Beyond Placeholders: Writing Poem Titles
Crafting titles is a particularly difficult part of writing poetry because a title is the poem’s introduction, and first impressions have high stakes. As a poet, I want my titles to spark a reader’s interest when they’re perusing a table of contents. I’d like my titles to make the reader say, “I want to read that!”
When a reader sits down to experience a poem, the title can send a cue that something nourishing, challenging, or memorable is about to begin, and so, I believe that the energy and thought poets put into understanding the impact of titles is time well spent.
If a title doesn’t add strategic depth and connection to the poem or set an interesting expectation or just lacks substantial vitality, the time has come to revise it. Preparing to teach a Loft workshop focused on titles has encouraged me to revisit this component of my own poetic practice and reflect on some of the techniques that have been helpful:
Do close reading of tables of contents of your favorite poets.
A table of contents is the place to go to read a lot of titles at once, so pull out your favorite book of poems and go straight to the front matter. If you can, take a pencil and start annotating the table of contents, taking notes on any patterns, trends, or idiosyncrasies you see. What can you learn about the poet’s approach to writing from looking at only the table of contents?
(Another version of this exercise is to apply it to a literary journal or anthology where the table of contents represents many different authors. What can you notice about how different poets approach titling?)
Examine the relationship between the title and the poem.
Now, turn to the body of the book itself where most times, poem titles appear at the top of each page. (It’s worth mentioning that some poets write without titles or use innovative titular formatting, and you can also learn a great deal from this, no matter your own aesthetic tendency.) Read a poem, and when you finish, return to the top of the page.
A title can serve as a hinge, a front door, a clearing, the silence before a song begins. It breaks the surface tension on a pool of water. Looking at the poem, what does the title reveal? What expectations does it set? A word like “ode” or “sonnet” creates an expectation of what we’ll find in the poem. The poet will make or break that expectation depending on their choices. Is the title rooted in place or time? Including something as simple as “1968” or “Harlem” can serve as a grounding, evocative arrow.
There are plenty of questions to ask: What unique meaning does the title contribute to the poem? The strategy that works for one poem may not work for another. What is the logic of this poem? How does the title extend or introduce it?
Practice titling off the page.
Ponder the titles of TV shows and movies, the names of people and pets, vanity plates you see on the road. This extension exercise is part of our larger language practice as poets. What do you notice about non-poetic titles? What are the effects of names on the people, places, and things they describe?
Return to the page. Pull up one of your own poems-in-progress. You now know that titles can be more than informational labels or a way to tell different poems apart. In my own practice, I ask myself, if a title is not serving a crucial role, why is it there at all? Experiment with switching in different titles to practice shifting the resonance of an entire poem.
Interested in more conversation on the art of titling? Check out my artist bio page to stay up to date with the classes I'm teaching.