Tuesday, July 30, 2013

To the Lighthouse: The Art of Titling

First with the jokes:

[Let] us consider for a moment the functions of some particular conventions of titling a poem. We may take as a text to start with a well-known literary joke about titles. In Through the Looking Glass, the White Knight’s reading of the parody of Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence” is introduced by an exchange which has been frequently commented upon by logicians as an example of a set of meta-languages, in this case names, names of names, names of names of names, etc. The White Knight announces at first that

“The name of the song is called ‘Haddocks’ Eyes.’”
“Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?” Alice said, trying to feel interested.
“No, you don’t understand,” the Knight said, looking a little vexed. “That’s what the name is called. The name really is ‘The Aged, Aged Man.’”
“Then I ought to have said ‘That’s what the song is called?’”
Alice corrected herself.
“No, you oughtn’t: that’s quite another thing! The song is called ‘Ways and Means’: but that’s only what it’s called, you know!”
“Well, what is the song then?” said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.
“I was coming to that,” the Knight said. “The song really is ‘A-sitting on a Gate’: and the tune’s my own invention.”

(excerpted from Chapter X, “Haddocks’ Eyes”: A Note on the Theory of Titles, Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form by John Hollander. In her award-wining book, The Title to the Poem, Anne Ferry states that

John Hollander’s richly suggestive proposal for the study of the titles for shorter poems, “’Haddocks’ Eyes’: A Note on the Theory of Titles.” What Hollander outlines is the possibility of ordering titles in a “spectrum along the axis from redundancy -- what he calls “neutral” titles, which merely name the formal kind and perhaps the topic of the poem -- “to maximum informativeness” -- such as Stevens’s titles, which seem to be an integral part of his poems (p.8)

By the way, John Hollander is known for his one-line, two-word definition poem below:

A One-Line Poem: The Universe.  (Rhyme’s Reason, p.12)

Hollander effectively utilizes the title and successfully elevates the poem to a metaphysical level)

Passion by Chen-ou Liu
for Billy Collins

half a haiku
the morning
already ancient

I wake from my nap screaming. In the dream, my half-naked poem is nailed to the cross, surrounded by a cheering crowd. A critic begins beating it with a hose, trying to torture a confession of its meaning from it. My poem cries out in anguish.

midnight moon
the only thing moving
my right hand

A Hundred Gourds, 2:2, March 2013

Then comes the heavy stuff:

Titology 101:

By taking a line from the poem text  to use as a title, the poet runs the risk of weakening the power of the line.

The literary title fills various functions resulting from diverse considerations. One simple function is identification. In addition to this,  "any literary title has a dimension of focusing, summarizing, and representing.” (Taha, p.66). Academically speaking, Harry Levin is the first person who treated this topic using the generic term “titology” (“The Title as a Literary Genre,” Modern Language Review, 72, 1977, xxiii – xxxv), and Anne Ferry’s  award-winning book, The Title to the Poem, is the first scholarly work dedicated to the “theoretical, critical, and historical exploration of the traditions for titling shorter poems by British and American poets from the beginnings of printing to the present. The first six chapters are distinguished according to the nature of the question a reader might ask about the poem, which the title purports to answer. Who gives the title? Who has the title? Who "says" the poem? Who "hears" the poem? What genre does the poem belong to? What is the poem "about"? There are complex relationships between what titles purport to tell and what they actually tell, and this is true not only of titles so worded that they demand interpretation, but also of those that appear straightforward. Though the choice of examples aims at range and variety, certain British and American poets have been exceptionally influential in their contributions to the course of titling in English, so their work receives special and repeated attention here.” (book summary, Stanford University Press)

According to John Hollander’s critical study, modern poems become extremely short and seem generally inventive. The role of the title increases in importance (p. 224). “The rhetorical of the title -- not merely what it directs the audience’s attention to, but how, and with what gestures (flourish? jab? insinuation? deadpan pseudo-labeling ? etc.) it does the directing?” (p. 225)

Finally, today’s food for thought:

Dish 1: 2012 Haiku Society of America Haibun Contest

First Prize: Phases by Tom Painting

Forty years ago, right after the breakup, I cut her out of the photo and  then rounded the edges to make it appear complete. The other day I showed it to my students. One said he bet I had a lot of girlfriends. Yeah, but not the one I wanted.

nightcap the hazy moon

Second Prize: Say Summer by Michele Root-Bernstein
And there passes in front of my inner eye a bird's view of the backyard where I grew up. In the early 1950's my parents purchased a small concrete home in a new subdivision built on the former estate of a grand Philadelphia family. At the top of our road stood the towering entrance gates to the mansion that lay crumbling on a farther hill. Between those two pillars of decayed opulence, I inhabited another wealth, the kind a child makes of a small rectangular piece of land, limned by chain link fence and honeysuckle vines. Say summer and the cut grass stains the feet green. Say summer and bees buzz in the clover. If only I had a bee of my very own, I might live just there on the rolling cusp of its drawn-out drone. I hunker by the pinkest white clover I can find, ready with a small plastic tub to trap the plumpest bumblebee, ready, too, for the chance of its sting.

safe beneath the picnic table
the lightning in me

Third Prize: Dragons Live Forever by Terri L. French

My father reclines in his La-Z-Boy, the afghan pulled up over his head like a burial shroud. His lighter, ashtray, cigarettes, inhaler and oxygen tank are within reach. His nicotine-stained fingers—the color of sausages gone bad—twitch as he dreams.

He is 8-years old, behind the barn with his cousins Donny and Marvin in Yale, Michigan. Donny, three years his senior, clumsily rolls a cigarette, mimicking the moves of their grandfather. He licks the paper and pulls a piece of tobacco from his tongue, flicking it to the ground. Donny hands the gnarled thing to Marvin, the second oldest, who lights it. He takes a puff but doesn't inhale. He hands the cig to my dad who inhales deeply, filling his 8-year-old lungs. He doesn't cough. He exhales slowly and smiles.

My father awakens, turns off the oxygen tank and reaches for his cigarettes. The smoke fills his 72-year old lungs. He exhales, coughs, and reaches for his inhaler.

autumn mist
mom changes the ending
of the fairy tale
(note: you can see all the winning haibun here) 

Judge’s (Roberta Beary’s) Comments:

I looked for a title which added texture,... (note: this means the title is effectively utilized)

The title, "Phrases," can be interpreted in at least two ways. There is the phrase of young love, "he/she is just going through a phrase;" there is the phrase of the moon, which is also echoed in the haiku...(note: the title is effectively utilized to elevate this "relationship haibun" to a metaphoric level)  

The alliterative title of the second-place winner, "Say Summer" leads the reader into the haibun. From there the prose draws the reader in deeper, Grammar rules do not apply here. The writing flows and takes the reader along for the ride... (note: this run-on, alliterative  title successfully sets the seasonal context, which is infused with emotion, and the mood , for the poem)

When I read the title of this haibun, I immediately remembered the song by Peter, Paul, and Mary, "Puff the Magic Dragon" with its refrain, "A dragon lives forever but not so little boys."... In "Dragons Live Forever" the title, prose, and haiku complement one another... (note: you can read the full text of the judge’s comments here)

Dish 2:  2012 Snapshot Press eChapbook Awards

Lifting the Towhee’s Song by Beverly Acuff Momoi. Snapshot Press, 2012. eChapbook, 26 pp. Free and available online at http://goo.gl/3Ijy7

There is no comment made by the judge and editor, John Barlow. 

Below is excerpted from my review, On Beverly Acuff Momoi's Lifting the Towhee’s Song, which was published in Haibun Today, 7:2, June 2013

Beverly Acuff Momoi’s Lifting the Towhee’s Song, a 2011 Snapshot Press eChapbook Award winner, is a collection of 19 haibun “written in the weeks after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan . . . . The chapbook began two weeks after the initial disaster, moving between California and Fukushima, what [she] heard on the news and what [she] learned from [her] family.”1 ...

However, the poet pays little attention to the functional roles played by a poem’s title. The titles of these 19 haibun, except that of the opener, are taken directly from their prose or haiku. All of them are not fully utilized. For example, in the following three short haibun, I don’t see any thing beneficial by using titles that are the lines taken from their poem texts.

        Savage Spring

        In California, the poppies are brilliant this year. I have been so lost in grief, then suddenly this wild swath of life. I see them as if for the first time, golden faces turned to the heavens.

        savage spring
        a single mud-stained photograph
        of her three-year-old

        How the Bamboo Bends

        April 11, 2011. 02:46 p.m. Throughout Japan, sirens. Then silence. How to endure this endless grief.

        this precarious spring
        see how the bamboo bends

        Golden Week

        It’s the start of Golden Week in Japan, and all the trains are crowded. My husband waits in line for over an hour to get a ticket on the Shinkansen. Everyone is going home.

        last day of April
        returning to Fukushima
        for the funeral

In the poems above, every line could have been fully utilized to increase the impact of a poem. Below are two fine examples by Charles Simic and Joseph Stroud respectively that can help make my point:

        Slaughterhouse Flies

        Evenings, they ran their bloody feet
        Over the pages of my schoolbooks.
        With eyes closed, I can still hear
        The trees on our street
        Saying a moody farewell to summer,

        And someone, under our window, recalling
        The silly old cows hesitating,
        Growing suddenly suspicious
        Just as the blade drops down on them.

Without the first word in the title, this image-dense poem could be easily misunderstood as a flight of poetic fantasy. Simic’s title helps the reader to figure out the context and setting, making the opening image visually and psychologically more appealing.

        And I raised my hand in return

        Every morning for two weeks on my walk into the village
        I would see the young goat on the grassy slope above the stream.
        It belonged to the Gypsies who lived in the plaza below the castle.
        One day on my walk back to the mill house I saw the little goat
        hanging from a tree by its hind legs, and a Gypsy was pulling
        the skin off with a pair of pliers which he waved to me in greeting.

Stroud's skillful use of the title as the speaker's response to the events portrayed in the poem is emotionally effective, and his title can be read as the conclusion of the poem, and is therefore part of the poem itself.

In this collection of 19 haibun there are five titles repeating the words or phrases in the opening sentence, such as "Waiting for Gas," from "I sit in a queue two-cars deep, waiting for gas"; "Shudders’" from "My mother shudders at the first whisper of wind"; "Shigata Ga Nai," from "Shigata ga nai"; "Asleep’" from "Every night now I fall asleep with the television on"; "Golden Week," from "It’s the start of Golden Week in Japan, and all the trains are crowded." This shows that the poet doesn’t recognize the corresponding relationship of the title to its haibun. Take “Shigata Ga Nai,” for example. The use of a run-on title can increase the thematic and emotive impact of this repeated phase at the end of the prose.

Most importantly, paying little attention to the functional roles that can be played by a poem’s title is not an individual, but a communal problem. It’s not uncommon in prominent haiku/tanka-related journals to read a haiku/tanka sequence (of nine to 25 lines) or a short haibun whose title is taken directly from a line of its poem text. Now, I think it is time for the haiku/tanka community to think about the creative use 6 of the title in a poem in order to increase its thematic and emotive impact.

(note 6: 6. One of the most skillfully utilized titles I've known of is Ginsberg's "Written in My Dream by W. C. Williams." The form of this brilliantly-crafted poem, line breaks, and sentiments are his response to and elaboration of Williams's "The Locust Tree in Flower." In his allusive title, Ginsberg acknowledges dual authorship and presents his poem as a tribute to his friend and mentor, W. C. Williams (Herbert Kohl, A Grain of Poetry, pp. 54-7). For further discussion on this neglected issue and more examples, please see my “To the Lighthouse” post, entitled “The Title of a Poem Should Never Be Ignored "


Anne Ferry, The Title to the Poem, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996.

John Hollander, Vision and Resonance : Two Senses of Poetic Form, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985. 2nd ed.

Ibrahim Taha. The Power of the Title: Why Have You Left the Horse Alone by Mahmud Darwish, Journal of Arabic and Islamic, III, 2000, pp. 66-83.  Unicode version.

(Abstract: This article deals with various functions of the title of Darwish's collection Why Have You Left the Horse Alone in three different contexts: as an independent and separate text; in relation to the poem in which it originally appeared; and in relation to all the poems in the collection. Our case discussion shows that the interpretation of the title means in fact a discussion of the entire text, or rather of all these texts. It also shows that the question/title has equally informative, rhetorical, provocative, and communicative facets, and as such our discussion grants it great summarizing and representational power. When all this power is given to the title as pre-text, it in essence also makes the title a post-text. Note: Mahmud Darwish (13 March 1941 – 9 August 2008), one of my favorite writers,  was "a Palestinian poet and author who won numerous awards for his literary output and was regarded as the Palestinian national poet.In his work, Palestine became a metaphor for the loss of Eden, birth and resurrection, and the anguish of dispossession and exile. He has been described as an incarnation of the traditional political poet in Islam." -- excerpted from the Wikipedia entry, Mahmud Darwish )


  1. Regarding the first literary joke about titling:

    While logicians might observe that there is a confusion of use and mention in the last case (the song, after all, can be only what it is, and cannot be said to be its name or even one of them) I should like to point out that Lewis Carroll selected his four successive titles from four quite different conventions of naming shorter poems. The first of these (“what the name of the song is called”) is “Haddocks’ Eyes,” or what we might call an essential title. From the long list of the old man’s improbable modes of self-employment one item is taken to stand for the whole, and the Haddocks’ Eyes are a symbol of his endeavors:

    He said, “I hunt for haddocks, eyes
    Among the heather bright,
    And work them into waistcoat-buttons
    In the silent night.
    And these I do not sell for gold
    Or coin of silvery shine,
    But for a copper halfpenny
    And that will purchase nine.

    This first mode of titling reflects the modern convention of plucking from a fiction—usually a short story or a Broadway drama—either the name of a symbol patently at work in it, or of a passing utterance, lit up in momentary epiphany simply by being so used, in order to entitle the work, it will be noticed that such an act of displacing can both seem to underline the significance of the name or phrase and to create some initial suspense about how and why the work was so entitled—in fact, about what the title convention indeed has been.

    Let's proceed to the others. "The name of the song" itself, "The Aged, Aged Man," identifies its subject and calls more attention than do the others to the poem's narrative frame... "Ways and Means" ("what the song is called") underlies a topic and moralizes upon the whole confrontation in a stolidly pragmatic manner... Finally, "A-Sitting on a Gate" picks out the repeated short line that ends the poem and treats it as a kind of refrain, entitling the poem with it. It suggests that the poem is a simple, old song, so well known that it has become folklore." (Hollander, pp. 216-7)

  2. Regarding Titology 101:

    By taking a line from the poem text to use as a title, the poet runs the risk of weakening the power of the line.

    One exception: Effective use of repetition. For more information, see "To the Lighthouse: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition," which can be accessed at http://neverendingstoryhaikutanka.blogspot.ca/2013/04/to-lighthouse-repetition-repetition.html

    Two examples:

    The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

    The tide rises, the tide falls,
    The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
    Along the sea-sands damp and brown
    The traveller hastens toward the town,
    And the tide rises, the tide falls.

    Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
    But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
    The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
    Efface the footprints in the sands,
    And the tide rises, the tide falls.

    The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
    Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
    The day returns, but nevermore
    Returns the traveller to the shore,
    And the tide rises, the tide falls.

    "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls" is repeated four times in the poem. The repeating ebb-and-flow action of the title gives a strong visual feel to the poem, guiding the rhythmic pace.

    Nothing in That Drawer by Ron Padgett

    Nothing in that drawer.
    Nothing in that drawer.
    Nothing in that drawer.
    Nothing in that drawer.
    Nothing in that drawer.
    Nothing in that drawer.
    Nothing in that drawer.
    Nothing in that drawer.
    Nothing in that drawer.
    Nothing in that drawer.
    Nothing in that drawer.
    Nothing in that drawer.
    Nothing in that drawer.
    Nothing in that drawer.

    In his “postmodernist sonnet,” Ron Padgett tinkers with form “irreverently.”

    The following is an excerpt from Clay Matthews' essay, "On Ron Padgett, " which can be accessed at http://www.h-ngm-n.com/h_ngm_n-6/clay-matthews-on-ron-padgett.html

    Similarly, in “Nothing in That Drawer,” another of Padgett’s poems in form, and one of his most anthologized, we find a sublime revelry in the sonnet and by extension poetry at large. In this poem, each of the fourteen lines that make up the sonnet is the same: “Nothing in that drawer.” The repetition becomes comedic, as we visually imagine a speaker looking in one drawer after another, or perhaps the same drawer over and over. And yet the move to search in this poem is also reminiscent of the postmodern sublime, as it constantly points to the failure of language and form to achieve an absolute unity—with themselves and with the Idea. We have in this sonnet the constant search, constantly postponed or deferred. We’re never sure what the speaker is even searching for, or if the movement of the poem is simply language, or boredom, even. We’re left with a sort of constant opening and disappointment, which in many ways is what poetry as postmodern sublime is—an opening on a thought or structure accompanied by a delight in the failure of the opening. And in the case of “Nothing in That Drawer,” because we’re never sure of the action, or even the context, it seems the poem is less about a nostalgia for the unpresentable and more about the loss as bliss, the sublime itself.

    Instead of lamenting the gap between form and content, word and concept, Padgett places them in conversation with one another, allowing the form to speak to the content and vice versa. The sonnet form in this poem is wrapped in a contemporary humor, much like the Gehry house Jameson discusses in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. And like the Gehry house, which features an older, traditional home renovated by postmodern architecture, Padgett’s poem allows the inside and the outside to converge. Thus, the form of the sonnet, the sonnet as move from proposition to resolution, offers a narrative to the very language that also works to deny that narrative and/or resolution.