Bless me oh poetry gods, for I have sinned. I gave my poem a boring, abstract title that even made me lose interest in it. How many poems have you seen with a title like ‘Love’, ‘Justice’, or ‘Morning’? Your brain is left scrambling even before you dive into the poem. It may set up expectations your poem doesn’t deliver. Worst of all is the dreaded, ‘Untitled’. Not only does it miss an opportunity to sneak in an extra line to the poem but it also appears the poet couldn’t be bothered to name the baby before shoving it out into the world. Likewise, one-word titles usually don’t grab a reader’s attention unless they stir an emotional response. I can hear the ‘but…’ response coming. There are exceptions to everything.
The title is the first impression a reader gets of your poem. Make it a memorable one. But don’t give away the last line or the big twist in your poem. It drains the excitement when we get to that line. We’ve already seen it. Titles frame our work and make promises to the reader. It’s an unwritten contract and very few writers can break it and retain the dedication of the reader. It’s like killing a dog in a movie or book. You can do it but you risk losing everyone.
Which came first?
Sometimes I have the title before I have the poem, and sometimes the reverse. It feels more organic when they two come together at the same time but I don’t count on being lucky all the time. Sometimes the poem goes to timeout until I can look at it with fresh eyes and a mindset toward the right phrases. I have a whole folder of poem titles waiting to morph into a poem. Or sit and mock me when I can’t write the poem for the title.
Different ways to discover a title.
Lead with a striking image.
Stick the knife in and twist – titles that demand the reader find out what happens based on the title.
Don’t use cliches unless it’s a commentary on the poem. Likewise generics.
Find synonyms for what’s happening in your poem. Bonus points if you can slip in a double meaning.
Something rhythmic that bounces the reader right into the poem.
Riff off a famous song, book or movie.
Open with humor. Everyone loves humor, and a title that promises fun pulls the reader in. Just don’t use a humorous title then write a long dirge about the death of your pet goldfish.
Is the first line of your poem really the first line, or the title?
A phrase from a line.
Straightforward. If your poem is about Aunt Mary, ‘Aunt Mary’s Lament’ is a fine title.
Really long titles that set the scene like the opening to a movie. Star-Wars crawl title, anyone?
A title in direct contradiction to the ending of the poem.
Title as the first line of the poem, dragging us right in.
Then again, you can be Emily Dickinson and not title anything. She did just fine. Name a line from one of her more famous poems and I bet people can fill in the rest. Or you could be James Wright, presenting a title but no poem. If you still want to use ‘Untitled’, go for it. Just be warned it makes it almost impossible to Google your poem and find it on the Web.
Remember, an attractive or intriguing title will grab a reader’s attention. Invite your reader in then whammy them with your awesome poem. I know you can do it.