This week, one of the young poets at MLWGS was searching for an authoritative copy of a particular poem so that she could verify that the version she’d read had the line breaks and punctuation the poet intended (an impressive level of intellectual diligence and attention to the integrity of the poet’s craft).
In the book she’d checked out from the library, Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within, the writer referred to a poem by William Matthews as “A Poem Ending with a Line from Dante” – the title that accompanied it when The New Yorker published in on November 29, 1993. But when the student searched for the poem with the author and title, she couldn’t find it in any of his poetry collections.
The trick to finding it? Search for the poet’s name (preferably NOT in quotation marks so that your search finds the name in either order) and the first line of the poem; in this case “snow coming in parallel to the street”. What you discover is that by the time the poem was published in his collection Time and Money two years later, William Matthews had changed its title to “Grief” – and that was the title that has stayed with it since then.
Why does this happen? Poems often find their first audience in literary magazines and other periodicals, but often a year or more elapses – sometimes several years – before the poem is collected in a book, whether an individual collection or an anthology. By then, the poet may have given it a new title or made other changes (including to the first line, so this isn’t a failsafe method either!).