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.