Why and how to title a poem

Once in a while a title for a poem comes to mind before a poem’s appearance, but usually each new poem arrives in need of a name.

Why bother? You might not need to if you write traditional haiku or number your poems in a sonnet sequence. Most of the time though, leaving a poem untitled works about as well as not naming a child. How would you call the kid to dinner? How would you claim a child without I.D.? How would you report a missing person or a kidnapped poem with no name to identify it as yours?

Titles help you to:

Keep track of each poem’s whereabouts.

Discuss the poem with a potential editor.

Catch the attention of a reader flipping pages.

But how do poets find effective titles, over and over again?

To call a poem to your mind or to someone else’s, try these suggestions:

Jot down each relevant word, phrase, or symbol that fits the central thought, theme, or image of your poem.

For a humorous poem, consider a word play, alliteration, or cliché you can alter to enhance the humor. For instance, a children’s word game I called “Silly Sound Alike” kept coming back until I changed its title to “Ring Goes the Homophone.”

For dramatic emphasis, select one word or symbol.

Or, make the title snap in five words or less.

Or, play with an unusually long title to create humor or make a serious statement or help readers enter into the experience of a poem that might otherwise be indecipherable to anyone who doesn’t know what’s happening.

For more on titles see “Title-Tales: on finding effective titles for your poems.”

© 2012, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.

If you need a professional opinion of your titles and every other part of your poems, you can get helpful suggestions in a poetry critique for a minimal fee from Mary Sayler, whose new book Living in the Nature Poem is now available from the environmental publisher Hiraeth Press.)

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