A poem’s title is a door for readers to open or a little window through which they peer at the interior, an intrigue making them question whether they should enter or take part in it. A lazy or imprecise title can damn an entire poem. A bad book title can damn a poetry collection too.
Spend a great deal of conscious time on your titles, and produce many maquettes of them. Use a working title to begin with, even if you dispense with it later, since evasions like Poem carry little charge and less attraction. A title might work aslant to the poem: it might even have nothing to do with the content or form. A title should never be merely descriptive: it leaves the reader with nothing to do. Titles require a reader to become alert to the possibility of the poem. Take your time and choose wisely. If you do not have that leisure, at least choose precisely.
When ordering a poetry collection, consider setting shorter poems in a sequence, unified by one or more threads, such as narrative, form and theme. This unity need not be frictionless: the shorter poems may be dissonant with each other in some ways. Each part might take a different point of view and the sequence as a whole provides the arena for this variety.
Some poets order their collections so that the poems, individually and as a whole, resonate in some way with each other in terms of language and sound – and with the title of the book. In this way, the book itself becomes a type of poetic form. You should be warned that many readers dip into a poetry collection rather than read it as they would a novel. Nevertheless, the order needs to be important to you and your publisher.
Begin reading your poems with these ends in mind: do some of the poems share the same concerns, or even images, and might they be brought together in some way to make a more powerful piece? Are there leitmotifs in sound between poems that would be clearer if the poems were grouped in some sequence? By shuffling and reshuffling your poems, is there some kind of narrative running through them, and might this be a sequence, or the best order for your portfolio of coursework, or first collection? If so, what title might illuminate these connections, or even challenge and subvert them?
I have found that one of the better ways of ordering a collection is to place all your best poems on the floor. Crawl around the poems, reading and ordering, reading and re-ordering, until the right flow emerges: until the book takes on its own life and begins making its own choices. The process is not unlike drafting a successful poem.
Failing that, throw your poems into the air and let fortune have its say. On one occasion I invited my two year-old son to walk over my poems in wet feet following his evening bath. The order in which they stuck to this soles was the order I stuck to.
David Morley is an ecologist and naturalist by background. He won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry for The Invisible Gift: Selected Poems and a Cholmondeley Award for his contribution to poetry. His collections from Carcanet Press include The Magic of What’s There, The Gypsy and the Poet, Enchantment, The Invisible Kings and Scientific Papers. He wrote The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing. David currently teaches at the University of Warwick and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
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