My wife often gets to the essence of a matter while I just thrash around feeling grumpy. This is probably why she is on Twitter and I spend my time on blogs like this. She can tweet and move on while I am still doing homework for another essay and being tiresome in the process. And after the other morning I owe her not only the usual apology for unwarranted grumpiness but gratitude as well. The reason for this? Well it’s Emily Dickinson. Now there’s a thing! And it’s not some lady of that name from down the road with whom I have recently been smitten in my dotage, causing domestic outrage, but rather THE Emily Dickinson, the hugely talented 19th century American poet.
I have come to Emily Dickinson rather late in life and am always interested when I catch mentions of her, when, for example, she features in the blogs of other folk, such as Oliver Tearle’s splendid interesting literature. I’ve also recently taken to carrying around with me a handy pocket-sized volume of Dickinson’s I picked up for a song in a local charity shop. It is a tiny book in The Illustrated Poets series published by Parragon Books and edited by Daniel Burnstone. (The cover picture is Destiny, 1900, by John William Waterhouse – it’s not Emily Dickinson…)
So the other morning as I sat down in the kitchen for a coffee and a croissant, my wife pointed to the Emily Dickinson volume still on the table where I’d left it and said: “I can’t tell where one poem begins and another ends. There aren’t any titles. Most poems have titles.” Being my usual grumpy defensive self, I counter sardonically by noting that I am not familiar with the overall world stats on percentage of poems with titles v poems without and, in any case, it is surely quite clear typographically in the said book where a poem’s first line is. And – amidst berating her further – I look at the volume again and remember sheepishly how I too had been at times (literally) initially confused.
And so – tangentially – I got to thinking about why lots of poems have titles and why Emily Dickinson’s poems don’t and how – well yes – you could quite easily read “across” Dickinson’s poems and on many occasion happily let one poem seamlessly merge into the next, leaving yourself wondering if and where one ended and another began. And, of course, I began to realise that my wife had again hit the nail right on the head and that for Emily Dickinson that is, sort of, the point.
So as I was thinking through all this, I headed for my shelves of poetry and, of course, soon discovered that, unless you know where to look, finding poems without titles is not an immediately straightforward matter. My wife was right. Most poems do have titles. Indeed I would hazard a guess that the overwhelming majority of poems have titles.
A predominant reason, as many have pointed out, is that publishers and editors hate poems without titles. They need poems to have a name, to be called something, just like a story or a novel. They can’t go faffing about every time, naming the poem by just reproducing all the words in the first line. True, you can frequently pick up volumes with an Index of First Lines, but these are almost always referring to poems which also have titles. The first lines are handily indexed by publishers because we awkward readers often know the first lines independently of the titles of the poems and use them as our reference point.
Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” is, it seems, a prime example of where a title has come to trump the first line since in my Oxford Book of English Verse I see this poem is called Daffodils, but if I seek out a digital copy of the original publication in Poems, in Two Volumes it seems to have no title at all. Whether Wordsworth himself came up with the rather obvious Daffodils, or whether a publisher/editor imposed the title upon him I do not know. Certainly for many, many poets the title of a poem is their own creation, rich in nuance, and a well thought out addition to the lines of verse themselves. But I digress too much…
So where would I look routinely to find poems without titles? Well sonnets are a good bet, the marvellous Edna St. Vincent Millay – a good example. And there is that other fellow… What’s he called? Oh Shakespeare! (Or is it Francis Bacon?) But his sonnets were, I think, numbered even in the first edition which helps the publishers call them something even if it is just i and ii etc. Haikus are another good bet (at least the first line is only five syllables). You are also likely to find an absence of titles more in lyric or epigrammatic poetry than longer forms.
I find many more untitled poems among Russian poets than I do among those writing in English. I am not sure why this is or about the practice in other languages or cultures. I suppose scribbled untitled stuff like jottings and juvenilia published posthumously would also be another likely candidate for the untitled work. Ancient poets also may well be absent titles. After all we are often darn lucky we have the works at all. Catullus would be a good example. Where else? Well “modernists” I suppose, like e. e. cummings, who as a matter of principle eschewed much of the “normal” poetic tradition, though there is a link to sonnets in his work. And, of course – let’s not digress further – Emily Dickinson. Almost the whole of Dickinson’s output is absent titles and she, of course was writing (mid to late 19th century) at a time when titles reigned supreme. So why did she not title her poems?
Certainly one of the main reasons must be that she did not write for publication in her lifetime and did not have to grapple much with editors and publishers who would have demanded them. But it is more than this. There is something about her aesthetic, her approach to verse, her poetry itself which defies naming, which is unnameable. Reading Dickinson is like reading the book of life. Her poetic world is so vast that to nail it down with titles would almost be a travesty. Fortunately, having begun to ponder this conundrum, I soon came upon the splendid article by John Mulvihill which tackles the issue head on. I won’t rehearse here the reasons posited by Mulvihill for Dickinson’s disinclination to title her poetry, since folk can read the article itself, but he gives a very cogent and convincing account of what seems to be going on and how, in a sense, her poetry reaches beyond words and into the unnameable. And he mentions others who have noted the lack of finality in her work and how for Dickinson each poem was a process in a stream of creativity where one poem serves as a gateway to the next poem. I overegg it, I am sure, but it is as though all those individual poems, each one echoing another, are just part of a single marvellous whole. How could you pin such a thing down with a title?
Well, hey! I’m getting too carried away and I haven’t quoted even a single poem of Dickinson’s, but even my six-year old granddaughter was enthralled by I started early, took my dog… (though we do wonder what happened to the dog)… and here’s a link to a stash of wonderful stuff. Well worth a browse. There are, of course, more discerning selections elsewhere.
And so now I’d better find my wife and apologise for being such a prat and thank her for the literary journey that she started me off on, only to find, of course, that she was already there when I began.
It’s funny how the day turns out. For the Latinists among you it might be more a case of ex rebus ad librum than ex libris ad rem.
6th June 2018