Poem titles. Are they really necessary in a performance?

Last time I met up with some poetry friends we had a big old debate about whether or not, before reading or performing a poem, you should tell the audience what the title is.

We have all been to readings and performances where the poem spends about half a minute explaining what the title is, where he got the idea for the title from, and what other titles he might have used. Then he might compare it to titles by more famous poets. Or he might say that this poem is a homage to a certain theme. ‘This poem is called ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Brian’.
It’s true that the title is important and a mini work of art in it’s own right, with certain strictures and rules of grammar. Titles are pure concentrated literature. But they’re not always necessary.
The way I see it, there are several schools of thought. With some poems, the poem is an integral part of the whole performance and understanding of the poem. It might be called something like, ‘How to Tickle a Badger’, in which case the content of the poem would be meaningless without the poem.
Some poems have titles which are also the first line of the poem. ‘This poem is called, ‘I Went to Basingstoke, 
And there were a lot of people there.
And most of them had hair’.


And so on.
I’ve seen plenty of poets fretting because they have bad titles for their work, or they are not happy with the titles they have chosen, or they can’t think of a title. When I first started performing, I was hopeless at titles, so I called all of my poems ‘Frank’. This seemed a clever strategy, until so many people kept asking who Frank was that I changed all of my poems to ‘Poem’. And this has kind of stuck now, even though the poems have titles which I keep to myself. ‘Beard envy’. ‘Camp cat’.
Professor Zazzo Thiim once opined that the point of going to a poetry night was to luxuriate in the titles and then get rat arsed in the bar. He explained that the titles are the only thing he can remember when he gets home. This is not terribly helpful advice and merely adds pressure to those who fret over titles.
Some of the most convincing performances are those where no title is given. The poet just launches straight into the poem. It’s not as if people will cheer when they hear what poem is going to be read out. Poetry crowds aren’t like that, although I did once almost cause a riot at a Pam Ayres performance.
So the thing is, it’s not compulsory to read out the title. It’s too much like a school essay reading competition if everyone does it. It’s great to have some variety. And of one or two here and there don’t do it, we can all get home a couple of minutes sooner.

I never knew, he said,

You’re not flamboyant, or anything.

In fact you look like a normal bloke,

Jeans and a Tshirt,

That’s what normal blokes wear isn’t it?

Jeans and a Tshirt.

Maybe not a Gloria Gaynor Tshirt.

I thought your proper ones were in the wash.

So we’re still going to be friends, right?

You’re not going to start fancying me,

Are you?

So you’re still going to like


And action films?

You’re not going to start fancying me,

Are you?

You’re not going to start dancing to

Kylie, and wearing foundation,

Are you?

You’re not going to start baking quiches,

Are you?

You’re not going to start

Wearing scarves

And buying cushions

And calling people ‘darling’,

Are you?

You’re not going to start fancying me,

Are you?

Are you?

You’re not going to start fancying me,

Are you?

I mean that’s disgusting.

Isn’t it?

I always suspected it.

I could tell by the way you eat sausages.

I could tell by the way you fondle tangerines.

I could tell by the way you would stop talking

Whenever Adrian Chiles came on the tv.

I could tell by the way you knew instinctively

What colour lampshade to buy.

That can’t be taught.

It’s genetic.

I could tell by the way you would

Dance like a camp dinosaur

Flappy handed

Floppy fringed camp dinosaur

Side step shuffle floppy floppy

Camp camp dinosaur

That’s how I could tell.

Hello, I’d say to myself,


What’s going on here, then?

Camp camp dinosaur.

I could tell by the Gloria Gaynor Tshirt.

Have I already mentioned that?

I don’t know why you told me, though.

Things were fine the way they were.

It explains why you weren’t so keen

On that film last week.

That excellent film.

That excellent lesbian porn film.

That excellent classic of it’s genre,

Hot Girls Gagging For It

During which you did the crossword.

I couldn’t understand why

You didn’t like the lesbian porn film.

I understand now, though.

But I’ll still be your friend,

Your buddy, your mate.

We’ll still do the things

That normal lads do.

All the usual japes and hi jinks,

The usual mucking around,

The usual rough and tumble,

The same old playfulness and manly

Shenanigans, the same old

Roister-doistering, the same old

Mock-serious play fighting,

Rolling and tumbling,

Hand to hand physical matey

Bonding that we always did,

The same old faux-serious

Slap and tickle and giggling

Like exhausted schoolgirls floppy tired

Little puppies slumbering together

On your bed semi naked

Because it’s so hot

Why couldn’t you tell me?

You’re not flamboyant, or anything.

How was I to know?

1 Comment

  1. Susan Taylor says:

    I think I won’t be the only one in your audience wanting to know the secret titles of your poems now, Robert.


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