On Why Poem Titles Matter (Part 1 of 2)

Keith S. Wilson
May 10, 2017
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I. Names

Poems are not people. They resist qualitative judgments based on their actions or potential—it doesn’t matter that a poem is musical. So is music.

Perhaps this is why so many definitions of poetry fall short. Any appearance a poem might have, anything a poem might do, is theoretically possible by any writer writing under any genre. Line breaks and white space? House of Leaves. Absence of a concern with traditional forms of sense-making? Ulysses. Especially beautiful and meticulous choices of words? Anything Toni Morrison has ever written.

The primary killer of any means of identifying a poem I’ll call the Toni Morrison test. Is there anything a poem does that Toni Morrison is not already doing with prose (and, let’s face it, better)?

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You are in a class on Gwendolyn Brooks at a predominantly black campus. Three quarters of the class is black, almost a quarter Latinx, and the three or four remaining students are white. Is the narrator in “A Street In Bronzeville” black? Does it matter? A man says of course it matters, and he says it with authority. Of course he does.

Or he’s challenged by a black student. She wonders: if the narrator is black, why doesn’t Miss Brooks just say so?

The man’s skin is brown. Maybe light brown. Maybe everybody leans in.

Confidently, he says she doesn’t have to. The room is very small.

Or, he’s black. An exhalation.

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A more rigorous identifier for poetry is not its formal appearance but the manner in which we are expected to engage with it. Its linebreaks, meter, or use of white space are methods that also might indicate a certain expectation of engagement. But for all the ways of getting there, it is the meditative state of mind, or the conscientious read, or the certain something—any of a number of poetic modes of accommodation—that makes a poem.

This is why, even when the word counts are the same, we read prose at a pace and intensity removed from poetry (or vice versa), dictated by the tradition of prose-writing and reading. Or, at least, we do this until the very moment we are taught to do otherwise by the human being behind the poem.

Poetry’s tradition holds a certain authority on our engagement with it. It opens the poem up to be a poem. The poem’s title, however, is the poet’s first ahem. It is a poet’s commencement and addendum to the definition that tradition makes, their chance to shape a viewer’s expectations, or rewrite the rules.
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Morgan Parker says “Please Wait (Or, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé,” and it is as if Tradition recognizes that it has stepped in the front of a line where people have been waiting for years and years. Knowing the poem’s name, it is impossible to do anything but treat it differently than, say, W.S. Merwin’s “A Breeze at Noon,” even having read none of the contents of either poem.

You can imagine that, somewhere, a designer or editor sits down with Parker’s book. They are trying to remember how to put an accent over an ‘e.’ Before that, somewhere in the ’90s, someone is approving Beyoncé’s first credit card and having the same baffling experience as they enter her name into the system. Considering, however briefly, whether it matters.

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