I said I might put out something about titles – not Mr, Ms or Reverend, but the titling of poems. This is a problem for some poets. Somehow the relationship between the title and the content for a novel seems closer and more evident – probably wrongly, as novels are often given titles to get people to buy them, whereas the title of a poem will not be the title of a book unless you want it to be. On one of the LinkedIn discussion groups I belong to, there was quite a long discussion about poem titles – whether to use them at all and if you did, how to find one.
Some short poems for which a title doesn’t come naturally can be titled with the first line. I’ve done that sometimes. I know one poet who just numbers his poems. That seems to me to be missing a chance to use the title to good, though it is similar to the numbering of works of classical music (and when those classical orchestral works are given word titles, they often seem grandiloquent – Beethoven’s “Eroica”, Nielsen’s “Unextinguishable” symphony, a title which always suggest “Undistinguishable” to me: it’s the Fourth and I prefer his mysterious, ominous, triumphant Fifth.
If I think about some of the titles of other people’s poems I most admire, most of them seem pretty straightforward: Ode to a Nightingale, The Wreck of the Deutschland, The Wild Swans at Coole, or the often long and chatty, but informative, titles used by the Metaphysical poets. Some are less obvious – for example Louis MacNeice’s “The Wiper” and “Bagpipe Music”. The former does concentrate on a wiper on a car windscreen, but the poem is more about the car’s journey through night rain (and about our journey through life to death) than about the wiper merely. The latter? I’m not really sure why it has that title. There are Scottish references in it, but perhaps it’s supposed to be a song that could be accompanied by the bagpipes. Maybe someone knows? It’s a very pointed, funny and wry poem anyway, with those fantastic lines “The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever/ But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.” It sounds even better in a Northern Irish accent.
And Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium”? Without the title, the second poem anyway might not be related to Byzantium, but Yeats’ Byzantium is more a fantasy world full of meaning than a historical empire. For the importance of titles, though, note that “Sailing to Byzantium” was originally titled “Byzantium”, but Yeats felt he hadn’t reached a satisfactory conclusion, just made progress on the way – to the second poem -so the new title was highly significant.
Some titles, then, direct your attention to a key part of the poem, or work as a kind of clue to a puzzle. Above all, whatever the title does – IT’S PART OF THE POEM.
This discussion has made me just a bit uneasy that many of my own titles are clever-clever, unnecessarily obscure. Let’s look at a few, obviously with the whole poem, so keeping the choice to shortish poems. Here goes.
KNIGHT AT ARMS
Riding a jet-black steed
In snow-white armour clad
He aims for noble deed
In war of good on bad
He seeks the Holy Grail
In purity of thought
No failing on the trail
Will have him lured and caught
He’ll sacrifice his life
Or any other’s too
The outcome of the strife
Depends on being true
And noticing the stain
From some unlucky beast
Or villager’s loud pain
Would shamefully have creased
His shining banner and cause
So quickly he rides on
Ruled by his Order’s laws
But where the light has shone
It travels not with him
And all his noble death
It stays on blood and skin
Impure and loving breath 24
It is indeed about a knight in shining armour, on the face of it, so this title is quite straightforward, though of course the knight stands for anyone who is ruthless in the pursuit of high ideals, particularly of purity.
THE BLUE-BLACK SLOES
The queen has made a laurel wreath
For the new champion to wear
So he will not grow old and weak
The whisper of the brittle leaves
Is of a people falling down
And of a king that cannot breathe
The blue-black sloes have gathered round,
The blackberry and scarlet hip
They twine about the king’s own crown
Inside the castle nothing moves
The guests are frozen to the walls
And spears of ice hang from the roof
The withered wreath has taken root
And pressing through the embroidered cloth
Will resurrect the warmth and doubt.
It seems to me this case is rather similar to “The Wiper”. The sloes (fruits of the wild plum known as Blackthorn) are part of the poem, but I choose to draw attention to it.
THE ROADS TO ROME
I don’t say it’s a long way home
Because I don’t know home exists.
Wandering in forests, confused by mists,
I’ve heard that all roads lead to Rome:
Maybe that legend is a lie
And all roads lead to a silent shore;
But memories of a light, a door
Suggest there was a home, but why
The road to it will always twist
And turn away and run instead
Towards the city of powerful dead
I cannot say, but having missed
No pointing tree or flying crow,
No sudden cold or smear of blood,
No reddening sunset, opening bud,
Maybe I’ve found the home I know.
But carving on a rotten log
Tells of an easy way to rest
While still the broken branch points west
Over the river blurred in fog.
I’d say this title is similar to “Sailing to Byzantium”. My Rome is not the Rome of Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, not exactly, and not the Rome of the Vatican either, but more of a state of spirit which I characterise with reference to those two Italian Romes. But the title is a key part of the poem, hopefully helping with a fairly obscure poem.
A gentle soup is around you
You belong to a circle and beat
At an alarm you struggle
In time of peace you sleep
Now the world is warped by a warlike
Beat from a tunnel of change
And the light at the end of the tunnel
Is the light of an oncoming train
But if you can grab a handrail
Hold on to the train if you can
For the scenery’s into this world, and
You won’t get a ticket again
Now that was naughty. The “coming out” is not at all about revealing one’s sexuality, but about birth, which is, though, of course a “coming out”. Did I mean to cause brief puzzlement? To catch attention? Can’t remember.
Nobody gave me a choice
Of where I’d like to be born
Nobody set me a test
Nor asked me to swear allegiance
To a fixed smile in a dress
I feel as Irish as Scottish
I’m English and Welsh in the blood
How could they accept me as British
Who’d trade in the crown for the mud?
Obvious, straightforward, OK? It’s a thoughtful, irreverent poem about British nationality and my identity.
It will not be all new when we meet again
The blood will still be on the old stone steps
The man at the corner will still be glancing after
The drunken girl who retches beyond the railings.
We recognise the smears, you and I
We know the use of bleach on the grimy standard
Will wreck it beyond loving, and the raising
Of a pure standard is a call to killing.
But where the stray cat wolfs the fallen burger,
Where up the bloodstained steps you come by night
There is the cancer that will grow and scatter
The knowing of the dark, the love of light.
That’s less obvious. It refers to the start of the poem, the first line. The message of the poem, I suppose, is that things won’t be perfect but can get better and that grime and retching (as metaphors and as specifics) are part of life. Sounds trite now, doesn’t it? In my mind the title refers among other things to the idealism of the radicals of the English Civil War and Commonwealth with their bible quote “Behold, we are making all things new.”
I’d better stop there, because I’m churning out loads of words and just asking you to look at the first one or two. I’m somewhat reassured about my own titles, though.