Forget the Title: A Tip for Writing Poems

By | April 4, 2009

Here’s a great tip for writing a poem.

It comes from a great American poet, Richard Hugo, who passed away in 1982, but not before writing a good book on writing poetry, The Triggering Town. In the first chapter, he tries to explain why a good poem often ends up in a different place than it starts.

The problem with beginning poets?

Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the [kick-off] subject. The poet puts down the title: “Autumn Rain.”

Then, the poet writes a few lines on that topic. “Then,” says Hugo, “things start to break down.” The poet goes on . . . and on . . . about the subject that he/she started the poem with.

But isn’t that the point of writing a poem? To write about a particular subject?

No, say Hugo! Don’t make the mistake of thinking a poem needs to be 100% about the starting subject.

You don’t [really] know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain, start talking about something else.

. . . There are [very] few people who become more interesting the longer they stay on a single subject.  . . .  The longer [most people] talk about one subject, the duller they get.

A poem isn’t an essay. It’s an exploration. A wandering. You follow the images you find along the way . .  and the sounds of words . . . discovering what you think of next . . . till you end up in a place that might have some surprises.

So a poem that starts with, say, autumn rain . . . might make you remember visiting your aunt’s house on a rainy day . . . and having tea with her. So the poem turn out to be really about the tea, and your aunt, and how you felt that day.

Not just about the rain! Even thought it was the subject that launched the poem!

Don’t get fooled, Hugo suggests, by writing down the title of a poem. Let the words lead you . . . to anyplace your creative mind turns to.

That’s how poetry sometimes works!

One thought on “Forget the Title: A Tip for Writing Poems

  1. drobbins

    The Triggering Town is a great book, especially for younger writers; it is as close to a “textbook” that could actually exist for writing poetry. Anyway, his notion on titles is so right; sometimes I just arbitrarily take the first line, or the first few words, and make that the title – and it works better than one expects! At the very least it makes the poem begin interesting … some poems, when you see the vague, weighty titles, you don’t want to read the rest, yet you feel like you already have. When a poem has an odd and unpredictable title, however, you want to read it!

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