Matthew Sweeney: Finding a Title

‘View of a Pig’ is one of the great poem titles, suggests Matthew Sweeney, who explains how a good title makes all the difference.


I once completed a poem and couldn’t think of a title for it. That was a long time ago and I’ve made sure it hasn’t happened since (these days I even put titles on the haiku I write!) The reason for this is I feel a title is very important – it’s a useful handle on a poem, a way in, sometimes even a beckoning.

And every poem’s right title (even the one I couldn’t find) is there waiting to be discovered. Usually I leave the title to the very last, until the poem’s finished – that way the title won’t dictate how the poem proceeds. It’s best that the title emerges from within the poem, rather than being dropped on it from a height. So nothing too generalised and summing up – and definitely no clichés. In judging competitions I’ve come across poems called ‘Love’, ‘My Sad Life’ or ‘Years of Happiness Suddenly Cancelled’. I’m not saying it’s impossible to find a good poem with a title like that, but the signals being sent to the reader are not those that would make him or her want to read on with any confidence.

To see a title like Ted Hughes’s ‘View of a Pig’, by contrast, makes the reader want to check out the poem underneath it. The title already suggests specificity. A particular view of the pig is promised, but what view? Similarly, with Seamus Heaney’s ‘A Constable Calls’, the reader knows a narrative is brewing, a trailer for which has already been revealed in the title. A lot has to do with the concreteness of both titles. Many poems simply take objects as titles – ‘The Blue Dress’ (Sharon Olds), for example, or ‘My Shoes’ (Charles Simic). This is reassuring for the reader, in the sense they think they know exactly what kind of poem they’re getting – which is not to say the poet can’t put an unpredictable spin on the poem that follows. Hunt down ‘My Shoes’ and see what I mean.

Using a small specific detail like this to conceal the bigger business the poem will reveal is the way many successful poem titles operate. Take Derek Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’, for example, or Yeats’s ‘The Stare’s Nest by my Window’, or John Hartley Williams’s ‘Bean Soup’. Read these poems and see what they touch on, and how this is kept from the title completely.

The richness of a title is often in its detail. Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Crusoe in England’, for example. That ‘…in England’ intrigues us because we think of Crusoe on his island. Or Robert Lowell’s ‘Skunk Hour’ – think of how much more resonant and suggestive that title is than ‘Skunks’ would be. Or James Dickey’s ‘The Sheep Child’ – a title that tells you what you’re getting but you don’t know half of it yet. Dickey is one of those poets who are particularly good with titles – I’m thinking of ‘Falling’ (a long poem about just that – a stewardess falling out of an aeroplane), or ‘The Heaven of Animals’, or ‘Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimberwell Creek’. All very exact. Another poet who is especially gifted at titles is Les Murray – ‘The Quality of Sprawl’, ‘The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever’, ‘The Transposition of Clermont’.

You’ll have noticed names appearing in some of those titles. Names go well in titles. One of John Betjeman’s best known poems is called ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’. W.S. Graham has a poem (and a book – often the best poem titles contribute titles for books) called ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’, Wallace Stevens has a poem winningly titled ‘The Bed of Old John Zellar’, and Edward Lear’s ‘Calico Pie’. And the last two rides I’ll mention in this category are ones where the names in the titles give more than a clue as to how the poems should be read Walter de la Mare’s ‘John Mouldy’, and Charles Causley’s ‘Tom Bone’.

I’d finally like to list some poem titles that are intriguing, or surprising, or simply beautiful. Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’ is one such, as is W.S. Graham’s ‘Clusters Travelling Out’, or James Fenton’s ‘The Ballad of the Shrieking Man’.

And just to show poem titles needn’t always be short, I’ll give as my last example one of my favourites – James Wright’s inimitably titled ‘Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me.’ It’s all there but it isn’t.

Matthew Sweeney was born in Donegal and lived in Cork, Berlin, Timişoara and, for a long time, London. His books include The Night Post – A New Selection (Salt, 2010); and Black Moon, (2007), Sanctuary (2004) and Selected Poems (2002), all published by Cape. Sweeney also wrote poetry collections for children, including Up on the RoofNew and Selected Poems, published by Faber. Bilingual poetry selections came out in Germany and Holland in 2008, and ones are in preparation in Poland and Romania. He was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize, and has received a Cholmondeley Award and an Arts Council Writers’ Award. Sweeney also co-edited several poetry anthologies and co-authored, Writing Poetry (Hodder), with John Hartley Williams.

Do you find writing titles difficult? Does the title come first when you write a poem, or do you write the poem and then add the title at the re-drafting stage? Do you have a favourite poem title?

Published May, 2011

4 thoughts on “Matthew Sweeney: Finding a Title

  1. I often write poems then titles, but sometimes I’m struck by titles that would make good poems and then write them.

  2. Titles on haiku! That takes some power haha! I don’t know any Japanese so when I write haiku it’s always an English adaptation of the style of poetry. I find that when you’re working with such few syllables, you have to really zoom in and focus on one small, specific thing, and I think adding a title would draw away that avid attention you need for the actual poem. For example, here’s a haiku of mine,
    “Scattered sun sprinkles
    Shimmering amidst a sea
    Of emerald glee”
    I could title this ‘Sun Sprinkles’, but it draws the attention away from the green imagery. Or I could title it ‘Emerald Glee’, but it takes away the flowing sea image and seems more focused on the hard emerald gemstone. So personally, I think haiku is best kept and read as a whole. No title, no other complications, just the small, simple haiku, and I can keep it then in pocket all the time so I know nature is always with me.

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