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Susan PlettTitling Your Work
Copyright©2010 by Susan Plett

This is Susan's first column in our "Poet's Classroom" series.

For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.” Ursula Le Guin

At this very moment, I have three “How To” books on the craft of poetry open on my desk. I pick up the first one, flip to the index, and look for the word “title." It’s not there. I read the chapter headings. Nothing.

I open a search engine. “Titling your poem” finds me exactly one article (besides various wiki and answer.com replies.) I try “poem title” and get several pages of lists of poems. How about “writing titles for poems”? Halfway down the page, the article "Poetry Writing Tips" contains the line “Untitled poems are like unnamed children.” It seems like a great starting place, but that’s all the article has to say about titles. Great analogy though—how many of us would introduce a child with “here is my daughter—she has no name.”?

I work on the editorial board of a literary magazine. During our reading period, I read upwards of 300 poems, and am required to identify my top five. I don’t do math, but whatever percentage that is, it is very very tiny. If I see a poem called “Untitled” my immediate reaction is to put it on the discard pile, reasoning that if the writer of the poem doesn’t know what it’s about, I won’t either. Similarly, if I see a poem entitled “Love”, or any other generic, non-tangible, overused word, (mother, child, heart), I am instantly sceptical that what I am about to read will be, in any way, fresh or new or interesting.

Is your title like a limp handshake?

The title is your poem’s handshake, the first chance at a good impression. It carries a lot of responsibility, and it is unfortunate that so little is written about how to title your work effectively. Here are some examples of effective titles and an analysis of why they are effective, and when they might be used.

1. The title repeats the first line
A title can simply be your first line repeated, as in Elizabeth Cole’s Carve Your Name Into the Cross. In this instance, this is effective because the image created by the phrase “carve your name into the cross” is compelling. It is a title that immediately piques the reader’s curiosity, and it is also a common image (that of carving your name into something) turned on its side. Carving my name into a tree is something I am familiar with. Carving my name into that particular Tree? The very idea makes me feel bold, and reckless, and I want to read more. The image is strong enough to be repeated. Be careful not to default to this approach—if your first line is not a strong enough image to bear repeating, you may want to work a little harder at a title.

(For more examples of effective use of title in this manner see James Beard’s “Love Walking Strange” and Mary Lou Cornish’s “I Chased My Healing."

2. The title is the first line
A title can be the first line of your poem, where the poem’s narrative structure naturally flows from the title to the first line. A good example of this is found in Delia Corrigan’s “Let’s Talk About:"

Let's Talk About

That unanswered prayer, life or death
The lump in my throat
The multitudes living in rebellion and
The havoc they are wreaking on my children
We are sorry to inform yous
The lady with the scarf, hiding baldness…

Without the invitational “Let’s Talk About," this poem could read as a laundry list of complaints by an unidentified narrator, however, the connection between the poem’s title and first line evoke a narrator-reader intimacy. The title adds a conversational quality to the poem that effectively involves a broad potential audience. Who doesn’t like to be asked for their opinion?

3. The title repeats a phrase or "hook" from the poem
A title can repeat a particularly compelling or strong phrase from within the body of the poem. This is especially effective if the phrase in question is found near the end of the poem, creating a sort of “book end” effect. Two strong examples of this are Ellen Gray’s “A Country of No Brides” and Barbara Mitchell’s “Small Courage.”

4. A Sonnet by any other name...
This next is specific to form poetry, such as sonnets, vilanelles, etc. A quick scan of titles in “In Fine Form*,” an anthology of form poetry by Canadians, garners several poems in which the form being used is part, or all, of the title. A note of caution: if you are submitting to a market that does not specifically ask for form poetry, you run the risk of an editor unfamiliar with form dismissing “Sonnet #1” as laziness, and relegating your work to the discard pile.

5. Answer a question
A title can answer questions that would get in the way of the reader immediately being drawn in to the poem. Leah Stewart has a poem that begins:

He should have been my share
after a childhood sullenly sharing dolls…

The immediate questions raised are: Who is “he” referring to? Who is the narrator? Why is she feeling entitled? Why should I care about these people?

The poem's title, “The Other Daughter of Laban,” answers those questions before they are raised, and strengthens the impact of her first line. Without the title, there is no pathos in “He should have been my share”, but who could think of the spurned older sister and not hear the anguish in that first line?

(see also, “Stanley Kunitz,” by Mary Oliver)

6. Add detail
A title can add a detail that would be cumbersome to include in the main body of the poem, often a detail that the poem needs in order to make sense. Kristina Lim’s “Boys in the Balcony” begins:

They were fighter planes
the size of bubble gum wrappers
We weren’t supposed to chew gum in church…

Her title gives the reader an immediate visual that even her third line doesn’t accomplish. We know there is gum being chewed in church, but without the balcony, the visual is intangible enough to obscure the story without a re-read.

(see also, "Decade," by Amy Lowell and "Stillbirth," by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

7. Add a layer of meaning
A title can add a layer of meaning to an otherwise perfectly clear poem. Ev Heffernan’s “Reunion Haiku" paints two very clear pictures:

Reunion Haiku

i)
relatives, fruit, beer
spoil in the afternoon sun
why did I attend?

ii)
like old worn-out skin
I shed my family ties
best friends take their place

Both of these haiku are strong enough to stand on their own, but the title raises the possibility that family ties are shed as a result of having made a decision at a reunion. For an instant, we can see the cast of family characters and feel the narrator’s need for distance.

8. Make it a springboard
A title can provide a springboard or jumping-off place for the reader to enter into the poem. Without a title, Jan Wood’s early lines

“imagine your veins hot silver
quickened beyond boiling point
and winter razor-thin riding every nerve
…because it was like that…

give me no clue what experience the narrator is referring to. However, the title “...finding the words... combined with the first line reminds me what it is like to be so energized by the act of creativity that I can’t sit still.

Which of these approaches to titling will be best depends on your particular poem. The best titles will do more than one of these things. Sound like a tall order? Sure, but that’s the nature of excellence.

Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.

Copyright ©2010 by Susan Plett


Endnotes:

*In Fine Form, edited by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve