What I mean by “real titles”

Sometimes, when I post a new poem, when I ask for suggestions, I’ll say parenthetically, “Perhaps of a real title for this poem?” This has elicited a few comments that the “title” I’d used—the first line—was fine, to which my response was essentially, “Yes and no.” Today I’d like to explain this in more detail.

Any poem can reasonably be identified by its opening words. In fact, poems, stories, and books were routinely identified by their “incipit” before the use of “titles” became a common practice. And in my collection I plan to include an “index of titles and first lines” so that readers can find poems by their incipit as well as their title.

But in the modern world, it’s customary for pieces of content—poems, stories, books, Web pages, and blog posts—to have titles. The “user experience” of the Web is built around that assumption. If you’re reading this on on the blog on a desktop computer, for example, the title of this post is probably visible in the “title bar” at the top of your Web browser, and if you subscribe to this blog the title of this post appears in your email client or blog reader.

So, to keep the “user experience” of this blog from degrading any further than I can help, I need poems (and other posts) to have some sort of title. And so I let the incipit serve that function. Posting a poem with nothing for a title would be a significantly greater disservice to my readers than this reuse, but it’s still unpleasantly repetitive to see, for example in yesterday’s poem, the incipit “God has ordained a justice” three times instead of once before the second line.

If I didn’t use titles for any of my poems, or if my use of proper titles was uncommon, I could identify them by an arbitrary number (as I do in a couple of series, such as my “Untitled Metaphors” and “Untitled Sonnets”) or by placing the date of composition or date of publication here as the “title.” But I use titles often enough that readers should be able to look for poems by title.

In my collection, it will be simple enough to just list untitled poems by their incipits and use typography—a larger break than between stanzas, or a symbol of some kind—to mark the beginning of a new untitled poem. (Perhaps it would be best to use such a symbol after every poem, whether the next has a title or not.) But I still consider it better for a poem to have a title that suits it than for the poem to be identified merely by its incipit.

Over the next few days, I plan to go through all the poems I’ve previously posted on this blog and add a tag to all those that don’t have a “real title.” Once that’s done, you’ll be able to browse just those poems. Any suggestions of titles for those poems—or improvements to the titles of poems that have them already—would be greatly appreciated.

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One thought on “What I mean by “real titles”

  1. Heh. When I took a poetry-writing class in college, the instructor announced at the beginning that if we submitted a poem without a title he’d put on one he thought suitable before distributing it to the class. (In those benighted days this was accomplished by use of not-all-that-good copiers, BTW.)

    > In fact, poems, stories, and books were routinely identified
    > by their “incipit” before the use of “titles” became a common practice.

    Note that standard practice, in Hebrew, was (& usually still is, I think) to refer to Biblical books by their incipits. And until a century or so ago common practice in English-speaking, relatively liturgical churches was to refer to individual psalms by their (Latin) incipits.

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