How much work can the title of a poem really be expected to do, and how do you find the right title for your poem
You’ve written the poem. Now it needs a title. Something that both expresses something essential about the poem and grabs the eye of a reader. There are endless possibilities, but many of them are already taken. Or dull. Or obscure. Or hackneyed. The title for your poem may be obvious, in which case good for you, but it’s often not. So how do you find the right title? Or, at least, how do you avoid the wrong one?
What should a poem title do?
A good title piques a reader’s interest. It should offer a glimpse into the poem. It might evoke a mood, set up a conflict, be intriguing, quirky or funny. It can be short; one word titles are great, see Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’, and Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’. It can be long, see below. But above all, it has a job of work to do, and it needs to do it. It needs to set your poem aside from all the others, and suggest to a reader that it will reward them spending a bit of time with it.
What is the longest poem title in the English language? Is it ‘The Auld Farmer’s New-Year-Morning Salutation to his Auld Mare, Maggie, on giving her the Accustomed Ripp of Corn to Hansel in the New-Year’ by Robert Burns? No it is not. Is it ‘Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree Which Stands Near the Lake of Esthwaite, on a Desolate Part of the Shore, Yet Commanding a Beautiful Prospect’ by William Wordsworth? Again, no. Nor is it ‘Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles’ by Billy Collins.
It is, in fact, ‘On the Great Encouragement Given by the English Nobility & Gentry to Correggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Catalani, Du Crowe, & Dilbury Doodle’ by William Blake. Though one of our own Friday Poems – ‘I’ll Know I’ve Made It When Going to a LongHorn Steakhouse on a Sunday Evening in the Dead of Winter Doesn’t Depress the Hell Out of Me‘ by Christine Naprava gives it a good run for its money.
But do long titles make good titles?
But do long titles make good titles? Well, when they are funny, or smart – and Billy Collins’s is both funny and smart – they do. But long titles risk doing too much. A poem that tells you exactly what’s going to happen in the poem – that gives the game away – isn’t going to tempt anyone to read further.
Historically, many poems didn’t have titles. The titles was often the same as the first line, or ‘Poem’, or a number, e.g. Sonnet 115. Frank O’Hara, wrote 56 poems titled ‘Poem’. There are freedoms associated with such a broad title. It’s inherently humble, unassuming. But a ‘Poem’ can also function as a sort of ars poetica – you can go wherever you want under its banner. Poets.org says “A poem called ‘Poem’ shows its reader that there is a poet at work – and also that there is a reader. It points to nothing in particular, and to itself at the same time.” Read poets.org on poems titled ‘Poem‘.
Emily Dickinson didn’t title most of her poems. John Mulvihill, in Why Dickinson Didn’t Title, on Modern American Poetry, argues that in fact that there are only four genuine Dickinson titles. Various people have suggested why this is – because she didn’t publish, or seek publication; that titles are associated with authority, an authority that Dickinson, as a nineteenth-century woman in a patriarchal culture, could not claim; that not titling was one aspect of her radical modernism; that she was temperamentally uninterested in finishing a poem. Mulvihill thinks Dickinson’s non-titling arises out of her linguistic scepticism.
Can you get away with not titling poems? Short answer: no. Long answer: maybe
Can you get away with not titling poems? Short answer: no. Long answer: maybe, if it’s good enough, or there’s a point to it. Here’s ‘Untitled’ by Etel Adnan in the New York Times, translated by Sarah Riggs from the French. If you can do it as well as Etel Adnan, go ahead, the world is your lobster.
trapped in our imagination
the angels appear in our
desires; the first light of day
makes them vanish
sadness punctures the walls of
the mind which then turns
into rice fields and trenches
walk on the perimeter
of your dreams. it’s not
that the roads are blocked
but that the hearts have
given into the violence of the wind
All title, no poem
One of our favourites is ‘In Memory of the Horse David, Who Ate One of My Poems’ by James Wright, a poem which is all title and no poem – hear James Wright talking about it here. And there’s Don Paterson’s ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’, where again the title is followed by an otherwise empty page. One might say, as Rob Mackenzie does in his piece on The Blank Page and White Space in Poetry in Magma, that this succeeds due to the playful link with Zen, and the absurd juxtaposition of wordlessness with the incredibly long title. Or is it just a cheap joke? The poem is, apparently, one of Paterson’s most anthologised pieces. But returns on the all-title-no-poem poem are diminishing, and you try this at your own risk.
Dos and don’ts of choosing a title
— Do choose a title that sheds some light on the project of the poem. The title and the poem can work together to add understanding to the reader’s experience. Don’t miss this opportunity to add another layer of meaning.
— Don’t use abstract nouns such as Beauty, Love, Hope. It sounds old fashioned. It’s been done before, countless times. Ditto Pastoral (we’ve all done it). These titles make vast claims for a poem, and your poem is going to have to work VERY hard to deliver them.
— Do make sure you’re not using the same title as another more famous poem – there’s only one ‘Howl‘ – or another, more famous, thing, for example ‘Summer Holiday’. Google your prospective title and see what comes up. Unless, of course, you’re making a point about that particular earlier poem.
— Don’t name your poem after seasons, months, weather. So no to Spring, Summer, Autumn, January, Rainfall, Snowy Day. OK Don Paterson gets a let for his poem ‘Rain‘. And obviously we are all happy with John Keats’ ‘To Autumn‘.
— Do be specific, not general. As Emma Lee says on her blog, “‘Nature’ is too generic: it is a gentle pastoral poem or is its nature red in tooth and claw? Is it even about the natural world?”
— Do say your title out loud to yourself and to other people too. Emma Lee says, “Sound patterns can enhance a title. Sharp, abrupt monosyllablics create a different impression to meandering, long vowels.”
— And while we’re here, do check that your title isn’t unintentionally crude. Be careful with words with dual meanings. Ask your friends what they think of it, in fact ask the most raucous and lewd friend what they think of it, and if he or she titters then there may be something going on you’re not aware of.
If your poem is good enough, you can do what you like
But rules were made to be broken, and anyway these aren’t rules, more guidelines. If your poem is good enough, you can do what you like. Here are three of our favourite poem titles:
‘Yorkshire Pudding Rules’ by Ian Macmillan is a parody of a religious text, with at least 18 commandments regarding the pudding-making ritual and its implements. Macmillan gives the word ‘Rules’ a noun / verb double meaning in the title, and it can be read as an factual instruction or a celebreratory holler.
‘Please Do Not Touch the Walrus or Sit on the Iceberg’ by Caleb Parkin is an intriguing title which illustrates Parkin’s ability to balance humour with passion for his subject. It signals Parkin’s stylistic playfulness while also promising to explore serious environmental issues and notions about crossing boundaries and challenging received wisdom.
‘Poor Britney Spears‘ from Tony Hoagland’s collection Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty is grabby, funny and clever – both the title and the entire poem. The title segues into the poem; the first lines are: “is not the beginning of a sentence / you hear often uttered in my household.” We all know Britney Spears, and we don’t often think of her as “poor”, and the title leads into lines that echo our own thoughts. In the poem Hoagland skewers late 20th century American celebrity culture, and his own ambivalence towards it, and the title readies us for this perfectly.