Yesterday in the poetry class, we worked on revisions. Sometimes I use "guided revision," whereby I have students choose from a menu of different options for revising. So we did that kind of thing with one poem, then simply had one other reader suggest how to revise another poem, and finally did some quick work on revising titles.
My suggestions for revising titles included the following: make a short title long, or make a long one short; look at the last line of one or both poems and see if a title is lurking there (perhaps with slight adjustments); write a title that is a complete sentence, such as "Maggie Ate My Shoe"; write an "ing" title, such as "Picking Gooseberries" or "Walking to Work in the Snow"; write an old-fashioned title that tells what the topic of the poem is, preceded by Of, Concerning, or About--examples include "Of Renting," "Concerning My Disloyal Friend," or "About Looking for Work"; write an intentionally alluring or figuratively seductive title, such as "Edgar Allan Poe's Secret Lover" or "Why I Have a Third Ear." A student prudently asked, "What if the poem isn't about that?" I said, "That might be a problem, but let's just take it one step at a time."
I often write and/or revise along with students, partly to get across the idea that writing and revising are work for everyone; that "the teacher" isn't somehow above the fray. Also, it helps me see how I might improve a task or "lesson" or activity I've invented. So I revised a poem I'd had sitting in a notebook for a long time, and I found a new title for it by using the last-line suggestion mentioned above.
I Know and Don't Know
In March dirt sticks to itself like tar:
I thought this as I dug in a garden plot.
Then I looked up, noted pink cherry-blossoms,
looked further up--and there was March's
boring disorganization of clouds. Then, back
to digging, I went further into mind
to imagine my years, traceable to California,
where my father had found comfort in digging
with pick and shovel because (I surmise)
it's different from talk, reduces the equation
to you versus planet, is difficult, necessary,
and absurd. Digging holes or ditches is
for a Sisyphus who doesn't like to move
from one spot. Returned from mind to garden
plot, I looked up and saw a black
cat watching me dig as I dug. Then a bird
in a beech tree made a sound in its throat
like a stick hitting a hollow wooden block.
Stuck together, this digging, seeing, hearing, recalling,
surmising, and thinking annoyed me, as March,
in fact, irritates a lot of people I know and don't know.
Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom