How to Title a Poem
By Jim Daniels
We title everything — so, some of this will be relevant to writers of nonfiction and fiction as well — but the thing about poems is that the title gets more weight.
A lot of poems are only on one page, so you get the title and the poem and the two create an energy. Even if it’s a two-page-or-longer poem, you still get the title in your head. In a story, novel or memoir, the title can kind of recede in your memory.
Some writers start with the title when they sit down to write. Some writers will start some of their work with a title. But for a majority of the authors, I know the title is an afterthought. It’s added later on, once we know where we’re going.
The way I write, I don’t know where I’m going. So, the initial title can often be misleading, or keep me from going where I want to go — or where the poem wants to go. I’ll give you an example from my own work, based on a real event.
“The Wrong Daniels”
There was another Daniels family on our street and the boy in that other Daniels family, not related to my family, shot his sister one day. He didn’t kill her, but he wounded her.
Initially, we were getting phone calls at our house with people thinking I or one of my brothers had shot my sister. My initial response was “Oh, haha, of course we would never shoot our sister. I mean, that’s ridiculous how could anyone even imagine that?”
The initial title of the poem I wrote about that story was “The Wrong Daniels.” That title, however, kept the poem in the realm of being an anecdote and not a poem because I could distance myself
“Oh, isn’t it odd that people may have thought that myself or one of my brothers had shot my sister? I mean, that’s crazy.” But if I only tell that story, there’s a barrier there. It’s just an odd fact. So, “The Wrong Daniels” was the wrong title.
If you ever look at the acknowledgments of any book of poems, they list where the poems were previously published, a lot of times in literary magazines. One of the things that you notice is that the poet published the poem under a different title originally in a literary magazine and then when they were putting a book together, they changed the title.
That’s a temptation that I’ve succumbed to it as well. So, the second title for “The Wrong Daniels” was “Protection,” and I was thinking that was too neutral for me in terms of the intimate world I was trying to create.
‘On the street’
One of the options that we have, particularly in poetry, that I don’t really see in other forms of writing, is where you run the title into the poem so that the title is both first line and the title. Often that’s indicated by not capitalizing the words, but this may be done by having the words in boldface or some visual element.
What I did: The first line of that poem was, “On the other end of the street,” and then it went, “A kid with my last name shoots his sister.”
That’s the title I ended up using, because it worked on more than one level. That’s one of the things we try to do in writing, particularly with poetry, because it’s supposed to be the most compressed, intense form of language there is. If you can get something to work on more than one level — which is, of course, what similes and metaphors do — then you’re getting a little more mileage out of it. So, in my mind at least, I was thinking, “On the other end of the street,” but also “On the other end of ourselves.”
In other words, the poem for me ended up being about not that whether I will ever shoot my sister or not, but that we all have the capacity for doing horrible things in our lives, inside of us, that exists within all of us. For me to get to that poem, I had to acknowledge that, and so that title helped me acknowledge it while also grounding the poem “on the street.”
Ground the poem
Another thing that titles can do is to ground the poem. My friend Michael Delp, who also went to Alma College and who taught at Interlochen Academy for many years, once said that if you have one foot on the ground, the other foot can go wherever it wants. I thought that was a great metaphor for a title, because if we don’t have any feet on the ground — and some poems do that to us — we enter the poem and we’re in freefall, just trying to figure out what’s going on.
We don’t have to have both feet on the ground, but at least one, because that gives us a kind of anchor so the other foot can move around that anchor foot, so that they’re always in proximity in terms of how far you can stretch one leg from another. But it can wander, to a certain extent.
There are different ways to ground the poem. One is simply in place and time. Ted Kooser, who I admire a lot, is a former U.S. Poet Laureate and he does that a lot, particularly since so many of his poems are set in Nebraska, where he lives.
There are some poets who are more poets of place. Not every poem or poet needs to tell us exactly where we are, but on some level it’s good to know. James Wright, a poet from Martins Ferry, Ohio, has a poem, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” It’s about a high school football game. From the title, we know what time of year it is and where the city is. Even if we don’t know what Martins Ferry, Ohio, is, or where that is, the name evokes something. So, we have that foot on the ground, and I think sometimes a literal time and place in the title can be effective.
Another thing is a kind of tonal title. For example, the title “Protection,” that I was using — that had no tone to it. Sometimes you can get through a poem and then once you read the poem, the title makes sense. Even though it might seem neutral at the beginning, after you read the poem, the title makes more sense.
But there’s a poet named Lee Upton, who has a poem called “Pity for Blondes.” What you got from that title is a different kind of grounding. You got the attitude, pity, and you got a subject, blondes. That gives you a head start on the tone of the poem. It’s a funny poem and I think “Pity for Blondes” can evoke a moving in that direction in terms of pity being a slightly sort of facetious word there.
I hope this provides some new ways to think about titles. Giving a piece the right title can provide many opportunities. Do yourself a favor and keep exploring. Don’t settle for the first title that comes to you.
The Alma College Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing offers the opportunity to enter an artistic community in which you will read deeply, study and hone your writing craft, and participate in energetic discussions that will help you see your poems, stories, essays, and memoirs in the context of current issues and events. Learn more at alma.edu/mfa.