Poetry is a kind of naming-- the Rilke of the Duino Elegies certainly thought so, and Wallace Stevens, in the wonderful late poem "Local Objects," said that he wanted to give the things in his poetry fresh names, "to keep them from perishing."
Naming is a kind of poetry too: or so the news around these parts suggests... examples, elaborations, partial dissents, a journey to A'Quonesia, and some rock music await below the fold.


Tom Scocca, a very funny writer whom I used to hang out with in college, explained yesterday why he named his son Mack. Today in the same newspaper I learned how the various things that scientists name have various rules of nomenclature: comets usually take their names from their discoverers, while asteroids never do.
Titles and names introduce people and things to other people who have never met them. Manufacturers pay good money to firms that do nothing but tell them what to name the widgets, or pills, they intend to sell: again, here, each category has its own name-conventions-- new drugs shouldn't have names that are also words; new cars have meaningful names all the time. Ford asked Marianne Moore to suggest a name for the car the company called, instead, the Edsel; Moore's suggestion got picked up, after her death, by a hard-working rock band instead. Atlanta's new WNBA team will announce its name soon (I'm pulling for the name with links to MLK Day); college hoops writers each year come up with an all-name team, highlighting, on the women's side, the African-American tradition of giving children invented names, such as A'Quonesia (who goes by Aqua). Anyone want to use that in a poem?
Titling is a kind of naming, and new kinds of names (titles) for poems have sometimes turned into new kinds of poems (there's a wonderful, if academic, book about the process by the late and lamented critic Anne Ferry). Stevens kept a notebook (as George Lensing discovered years ago) with nothing but titles for as-yet-unwritten poems. Robert Pollard from the band Guided by Voices did likewise: if you watch the documentary about GBV, made in the late '90s (just before the band began to fall apart), you'll see the filmmaker ride around Dayton with Pollard as Pollard comes up with song titles based on whatever pops up out the driver's side windows.
And yet all the titling, naming and re-naming originality in the universe won't add up, on its own, to a finished poem: Pollard's titling originality is second to none, but his lyrics work (when they do work) as rock lyrics-- they don't have the depth I want from page-based poems. When Yeats wrote about the work involved in making and remaking poems, he said it was hard work "to articulate sweet sounds together"-- to come up with more than one; to make, from a bunch of neat ideas, credible wholes. Titles, names, labels ask questions, and raise possibilities: the poems that follow them have to provide the answers, to make good on the promises, to live up to (or to outdo) the word or phrase by which they're first known to the world.

Originally Published: January 21st, 2008

Steph Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and...

  1. January 21, 2008
     Don Share

    Seems like a good place to provide a link to 33 Names of Things You Never Knew Had Names.
    A poem by Carmen Bugan called "The Names of Things" comes to mind.
    And here's an alphabetical listing of the titles of poems of W. B. Yeats, if you want to check out a few of his sweet sounds systematically!
    The Anne Ferry book is a good read - we assume that the titles of poems are important, but it turns out that his is a fairly modern view.
    People used to have fun with The Order of Things by Michel Foucault - the French title is Les mots et les choses, things and words.
    Thing-ness and what the word "thing" means turn up in new books by both Robert Pinsky and Mary Kinzie, about which see (shameless plug!) Ange Mlinko's piece in the January Poetry.

  2. January 22, 2008
     Alicia (AE)

    And let's not forget Housman's The Name and Nature of Poetry!

  3. January 22, 2008
     Jordan

    Re: depth and GBV... I certainly hope this is the gist of your long-awaited essay on Game Theory/Loud Family.

  4. January 22, 2008
     graywyvern

    we seem to be living in a time when things are often badly named, from retail stores to rock groups to movies to political issues to critical historical events (i.e. "9-11"); this does not merely reflect the utter disenfranchisement of poets, whose job it rightfully is, but also the amount of noise & bogosity that our public discourse has succumbed to.