How to Title a Poem
with four different flavors
For a long time, I’ve found titles to be one of the most mysterious parts of the poetry process. It’s easy to craft a title that feels like a throwaway or simply redundant. Some of the titles I’ve invented work like labels; they don’t actually add new elements.
In my recent study of the topic in preparation for the online class I’m facilitating on March 5th, I’ve started thinking about the different roles titles can fulfill. I think we can write titles that encourage their essential nature. I think revising a title helps us revise the actual poem. I have been writing better poems since I began thinking about titles.
A title can signify a destination the rest of the poem works towards.
In other words, a title can be the key that turns the lock of the poem. It can provide a vital clue. This kind of poem doesn’t work without its title. Gaia Rajan’s “After Escape” does this.
A title can set an expectation. And then, the poem makes or breaks it.
Titles that include words like “ode” or “sonnet” set a formal expectation. Titles that include phrases like “portrait of” or “letter to” set expectations related to presentation and audience. Something interesting happens when we have a word like “sonnet” in the title, but the body of the poem doesn’t end up exhibiting the characteristics we’re expecting. Not 14 lines? No turn? How is this a sonnet at all? And yet, it is.
And what about titles that, themselves, riff on formal expectation such as “Aubade with Edits” by F. Douglas Brown or “Post Poetica” by Danielle Johnson? Not just an aubade, but the messiness of an aubade with edits. Not an ars poetica, but something beyond it.
Titles introduce tension.
As poets, I’m not sure we talk about tension enough. We are often increasing urgency and energy in our poems through tension without being able to name it.
For instance, making and breaking expectation as described above creates tension. And so does a title that uses juxtaposition or syntactically contradicts itself such as Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “Blood Flower.”
Titles also introduce tension when they place us in a situation that we need the poem to get us out of. Patrick Phillips’s “Having a Fight With You” does this. Having a fight about what? What’s going to be the resolution? I want to hear more, not to mention that it pays homage to what the iconic queer poet Frank O’Hara’s most famous poem “Having a Coke with You.”
Titles take us back to language.
Yes, one-word titles like Robin Gow’s “Submarine” and Hedgie Choi’s “Salvage” draw our attention to single words. Titles like this work when the words have double meanings, homonyms, metaphoric resonance, and vital components.
It’s easy to write a one-word title, but harder, I think, to write a one-word title that serves as more than just a label.
Want to talk more?
If you’re interested in joining a Saturday morning online session where we’ll spend three hours doing a deep dive into titles and applying these learnings to our own poems, here’s the link to sign up.
In anticipation of this class, I’ve also written a guest post for the Loft Literary Center with an additional list of tips and considerations.