Expanding Your Poem with a Great Title

Why are you reading this article right now? Is it because the title caught your attention? Titles serve many purposes and can add to the excellence of a poem.
 
Linda Nemec Foster, author of Talking Diamonds and first poet laureate of Grand Rapids, believes that a title serves the purpose of “setting the stage.” She states that “the title must reflect the poem's heart or intent. It should be interesting and original so that the reader or audience will want to read it or pay attention to what comes next.”
 
The author of Uncoded Woman and an instructor at Interlochen Arts Academy, Anne Marie Oomen added the following: “I tend to like [titles] that work as a part of the poem. I don’t care for titles that just announce what the poem is about. I think a title should do more, should do some work for the poem. So I like titles that set a scene, or introduce a speaker, or give a hint but not the whole story of what the poem is going to be about.”
 
David Cope, author of Turn the Wheel, and manager of the Kent County Poetry Contest thinks a poem should, “in some way suggest the heart of the poem, somehow being ‘catchy’ without being trivial.”
 
The author of Mutual Shores, Philip Sterling, explained a great deal about a title’s importance: “For practical purposes, a title gives us a reference point, helps us find the poem in a book, helps distinguish today's poem from yesterday's poem. But there are impractical reasons, as well. I like titles that allow expansion. Yet, many titles are simply to distinguish. And there are a good number of poets who see the title as the first line (or editors who title the poems with the first lines, as in the case of Dickinson . . .). I've done all those things, including using an epigram as a title. I don't think there's one way; but my personal opinion is that a title should help the poem to ‘expand’.”
 
Sue Silverman, author of Hieroglyphics in Neon, contributed the following: “Even as titles, of course, are important for all genres of writing (fiction, nonfiction), I feel they’re especially important for poems. Since poems are short, the title needs to capture the underlying essence of the poem. Additionally, a title is important in that it must act as a portal that invites the reader into the poem. In that sense, then, it must convey a sense of mystery or intrigue, make the reader want to discover what the title (and, thus, the poem) means.”
Sue’s husband, Marc Sheehan, author of Gretest Hits, thought: “A successful title should do two things - provide a context for the poem, and make the reader want to read the poem.”
 
These professional poets all also offered up their best title writing advice to you. Linda Nemec Foster offered that, “Although, sometimes I've started with a title first and then written the poem, I usually change the title afterward. So, I would suggest that most poems (at least for me) are drafted and worked on before the title solidifies. In other words, let the poem take its own course and see what title it wants to give itself.”
Anne-Marie Oomen also told us her method: “To come up with a title, I try three things. Is there a small part of a line in the poem that would start to lead the reader into the poem? Is there a way the title can give important information not yet in the poem? Is there a way the title can name something happening in the poem that will enrich the poem once the reader is done reading?”
 
David Cope offered, “Sometimes the last few lines of the poem can suggest what the title should be. Sometimes I've used the first line of the poem as a title so that it serves two purposes (heart of the poem and beginning of the first sentence). Sometimes it's a phrase from somewhere in the poem itself. It can be a first line identical to the last line in a poem that cycles through many ideas/scenarios only to return to its own beginning. It can be an ironic comment playing off the material of the poem. Or it can be an intense image which reflects the materials within.”
 
Philip Sterling’s advice: “Don't worry at first. Write the poem. Then see if there's any line in the poem that can be extracted as a title--and omitted from the poem. That is, let the poem decide what it wants to be called . . . but don't be afraid to change it, if much later, you decide it should be something else. I've changed a number of titles when I've put together a book, because the titles sometimes show their connection, their interrelationship.”
 
“Sometimes, wrote Sue Silverman, "a phrase in the poem itself will lend itself to a title—which is always a relief. If that doesn’t happen, then you might try some free-writing, kind of doodling with words and phrases to see if you come up with an image that represents the poem."
Mark Sheehan gave simple advice, “Don't be afraid of longer titles. Also, don't be afraid of a title that might be ironic.”
 
Title writing can a challenge, but using this expert advice might make that difficult task easier.

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