Today I want to talk about titles and if they actually matter. I would argue that titles do matter and are an important part of any poem. The title is the first thing we read when we read poetry or it should be. If we are more familiar with reading prose, we might just skip over the title like we might a chapter heading in a book. Or maybe we just give it a skim and move on. But titles in poetry work differently than they do in prose in a few key ways.
Sometimes poets use the title as the first line of the poem. This can draw the reader in as we naturally want to complete the sentence or thought.
The title can be used to highlight key moments or themes within the poem. Like in Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith, a favorite of mine. The title of this poem is a line that repeats throughout the piece. The line, ‘not waving but drowning,’ is also a key metaphor within the poem which deals in themes of loneliness and how we are seen by those around us in contrast to how we feel.
Titles can draw us in with comedy or unique titles like Adrian Mitchell’s poems ‘A Puppy Called Puberty’ and ‘A Dog Called Elderly.’ Titles like these can signal the tone of the poem so we know what to expect.
The same can be said for poems that use a really emotional title to tug on heartstrings or elevate the drama of the poem. The poem How to kill a living thing by Eibhlin Nic Eochaidh is a good example of this as is Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen.
Mentioning a specific place brings the reader into the poem quickly. If we recognize the place name then we might begin to imagine that place like the poem Antarctica by Derek Mahon. Immediately we start to think about snow, cold, or maybe we might think of how there are so few people in Antarctica. All of these are themes within the poem.
Referencing a character or other public figure can work in a similar way by helping set the tone and theme of the poem. It could also give us a clue to the time period in reference
One of my favorite poems of all time is What Every Woman Should Carry by Maura Dooley. I was drawn to this poem because of the title. It intrigues me because I wondered if I was carrying any of the items or if there would be a metaphor used relating to the types of objects women carry. The title is a blunt remark, very confident in its tone. Another example might be The All-Purpose Country and Western Self Pity Song by Kit Wright.
Warning by Jenny Joseph is an amazing poem and one I return to again and again. The title draws the reader in because we interpret it to mean multiple things, a sign of danger or something forbidden, or whatever our past experiences with that word lead us to think. Using a single word as a title could tell the reader what to expect or it could be like Jenny Joseph’s and leave room for the reader to interpret what they expect to find. The use of archetypes in the title, like The Trout or The Moose, works similarly by allowing the reader to bring their understanding of that archetype to the poem.
There are poem titles that help the reader understand the broader theme of the piece. We might read a poem that seems abstract but when we relating it back to the title can give us some clarity into the central message of the poem. For example, the poem Relationship by Janos Pilinszky is a short poem that contains the lines:
you sit and I sit
you lose and I lose
Without the title of Relationship, these lines could be interpreted in many ways. We could read it maybe as an invitation to another person, the outcome of a game or a meal, but the title gives us clarity.
There are of course poets who choose not to title their poems, which adds an air of mystery making us curious about the poem. Sometimes an untitled poem can be used intentionally to highlight a theme in the piece so it is always worth interrogating.
Some poets begin with a title which will then inspire their poem. Others, like myself, will write a poem and then decide on a title once it is finished. Coming up with a title is always the hardest part of the poem for me, and I’m always tempted to just title my work ‘Untitled.’ But a great title can make a poem memorable and can draw the reader’s curiosity and in that way, the title is, arguably, the most important part of a poem. So I will continue coming up with mediocre titles for my poems. I guess.
What are some of your favourite poem titles? I would love to know. My partner made the point recently that all the videos I’ve made so far have covered poetry terms and techniques that I don’t like. And that is true. So, I think for the last video of the year I’m going to cover something that I do like, so hopefully that will be more entertaining? Useful? Who knows.