April 12, 2016

Monday, March 12, 2012

Is the Title Important?

Kids often ask me if the title of a poem is important. Why can't a poem remain untitled? Why can't you just use the first line as a title?

For those students (I'm looking at you, Mr. O'Brien's Advanced Comp class) I thought I'd share this window into title-making and why the right title can play a crucial role in revision.

A very busy John Milton title page.

I started working on a new poem about eight months ago. It's about a bad word. Or, more exactly, about the day, in 7th grade, when the rumor that a certain bad word existed made its way down the halls of Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School.

It looks exactly like it did 30 years ago.

I'd always known I would write a poem about this word-rumor memory. Just the fact that I remembered that day so vividly, told me it was poem-worthy. But, it wasn't until my daughter started middle school that I felt ready to write.

The offending word does not appear in this post, or in the poem, which I think is a good thing. (In the poem, and in real life, the boys knew the word and would not tell it to the girls, because it was "too bad." What was important was not the word so much as who controlled its telling or not-telling.)

However, in the first few drafts, the title did refer to the word (by its first initial) and a disease. It was one of my worst-ever titles. Because of it, some references to doctors and diagnoses ended up in the poem.

I knew the title was awful. A few readings and drafts later, I tried a new one: "Vocabulary." It was simple and it put the focus on the poem's middle school setting.

Unfortunately, the health-care references stayed, because they felt clever (never a good sign). I did a few more readings, submitted the poem to two or three journals. At readings, it was received well. At journals, no luck.

Finally, this weekend, a brainstorm! How about a new title? "Language Arts." Without posting the whole poem, I'd like to show you how this title change affected two key sections of the poem.


Stanza 3
Boys pressed against the wall
in threes and fours, opposite
our teachers in their bright doors.

Language Arts

Stanzas 2-3
Boys pressed against the wall
in threes and fours, opposite

our Language Arts teacher,
languid in his bright door.

The new title allows me to specify which teacher. I made him languid, so he'd appear James Dean-like in his bright doorway. The symbolism of the back-lit, grown man in a doorway (to adulthood) was only hinted at before. Much stronger in the new version.


Stanzas 15-17

Robert’s hair is wavy.

He is the arbiter of dirty words.
A doctor who decides
which patients can take

the Latin terms
and whose diagnosis
to dumb down.

Language Arts

Stanzas 13-15

Robert, our instructor in the art

of dirty words, knows
who can handle profane terms
and whose vocab list

to dumb down.

This revision makes me want to jump up and down. Until I changed the title, I didn't see that the doctor/patient imagery was a holdover from the first drafts. It doesn't "go" with the poem. Robert as a teacher of language makes the backbone of the poem stronger, the overall theme tighter -- how we learn language and how words are used to put women "in their place," even in middle school.

I am busy making final selections for the Audacity issue of Little Patuxent Review this week. After that, I hope to send the newly revised poem out. Wish "Language Arts" luck!

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