Because it is the first thing a reader sees, the poem’s title sets the stage for the drama that will unfold. It lets your readers know how to enter the poem and gives them an idea what kind of poem it will be.
A poem’s title can define a time period, “Civil War” (yours truly), a season, “Winter” (Marie Ponsot) or a moment in time, like Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died.” Or it may establish a specific location, “Cannon Beach At Sunset,” or a more general one, such as William Stafford’s “Over the Mountain.” It can let us know who the poem is about, as in Ron Koertge’s “Cinderella’s Diary” or name the extended metaphor that will be explored, as in Billy Collins’ “The Lanyard.”
Timing is important when choosing a title. You don’t want to start (or more importantly, finish) too soon. Writing a poem can feel much like trying to steer a runaway car. You think you’re headed to the supermarket, but then suddenly the poem gains momentum in some other direction, and you’re heading at breakneck speed into that empty lot where Jason Phillips beat up your brother in second grade.
For this reason, I recommend not worrying too much about what the title might be when you start writing a poem. Let the journey of the poem unfold. You may end up editing the supermarket entirely out of the final poem, making the title “Aisle Two, Bulk Cashews” completely irrelevant. Once the poem has revealed itself and is fully formed, that’s the time to think about finalizing your title.
The good news about choosing an ill-suited title early in the poem-writing process is that it can serve as an itch that keeps you scratching until you’ve discovered more about what the poem truly wants to be. In other words, when a poem closes a door, it opens a window! Sometimes, the wrong title can lead us from what looks like a dead end through a porthole into some topic or theme we might not have otherwise discovered.
Wondering how to title a poem? Not sure if the title you chose is working well? Ask yourself these questions to explore the range of possibilities available to you and keep experimenting until you find the one that fits best:
- Do I want readers to know exactly what this poem will be about after reading the title?
- Do I want them to know who is speaking, or what time period is covered, or where the poem is located?
- How would a more abstract title–one that represents a key theme of the poem–work? (As in “The Weight” by Linda Gregg, a poem that intimately studies the relationship of two horses)
- Is there exposition in the poem that could be cut and replaced with a title? (Then you could just dive into the poem without having to explain the context of the action.) Tu Fu does this well in “Alone, Looking for Blossoms Along the River.”
- Would the first line work well as a title? (Sometimes the title serves as the first line of the poem. Sometimes it repeats the first line of the poem.)
- Would the last line work well as a title?
- Is there a phrase within the poem that captures the essence of what the poem is about?
- How can I use the title to shed light on or add depth to the poem-saying something that takes the reader a little deeper than the poem does on its own?
The more you experiment with titling your work, the better you’ll know your own style, strategies and the range of possibilities available to you in every poem.