take care of itself, it'll go hunting with the wolves.

What has always intrigued me is that the Simic poem goes with the thumb, whereas I, identifying with the human being, might have gone with the bleeding body, and said "ouch."  But because I've been haunted by this poem, it's gone on to greater purpose for me, and gives me a starting point for discussing the titling of poems, or titling in literature generally.  The Simic poem in this way serves, as Neruda once said, as an object lesson for all troubled lyricists.

If a title gets cut off from a poem, I'm saying, it ought to be tough.  It ought to be able to take care of itself.  It ought to be able to go hunting with the wolves.  But where do we find a title like that, one that won't whimper away into the forest to die?  And even if we don't like the metaphor of toughness, how do we at least help our poems find their singularity without giving away the poem?

Well, of course, if I could answer that I'd be rich.  There is no one answer, but I don't despair in that knowledge.  There are, I think, answers that begin the process of finding an answer, that point us in the right way.

For me, I can think of no more total sense of being lost than being at sea without any familiar landmark in sight.  Still, as human beings, we have through the centuries found our way.  The ancient mariners used a rough instrument in their travels, a thing imperfect but serviceable: the old sextant.  This instrument fell historically in between the more imperfect astrolabe and the near-infallible computer.

This led to the field of nautical astronomy, and to the point I'd like to offer.  Nautical astronomy is defined as
the science of locating oneself on the sea.  Nautical astronomy uses a method of triangulation to locate, based on an absolute, fixed point; a relative point; and a measurement of the relationship between the first two.

The absolute is the stellar body that is fixed, such as the commonly used North Star.  We know where it is and what it is; we don't argue about it; presumably, any one of us can find it.

The relative is the floating horizon.  We know approximately where it is and what it is; we know which way to look; though the ship is moving, we can guess the point of horizon and with some accuracy.

The third factor is the quirky, the measurement of relationship: this is the x-factor, the imperfect person making these judgments.  This is the individual contribution, the thing that any other person might do altogether differently; this is the thing we can't guess, the thing we don't know, and the thing we can't approximate.

The absolute, the relative, and the quirky--together, playfully and usefully, they are a good gang, and serve as one good chart for titling poems.  This work of considering a title is something of the mythical
craft to which we as artists are always referring--The Thing, once built, that is strong enough to float, even without us, but always for us.  It does not by itself accomplish the task; rather, it enables accomplishment.  It is how we get from here to there.

This triangulation process for the sake of locating a starting point--with which we must then do something--is used in various fields.  In American Sign Language, for example, there is a process of
location (fixed point), orientation (moveable point), and movement (the x-factor).  Dance, physics, and many more disciplines have these same familiars.  None of them make or are the moment; they simply start or enable the moment, or are at very least a starting point.  This serves as a good description for the job of a title.

This process of titling, of course, might equally serve as a description of what a good poem itself does--that it locates, that it fixes on a point, that it informs.  In this sense, a title ought equally to be addressed as poetry, and not as something other, not something less and not something more than the poem, or the line of a poem.

All of this is not to say that each title requires three tangible components, three up-front words, or some narrative vastness.  It is simply how the title can and ought to add up.

For example, two words might go together in such a powerful fashion that a third point is
implied.  This could be similar to Andre Breton's notations on Surrealism, in which the juxtaposition of two dissimilar things invokes a third plane of existence: a third reality, a more real reality, a surreality--something composed equally of the waking and the dream world, in order to allow some life--some reality--to the juxtaposition.  An "avocado sidewalk," for instance, requires the rational world understanding of "avocado" and of "sidewalk," but also requires the dream world, the world of the imagination, to allow the juxtaposition: we have never seen an avocado sidewalk, but once the words find each other we can imagine such a thing.

Let me also add the caution that we should not be fooled by words that seem to mean nothing--words are incapable of that.  So, when we see the poem, for example, called "Untitled Poem #12," we are, in fact, seeing a more or less successful title, comprised of the three energizing factors: the absolute "#12"; the arguable or negotiable "poem"; and the personal or quirky "untitled," since "untitled" itself is, of course, a title, and so reveals itself.  Now, I didn't say I had to like the title, but there you are.

This process doesn't tell us where we've been, or where we are going; it simply tells us where we are.  It locates.  It grounds (or it seas!).  That is the first work.  There is other work, certainly, but locating is a first work, and the why, of a title.  It is the thumb doing what it must finally do: help when it can, which is often enough.  It's not a decoration attached to the hand, no matter how attractive and manicured.  And an absent thumb: well, picking up the glass of iced tea becomes a more difficult act.

Finally, and of course, you don't need to do any of this--as long as you're finding and using something equal to it.  And I do not for a moment exclude in these suggestions the sensibilities of an internal geography.  But wherever you decide to look, make sure that you do.


Alberto Ríos
Department of English
Box 870302
Arizona State University
Tempe AZ 85287-0302
(480) 965-3800
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Date last modified:
Monday, May 27, 2002