Individual Poem Titles
Imagine picking up a door-stop of an anthology with several pages of contents which only list the poems’ titles, not the poets. Which one would you choose to read first?
It won’t be the one called “Untitled”: if the poet couldn’t be bothered with a title, why should the reader bother?
Or the ones called “Nature” or “Love”. One word titles are difficult to successfully pull off unless the poet has chosen a word with a complex or ambigious meaning. “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? “Love” similarly doesn’t offer any clues. It could be a greetings card valentine or too personal to share with a general reader.
Place names can be tricky too. When I co-edited “Welcome to Leicester” far too many submissions were simply titled “Leicester” – how could readers choose between “Leicester” and “Leicester”?
A good title entices a reader to read the poem. It offers a glimpse into the poem or sets up a sense of intrigue. It might evoke a mood, set up a conflict, be quirky or funny. “A Phone Call” sounds fairly mundane but “3am Phone Call” sounds ominous – phone calls in the early hours are usually made to pass on a piece of urgent news. A poem called “As the willows weep into the brook” is going to be very different from “A cinnamon streak disturbs the willow.” “The Raven”, suggesting melancholy and eldritch intelligence, will be very different to “The Parrot” suggesting a riot of colour and noise.
Avoid “does what it says on the tin” style titles that give away spoilers since the reader might feel there’s no point in reading the poem. “Photograph of my Mother” doesn’t signal to the reader why they should read your poem since they don’t know your mother or the significance of the photograph. If your poem has a refrain – a repeated line or phrase – avoid using this as the title because it draws attention to it and the reader might be tempted to focus on when the refrain appears and what pattern has been set up rather than reading the poem.
It might be tempting to confound the reader, creating a title that sets up an expectation which is dashed or destroyed by the poem, e.g. taking that poem about a raven and giving it a cheerful, colourful title. Or using a title that has nothing to do with the poem but sounds good. “A Torrid Affair” sounds intriguing but if the poem doesn’t move beyond the restaurant table at a first date, the reader might become annoyed and put off.
Say your title out loud too. Sound patterns can enhance a title. Sharp, abrupt monosyllablics create a different impression to meandering, long vowels.
Try out different titles too. You’re not obliged to stick with your working title. Pick some key words or a key image from your poem and see what they suggest.
Titles can’t be copyrighted. So there’s nothing to stop you using a title that’s already in use. Likewise, there’s nothing to stop someone else using one of your poem titles.
However, bear in mind that, two poems with the same title will draw comparisons, particularly if one is more famous. Some editors/competition administrators put poem titles into search engines to check a poem hasn’t been previously published and may not have time to check beyond the title to see if it is the same poem.
Publishers recommend a collection shares its title with one of the poems within. This gives a collection its focus and makes the collection easier to market.
Reviewers often read the collection through the lens of the title poem and may make assumptions about the key themes or what the collection is about based on the title poem.
Therefore, choosing the title poem needs to focus on how you want the poems to be seen or how the reader might best approach your collection. So the title poem might not necessarily be the one which won a prize, was individually published in a dream journal or is the poet’s favourite.
It is possible not to have a title poem. When I approached the publisher, I said that “Ghosts in the Desert” was a working title and they asked for a title poem. Possible title poems were “Deserted Voices”, “A Frosted Line for the Dark to Follow” or “Photographing a Ghost”. In the first ‘deserted’ was in the sense of being abandoned but it was also about soldiers who’d done turns in Afghanistan so could be about a sandy desert but that was wrong image for the collection as a whole. “A Frosted Line for the Dark to Follow” was too long and likely to become truncated. It was also somewhat abstract and didn’t really give a sense as to what the collection was about – it’s the only poem that features an ice-skater. “Photographing a Ghost” might have worked. However, when I’d drawn up my shortlist, the publishers decided the original title had grown on them and they would keep it.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.
January 31, 2022 at 9:36 am
Useful as always, Emma, and timely for me – thank you.