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Composing Free Verse: Selecting the Title

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by Dave Hood

The title of a poem is often the first thing that readers see and read. If the title is dull, readers are inclined to ignore the poem. Most titles capture the interest of the reader. Glance through any book of poetry by Bill Collins, and you quickly discover that his titles are interesting. Here are a few titles in the table of contents from the Poet’s Laureate Anthology:

  • Pin Up
  • Forgetfulness
  • Man in Space
  • Advice to Writers
  • Another Reason I don’t Keep a Gun in the House

Notice how each title hints at the content of the poem.

Though there are no rules for adding a title, there are a few helpful guidelines. Some you might already know.

In this article, I’ll discuss the purpose of writing a title for a poem and provide some suggestions on how create interesting titles.

The Purpose of the title

Some titles of poems are metaphors; others are similes. Some titles rhyme; others are whimsical. Wallace Stevens wrote a title for a poem called “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters.”

Some titles are short, consisting of a single word; Others are long. Billy Collins titled one of his poems,” Another Reason I keep A gun in the House.” It is 9 words long.

A good title adds meaning to a poem, provides context, tells the reader what the poem is about.  And a great title adds an additional layer of meaning to the poem. It illuminates some deeper meaning, some symbolic meaning, some other meaning that the words of the poem. This type of title resonates throughout the poem. A good example is Wallace Stevens poem, “The Snow Man.”

The Snow Man

by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The first reason for writing a title for a poem is to identify it. The next reason is to introduce the poem to readers. Yet, a title can have many other purposes. For instance:

  • To tell the reader what the poem is about.
  • To tell the reader who the poem is about.
  • To identify the location or setting or context of the poem.
  • To tell the reader that the poem is autobiographical.
  • To share or illuminate deeper meaning, perhaps symbolic meaning.

How to Title a Poem

How do you title a poem? Some writers jot down the title of a poem first, and then compose the details word by word, line by line. The title is like a writing prompt.  Other writers begin by composing the poem itself, then select a title. Each poet decides when to title a poem. It is a decision based the personal preference of the poet.

A title has a purpose, sometimes more than one purpose. The title can represent the first line of the poem.  The title can tell the reader what the poem is about. For instance, “Forgetfulness” is the title of a Billy Collins poem, and the first line is “The name of the author is the first to go….” Right away, the reader knows that the poet is writing about memory loss.

In the “Writing the Life Poetic”, Sage Cohen writes, “Titling a poem is an art.” In other words, finding the title is a creative process.” She goes on to write, “Often a title informs the reader about how to enter the poem and gives him an idea what kind of poem it will be.” Take note of these titles, created by memorable poets:

  • The Fish, by Elizabeth Bishop. The title informs the reader that the poem is about a fish.
  • In the Library, by Charles Simic. The title tells the reader about the setting of the poem.
  • A Fantasy, by Louis Gluck. The title tells us she is imagining something. She goes on to write how a fantasy of a funeral can offer closure to grief.
  • Happiness, by Robert Hass. This abstract title tells the reader that the poem is about happiness. The poet illuminates what happiness is in his poem with concrete and specific details.
  • Pin Up, by Billy Collins. The title is an interesting generalization. We learn that the poem is about the pretty women who adorn a calendar.

Often, you’ll rely on your creative thinking skills, such as brainstorming, using associations, to writing titles. There are no rules, only suggestions for how to write a title for a poem. Here are a few:

  • Use a word or phrase to tell the reader what you are writing about. For instance, if you are writing a poem about love, you might use the title, “On Love.”
  • Use a word or phrase that reveals the context of the poem, such as the social, political, historical time.
  • Use both abstract and concrete titles.
  • Use a simile or metaphor to title a poem.
  • Use a whimsical title.
  • Use a word or phrase from the poem itself as the title.
  • Use the title to represent the first line in the poem.
  • Use the title to represent the last line in the poem.

A simple way of selecting a title for a poem is to make the title the first line of the poem. Poet, Kim Addonizio, begins by posing a question in the first line.

What Do Women Want?

by  Kim Addonizio

I want a red dress.
I want it flimsy and cheap,
I want it too tight, I want to wear it
until someone tears it off me.
I want it sleeveless and backless,
this dress, so no one has to guess
what’s underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store
with all those keys glittering in the window,
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.
I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you
or anything except what
I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.

Summary

The important points to remember are that the title of a poem should relate to its content. The title should also introduce the poem, share some context, tell the reader what the poem is about, either implicitly or explicitly. The title is often the first thing a reader sees and reads. If the title is dull, uninspiring, the reader is likely to move on, without taking the time to read the poem.

Resources

  • Words Overflown By Stars: Creative Writing Instruction and Insight From Vermont College of Fine Arts M.F.A Program, edited by David Jauss
  • Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read & Write Poetry by Sage Cohen
  • The Poet Laureates Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt
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1 Comment

  1. jmanlowe says:

    Love the VOICE you maintain while drawing from other magnificent voices.

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