Welcome to another installment of Write After Reading: Writing the Life Poetic, a weekly online book club with poetry participation. It alternates between my blog and Laura’s blog. Last week, over at Laura’s blog, we talked about chapter 43 and played with another Mad Lib sort of exercise. Today I picked chapter 48, Writing Poems From Titles.

There’s not a lot to read here because the fun is all in the writing. 🙂 The chapter talks about how titles for poems can come before the poem is written, after it is written, or changed somewhere in-between. But for this exercise she gives what she calls a book of matches with a list of titles of poems by mostly contemporary poets. The idea is to write a poem based just on the title (hopefully a poem you don’t know) and then go find the original and see how it compares. She gives a list of 33 poems. For those of you who don’t have a copy of the book, I’ll post a few of the titles for you.

But before that, I’d like to talk a bit more about titles for poems and how you perhaps come up with your titles. I almost always title my poems after they are written when I am pretty sure I have reached the point I was trying to make with the poem. Though there have been a few where I got the title and it just spoke to me and I had to write a poem to live up to the title. I’m not sure how I feel about poems where the title is actually the first line in the poem. Quite often it confuses me. I read the title and I set it apart in my mind. Then I read the first line and I’m confused and my brain has to process that method the poet is using and I have to go back and start over. It all happens very fast but sometimes it can be distracting to me. The exception (for me) is usually when it is a verse novel and the author is using the same pattern throughout the book. My brain gets used to it and it seems less distracting.

So what about you?  When do you title your poems? Do you use a line from the poem? How do you know when you have the right title for a poem? (For me it’s all about going with my gut.)

I’ll post some of titles for folks now and will be back later to add my poem in the comments.

The Zero at the Bone (Karen Holmberg)
The Partial Explanation (Charles Simic)
Good People (WS Merwin)
What the Angels Left (Marie Howe)
Give the Drummer Some (Christopher Luna)
Key to the Highway (Mark Halliday)
Ladies and Gentlement in Outer Space (Ron Padgett)
The Blue Bowl (Jane Kenyon)

Okay, here’s my poem. I picked the title last night and was really expecting to write a softish poem perhaps based in nature. What came out is something completely different. I have to say that this one surprised me in a way that a poem hadn’t surprised me in a long time.
How to Listen

Put down that stinky cigarette,
the one you promised to stop smoking.
Quit fiddling with the piano
and no, you don’t need another drink.
You never need another drink.

Pretend if you have to
you’re at work,
inspection time,
uniform neatly pressed,
just like all those lies you told me.

Eyes straight ahead.
Must. Not. Move.

Look at me, no, really look at me
in the eyes, those windows to my soul
you tried to crush.
I know I’m angry.
I want you to know it too.
I want you to hear what I’m saying
with my entire body.

I may not get this brave again.

Don’t look down
or away with that
“you just kicked a puppy” expression on your face.
It doesn’t work any more.

Focus on me,
the way you used to focus on me,
before vodka became your lover.

That pause between words
isn’t an invitation for you to interrupt and tell me
how the world is against you.
I don’t care.
Not anymore.

You don’t have to listen long.
Just long enough
for me to say goodbye.

© 2011 Susan Taylor Brown.
All rights reserved.

The original poem is How to Listen by Major Jackson and you can read it here: