The poem was finished, mostly. I had edited carefully for word choice, sound and meaning. I spent days removing commas, then putting them right back where they started. Everything was perfect, except…I had no title.
I stared at the ceiling, and when Jesus himself failed to come down and give me a title, I did what most writers do instead of writing: I complained on Twitter.
“I would pay real human money to attend a workshop that focused solely on how to title poems. Seriously, I need help.”
The heavens opened, and hundreds of writers, being the generous, intelligent, good looking people they are, flooded into the comments to offer advice.
Compiled here are the best (and worst) pieces of advice Twitter has to offer on how to choose a title for your next poem:
- Think of the title as the key or legend that tells readers how to read the poem. In this way, the title can be a guide for readers, offering important information or context that helps set up what will come later.1 For example, the Lucille Clifton poem, “wishes for sons.”
- Use the title to shore up the poem by adding more of what the poem needs: context, an established tone, a reference point the poem reacts to.2 For example, the Hanif Abdurraqib poem, “The Author Writes the First Draft of his Wedding Vows.”
- The title can also be used to identify another work the poem responds to. For example, the Morgan Parker poem, “Nancy Meyers and My Dream of Whiteness.”
- Select a phrase that is central to the reader’s experience of the poem, then make that the title. For example, the Dorianne Laux poem, “Little Magnolia.”
As with any internet forum not all the advice was good. Here is the worst advice I received:
- Don’t give the poem any title at all!
“Emily Dickinson didn’t title her poems,” many people reminded me, “why should you?”
This is the same as coming to a thread that asks for advice on how to tie shoelaces to say, “Why do you need to wear shoes at all? Emily Dickinson didn’t wear shoes, and see how famous she is?” In response, I’d like to point out that Emily Dickinson didn’t get famous until after her death, so perhaps shoes would have been a good idea for her, too.
The advice I got from this thread was overwhelmingly helpful. Since posting, I’ve been applying the guidelines to my own poems, and two recent acceptances made specific mention of how much the editor liked the poem’s title.
And the original poem I was struggling with? The one that was done, all except for the title? I gave that one to my husband, who named it, “The Author of my Life is Going Through Some Shit.”
Below, you’ll find a list of other resources on how to select poem titles.
“Titles” Diana Goetsch, The Writing University Podcast
Titling Short Stories and Poems- Kim Lozano
“Titles” Tamar Yoseloff, The Poetry School
“How to Title a Poem” Freesia McKee
“Dean Rader on Titling” USF Switchback
1 Advice courtesy of DeMisty D. Bellinger, PHD, author of Peculiar Heritage (Mason Jar Press)
2 Advice courtesy of Todd Dillard, author of Ways We Vanish (Okay Donkey)