When looking for a non fiction book or article, clear, descriptive titles that reassure people (and search engines) they’ve found the right place will help get the book or article read. However, descriptive, explanatory titles don’t work for fiction. Fiction titles need to grab the reader and novelists know the importance of that opening paragraph.
With poems, the title is of utmost importance. Not only can it make an editor snowed under with submissions stop and read your poem but it can draw a reader in. Most poems are published in an anthology format: either in a magazine or book or listed on a search engine results page if someone is searching for poems on X. Someone scanning down a list of titles or skimming through a pile of poems isn’t going to stop and read “untitled”. After all if you can’t be bothered to title your poem, why would anyone read it?
What makes a good title? It’s easier to give examples rather than checklists. There’s no magic formula (nor should there be) as the title is dependent on the poem.
What’s the poem about, specifically? A title that encourages a reader to ask questions can compel the reader to read on and find out the answers. Eg “The Phone Call” won’t encourage readers. It’s too commonplace and doesn’t prompt the “why?” question. If you give your poem a commonplace title, you signal to potential readers that the poem itself is probably commonplace and ordinary.
What specific details can be added to the title to encourage questions? Time, place, type of phone, person?
“Phone Call at 3am” It’s an unusual time to make/take a call so readers might be asking “why then?” Night calls generally contain important family news or are made by insomniacs. “Phone Call at 11am” becomes more commonplace and less intriguing.
“Phone Call from Ecuador at 3 am” only works if readers expect the poet or poem’s narrator to be based somewhere not in Ecuador and if the readership are likely to see Ecuador as someone exotic or unlikely. The location has to be reasonably well-known – no one’s going to consult an atlas or search engine to find out where Lushanta is if they don’t already know and readers don’t like to feel stupid. It needn’t be a specific location either, “Phone Call from the Waste Land”, “Phone Call from the Bar at the End of the World” might intrigue.
Here, the time doesn’t add any intrigue at all because it’s not clear whether it’s 3 am for the call recipient or for the person making the call so it loses significance. Telephone calls from points of arrival or departure such as airports or train stations such as “Telephone Call from Ecuador Airport at 3 am” raises questions about whether someone’s arriving or leaving and why.
“The Phone in the Call Box Rang” creates an unexpected scenario – will the poem’s narrator answer the phone, who’s calling, why? Would have made a better title for a certain Hollywood film too, but also might put the film’s plot in the mind of potential readers and risks their disappointment if the poem doesn’t live up to its title.
“The Red Phone Rang” leads to the question “why is it red?” or a sense of urgency, a red phone could represent a hotline. Similarly unexpected people using a type of phone creates curiosity, eg “The Android-freak called on an iPhone”, “An Acid Attack Victim phones on Skype.”
How about the person making or receiving the call? “Phone Call from My Ex-Lover at 3am from Ecuador” raises several “why?” questions.
What none of these suggestions do is come at the poem’s subject obliquely. It’s possible to be too clever. Any poem with “phone call” in the title will set up the reasonable expectation that a phone call will feature somewhere in the poem and frustrating a reader’s expectations will discourage them from reading anymore of your poems.
Whereas a blog post title needs to be descriptive and predictable, such qualities in a poem’s title will kill it.