Last Bank Holiday weekend, I posted Spring lamb with floral trimmings, which included a poem I’ve had in my files for a long time under the title Easter Edition. I’ve always thought it was a weak title but hadn’t come up with anything better. Now I’m wondering whether using the post title, or something similar, such as Lamb with apple-blossom garnish, would be a good idea, or whether it would just be gimmicky.
This got me thinking of poem titles in general. Rather than write a whole new piece on the subject, I’ve adapted the following from Making titles count, a piece I wrote recently for my poetry column in The Woman Writer, the magazine of the SWWJ:
No one would think of publishing a book without a title, but I have poetry-writing friends who never use titles: they simply identify their poems by numbers. I think they’re missing out on a very powerful tool.
It’s true that two of the best known and best loved collections of poems are numbered, but although many of us would know Psalm 23, or Shakespeare’s sonnet XXX by number, they aren’t exactly memorable titles. A lot more people are likely to recognise the texts if they hear the first lines: “The Lord is my shepherd” and “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought” respectively.
When readers look through the table of contents of a poetry anthology, they see the titles; when they flick through the pages, it’s likely that the titles stand out. If you want readers to stop at your poem or deliberately turn to the page it’s on, the title needs to catch their attention: it may be appealing, provocative or intriguing, but it needs to engage your reader and make them want to read more.
Often the poem’s first line is lifted and used as a title, but although this allows the poem to be more readily identified than a number, in many ways it’s a wasted opportunity: a title has so much more potential.
Poetry is a concise form: no words should be wasted, so poems are often short and spare. The title offers an extra space where you can include additional information or introduce what’s coming. It would be very boring, though, if the title gave away all that was included in the poem: it should pique the reader’s interest, not spoil the reading experience by revealing the content.
Many poems also rely heavily on layered language and metaphor: the literal meaning and the intended reading can be very different. A title can be a way of shedding light on the poet’s meaning. Once the reader gets to the end, they may return to the title and find that it offers a clue to deeper or additional meanings. It’s important to recognise, though, that the title comes at the beginning: it’s not a punchline that pulls the cloth away to reveal all in the final phrase. The reader should have read the title and have it there in the back of their mind informing their reading.
A good poem title, then, catches the reader’s eye; it introduces the poem in an interesting way without limiting the potential for different readings; and it can be a key to unlock the layers of meaning: it attracts, introduces, and illuminates.