The poem floats on the page, an amalgam of your hard work, love of language, and intense feeling. You feel serene and somewhat spent, ready to share your creation with someone – almost. The poem is complete, except for one thing – the title. For many poets (including myself), this is one of the hardest parts of writing a poem. How do you choose the right title? How do you know what kind of title would work best for your poem? Here are a few kinds of titles that I always consider when I’m stuck for what to name a piece:
- A title taken from inside the poem
One simple way to title a poem is to take something from inside the poem itself. This kind of title is often thematic, in that it reflects the poem’s central image or idea. Many poems are named in this way, and examples are thick on the ground. One such poem is “Tulips” by Sylvia Plath. (You can read it here.) These kind of titles are effective and efficient – they get tie in with the poem and give the reader a taste of what is to come.
- An explanatory/contextual title
A title like this can be extremely useful, particularly if you fear that the poem itself could use a bit of context. Try for a title that can give the reader some insight into how they should read and understand your poem. Consider Geoffrey Hill’s poem “In Memory of Jane Fraser.” (You can read it here.) Jane’s name is nowhere inside the poem, but by giving it that title the reader is aware not only that it is an elegy, but that it is an elegy to a specific person. An explanatory title can be a great way to add just a touch of much-needed context without having to add it into the poem itself. It needn’t be overly explicit or too informative, of course,
- A lead-in title
Sometimes, you have a title, but it feels like a brick, sitting heavy on top of your poem. Other times, you can’t find a title that doesn’t interfere with the musicality or lessen the impact of the first line(s). In these instances, a lead-in title may be just the thing, because they let you get to the heart of the matter right off the bat. A good example of a lead-in title is Robert Duncan’s poem “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.” (Read the poem here.) The title sets the scene, but also pulls you right into the body of the poem. There is no disconnect or space between title and poem, which creates an immediacy that serves the piece well.
- A refrain title
If your poem has a refrain, you may consider that for a possible title. Though you want to be careful about overdoing it, just as you have to be careful when using refrains inside the poem, a refrain title can be the best topper for a musical poem. For a good example of the refrain title, check out Walt Whitman’s famous poem, “O Captain, My Captain.” (You can view the poem here.)
- A sensory title
Sometimes, you don’t want to use language that is in the body of the poem, nor do you want to try something that explains too much. Perhaps your poem doesn’t need any extra context, but it needs something before you dive into the body of the piece. In these cases, you may consider an image or association that can grab the reader’s attention without exposing too much of the poem’s intent right off the bat. Look at Audre Lorde’s poem, “Coal.” (You can read it here.) In this poem, the title is a concrete image that ties in with the poem, but isn’t necessarily directly related to it. Rather, it adds to the visual detail of the piece, and brings with it the connotative weight of the word to bear on the reader’s interpretation of the poem.
- The dreaded “Untitled”
There are times when a title of any kind feels like a streak of spray paint on the Mona Lisa. Of course, many writing professors won’t allow an untitled poem in the classroom, but when you are writing your own work, you may decide to ditch the title altogether. Untitled poems can be effective if the non-titledness fits with the poem’s atmosphere (unless you happen to be Emily Dickinson , in which case you need never title anything). Tracy K. Smith eschews the title to great effect in her Terza Rima which begins “What happens when the body goes slack?” In this poem (which unfortunately isn’t available to view online but can be found in her collection Life on Mars, available here.), the lack of title adds to the sorrow and confusion of the poem, which deals with death and the yawning gap of loss. A title on such a poem would be too pat, too solid. The words need to drift, much as the speaker of the poem does. If you have a poem where a title would only hurt the piece, you may consider simply leaving it off.
Hopefully these ideas will get the gears churning when you’re confronted with that blank space above your piece. If you need more inspiration, here are some other articles that might help: