Name Recognition

Advice and insight from a professional poet.

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I’m having a baby this year. What name or names would a poet recommend?
— Ana

Well, a big congratulations to you!  I would say that, in general, poets consider the four M’s when deciding on a name: match, meaning, musicality, and meter, and not necessarily in that order. Let me explain.

Match:  This is a name matched with another poet’s name, or a character’s name from a favorite poem.  I’m fond of Sweeney as a boy’s name, from Elliot’s “Sweeney and the Nightingales,” who also makes an appearance in “The Fire Sermon” in The Waste Land. Of course, I think Sweeney would work as a girl’s name, too, but my favorite girls names matched with a poet or poet character are Emily, after Dickinson, and Margaret, after the young child in Hopkin’s “Spring and Fall.”

Meaning:  When I say meaning, I’m talking about the individual meaning of a name, either within itself or within the family.  The name Emily means “rival or eager,” Margaret means “pearl” and Sweeney means “small hero” — all good meanings, but if the name Burt has extra meaning in your family because of Uncle Burt and Grandpa Burt, then maybe Burt would be a better fit. But the above two considerations mostly regard the first name, and there are other factors at play here.

Musicality:  You also want your kid’s name to sound good, from beginning to middle to end. Unless you’re going for some comic relief (and really, these days who wouldn’t go for that), you probably don’t want the name to rhyme, and you don’t want to repeat too many of the same phoneme, such as Charlie Chandler Chansomchum. Try to imagine your child’s potential name in a song. If unflattering terms rhyme with the name, or if you start crying when you sing the name, try to find something else.

Meter:  I think meter is the most important factor to consider when bestowing a name on another human being — it is the rhythm with which you are announcing your child to the world. For example, my name consists of three trochaic feet (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable):  Kristen Ingrid Hoggatt. Trochees are marching feet, and that’s probably the reason I tend to bumble headfirst into situations without really thinking about them. I am just, after all, conforming to the rhythm my parents chose for me. Considering my case, I would advise against giving your baby a name with a uniform meter lest your child desire to conform to any metrical associations. Unless you want that (personally I don’t mind it one bit). Don’t worry about this too much because if you screw it up, your child will adjust their particular meter once they reach an age when it bothers them, like Edward Estlin Cummings.

Now, I sincerely hope I didn’t overwhelm you, but welcome to my neurotic world!  Please don’t worry, Ana. Shakespeare’s Juliette says, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.” Whatever name you decide to give your baby, he or she will still be the greatest gift you’ve ever received.

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

(Sylvia Plath, “Morning Song”)

2 February 2010

Kristen Hoggatt lives, works, and writes in Boston, where she received her MFA from Emerson College. She volunteers at 826 Boston.

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