What’s in a Title


This month it was finally time to come up with a title for my manuscript-in-progress. And let me tell you, it was a fun-filled process of head-banging, hand-wringing and silent weeping. No, I’m just kidding, it wasn’t that bad. But it did keep me occupied when I was driving, washing dishes or trying to fall asleep.

A poem’s title functions as an introduction, and first impressions matter. You want the title to be as compelling as the poem is. Even more than that, you want the title to add an extra layer to the poem. The right title expands the impact of the poem with a kind of feedback-alchemy, as the reader finishes the poem, looks back up at the title, and maybe discovers it means something different now.

Maybe because a title is so small a unit, you can get away with even less laziness. As with every other element of the poem, you have to throw away the first four obvious choices, and then you have to throw away the next four clever choices, and only then do you start getting somewhere.

Some title techniques I’ve used and abused below.


I used this on a fair number of poems when I was a teenager. Maybe this is why I’m unwilling to ever use it again, unless it actually has something to do with the subject of the poem. There’s just something painfully self-conscious about it.

Long statements or sentences used as titles

I love this kind of title, so naturally I’m no good at writing them. I especially love it if it seems like a completely different topic from the poem proper, and extra points if it’s funny.

Using the first line of the poem as the title

A respectable solution to the problem. But like any other technique, it can be a crutch. I’ve tended to overuse it, so now I back off when I’m tempted by this technique.

No title at all

You know, lots of terrific writers do this. Personally, I feel like I owe it to the poem to try to figure out its title.

“Sonnet,” “Villanelle,” “Poem,” “Song,” etc.

Everybody’s writing ghazals and pantoums these days. If you are in a writing workshop or MFA program, you have more than likely tried your hand at one or the other (or both!). I’ve read some brilliant examples, but dare I say, not all of these exercises should end up published? Yep, I just said it. The thing that makes it even worse for me is when the title of the ghazal is “Ghazal”. Sigh. It’s not necessary to point out the technique you used to write the poem because we all recognize it by now. Even if we didn’t, the intelligent reader will still perceive that there’s a poetic form involved. If you believe in the poem, give it a fabulous title to go with its fabulous self.

On the other hand, the idea of titling something “Sonnet” when it clearly isn’t is intriguing. It really all goes back to: does the title add something?

To come up with a title for my manuscript, I read through every poem and pulled out words or phrases that I liked, and then I combined two of them that spoke to the themes of the whole. But I should mention, before I get too smug, that I don’t know whether my current title will stick. I’d be interested in hearing what other people’s go-to title techniques are.

Organize Schmorganize

The folders of incipient genius

How do you physically organize your writing? Especially if you’re a poet, after a couple of years you end up with a lot of individual pieces of writing in ever-evolving states of completion.

I used to be a binder aficionado. I preferred black three-rings with clear plastic slots on the spine that I labelled “In Progress,” “Completed Work” or “Writing – Other.” And special write-on divider tabs that came in sets of 20 or more. Did I mention that as a child I used to keep all my used airline tickets in a plastic pouch to play “secretary”? So yes, my office supplies disorder (OSD) goes back a ways. But after about ten years of the binder method I realized that it was getting more and more cumbersome to put drafts away, I was letting the piles build up, and I was constantly losing good pieces of writing. Plus, who wants to spend hours hole-punching papers? Shorter: It’s not a good system if it can’t overcome my natural laziness.

So I took a page out of my friend Deb’s book, and switched to folders. Nothing cute, fancy, expensive, or hard to duplicate; just cheapo, manila, straight-cut folders. (1/3 and 1/5 cuts make me INSANE WITH HATE, but that’s another topic.) And as long as I keep them roughly alphabetized, it works as well as anything can in a small space. Want to group all the poems that need work, or all the poems that will go into a single manuscript? The folder method lends itself to the task.

The switch-over process was not pretty, but it was worth it. I’m still hanging onto my 5×8 card box to keep track of submissions though.

So how do you organize your drafts?

a) Folders.

b) Binders.

c) Fancy-pants options like this thing. (I can vouch for that thing. It is awesome. But I don’t use it for writing, because again, I’m lazy. Too much hole-punching.)

d) A giant misshapen pile on my desk.

e) All my drafts are electronic, you tree-killer.

f) It’s all in The Cloud, baby.

g) Organize? Organizing is for DILETTANTES. I compose my works of startling genius in a WHITE-HOT FRENZY. They are written in THE BLOOD OF MY VERY SOUL. Afterwards I fall to the ground in a STATE OF EXHAUSTION. Then representatives from Poetry, APR, and possibly AGNI, humbled and awed before my inhuman level of productivity, knock softly on my door and BEG ME FOR THE FRUIT OF MY BRAIN-TREE.

The 5×8 cards of incipient rejection

On difficulty

It's been a difficult month. It's not so much that I need to get back on the horse that threw me, as that I need to get back on the horse that I've beaten to death.

If you are not discouraged about your writing on a regular basis, you may not be trying hard enough. Any challenging pursuit will encounter frequent patches of frustration. Writing is nothing if not challenging.

– Maxwell Perkins

On negative capability in both the writer and the reader:

the writing of poems is wrestling with a question that is irresolvable and the poem is finished when you reach a stasis … Reading a poem is an act of faith and that involves abandoning oneself to something irresolvable.

– Carl Phillips

And this is the one I like best, because it makes me feel slightly less insane:

A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem.

– Roland Barthes