Poetry workshop: The title

fireworksWhy should a poem have a good title? What can it add? Why is it important? Many poets wrestle with titles and end up using what is called a “label”. So their poem is about whales, and they call the poem Whale. Or after trying a few different titles, they decide to call it Untitled (or to be clever and call it Untitled 23).

A poem without a strong title is a missed opportunity. A good title can do a number of things:

* It can act like the first line of the poem and pull the reader in

* It can hook the reader’s interest

* It can add another element to the poem, of symbolism or metaphor, or other layers of meaning

* It can make the reader think, and lead to a re-reading of the poem

Yes, there are plenty of poems without good titles, and plenty of poems with label titles. But if your poem seems to be missing something, try revising the title first. Here are some ways to tackle this:

* Think about what your poem is really about (the theme, or what you really want to say) – if your poem needs a little more, try to write a title that brings in an element of theme. E.g. Billy Collins’s poem Forgetfulness is about much more than forgetting, it’s also about loss at a much deeper level, so the ironic title is pointing out we shouldn’t just dismiss a little forgetfulness.

* Conversely, if you have written about a deep subject with several layers of meaning, anything more than a simple label might be overkill. E.g. the language in Ted Kooser’s poem Dishwater is so full of imagery that we almost need the simple title to help us grasp the poem!

* A title that sets up a poem is doing double duty – can you take out your first line and revise it into a title? In Lucille Clifton’s poem here rests this is how it works.

* Can your title lead your reader into new ideas and set the poem up with an implied question (or even a real question)? Sylvia Plath does this with Lady Lazarus – we know who Lazarus was, rising from the dead, but we don’t know who Lady Lazarus is, so we want to read and find out.

One of the best ways to learn how to write good titles is to gather a few collections and choose poems based solely on their titles (or go to a website such as poets.org), then read each poem and work out how and what the title is adding to the poem. Many years ago I wrote a poem about driving home from Brighton to the other side of Melbourne, where I lived, and titled it Struck By An Urge to Live in Brighton. Even though it’s not a fabulous poem, everyone loves the title (especially Melbournites) and wants to read it. That’s a successful title!

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