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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Entitled to a Title

Yesterday I listened to a lecture entitled "If You Agree, Won't You Change the Title for Me?" given by poet Matthea Harvey at the University of Chicago in 2008. (The lecture is also available on iTunes U under the University of Chicago's Poem Present Reading and Lecture Series. You can download just the audio, or the video, which can be useful as Harvey uses examples of visual art to demonstrate the effectiveness of their titles.) (The title of the lecture, by the way, comes from a letter Wallace Stevens wrote to his publisher when reconsidering the title to one of his books.)

In helping students learn about the effectiveness of titles, Harvey cites psychological studies and reads Lewis Carroll. She also creates a taxonomy of title types, defining and giving examples of the following:

1) The Onramp: a title syntactically part of the first line of the poem.
2) The Spotlight: a title which highlights a line or image from the poem (often by repeating it).
3) The License Plate: a title which gives information about the poem, which may include who the speaker is, when or where the poem is located, the speaker's attitude towards the subject of the poem, etc. This category includes any title which exists to orient the reader.
4) The Greased Pig: a title which disorients the reader by evading connection with the poem (at first glance at least).
5) Helium: a title that may give information but more than that tries to increase the meaning of the poem. This type of poem tends to be very dependent on its title.
6) Not Wearing a Tie: an untitled poem, which Harvey points out has a much different effect now, given the history of untitle poems, than it did when it was first used.

The charming and well-researched lecture then gives way to a workshop atmosphere in which Harvey reads short poems to the students, and they attempt to title them. It's fun to listen to their attempts, try to come up with a title yourself, and then to hear the poets' own titles.

Near the end of this enjoyable lecture on the art of titling, Harvey cites books for further reading about ideas on titling poems, including Anne Ferry's The Title to the Poem (Stanford University Press). I really enjoy naming poems, so I'm definitely going to get a hold of this book. Enjoy the lecture: Harvey is a master at synthesizing divergent information into her theme, so even if you have no concerns about titles, you can still get a lot of pleasure from listening.

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