As an editor, I read a lot of poems. I mean a lot. On a typical day, I vet about 30 poems for TLR. On a day near the end of a submission cycle, I may read about 100 at a time. Reading at this volume reveals interesting patterns in what folks are doing with poetry—this submission period has seen quite a few poems on Humpty Dumpty, curiously enough—but something I see again and again, across every reading period, is a certain lack of attention to titles.
I get it. Titles are tough. For many poets, finding the right title is the worst part of the writing process. I myself went through a phase in which I was calling every poem I wrote “Song.” (I don’t recommend this approach, by the way.) Yet an uninspired title can scuttle an otherwise solid poem; it’s more than worth the effort to work toward a title worthy of the poem itself.
In recalling some of my favorite poems from our first year of publication, I see several strategies that poets can adapt for their own use:
I see a lot of short and simple titles—“In the Museum,” “Autumn,” “The Crash,” etc. It’s not that these titles are wrong or bad—they just don’t have a strong link to what the poet’s trying to achieve in the piece. You needn’t think of your title as a poetic thesis statement; that would be pedantic and potentially bizarre. But your title should give some sense of the project of your poem. One way to do that is to go for a big title—one that plays on the very idea of scope.
A title that makes a successful play on range and volume is our first issue’s opener: Amorak Huey’s “Ars Poetica Disguised as a Love Poem Disguised as a Commemoration of the 166th Anniversary of the Rescue of the Donner Party.” The poem would still function with a lesser tile (“Ars Poetica,” for instance), but would the scope and range of the poem be as accessible? Not to this reader.
Start With a Line from Another Poet
Another brilliantly titled poem from our first issue is Shaindel Beers’s “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” Beers draws her title from Robert Frost’s famous “‘Out, Out’—’”, and the gravity of the source material sets the tone for Beers’s poem; we enter into her work with a kind of tense sobriety that’s appropriate to her subject matter. It’s also worth noting that Frost’s title uses the same strategy—Frost draws on the text and tone of Macbeth; what Beers does in her own piece is part of a long tradition of poets responding to other poets.
Do note that any time you grab material from other sources, even if you think the reference should be obvious enough, it’s a good idea to credit the original work in the epigraph of your poem.
Another way to handle titling is to lead into a poem with a title that also serves as a first line. Don’t confuse leading in with repeating the first line, mind you—that gets repetitive quickly. Simply use your first line as the title itself.
A lead-in title I admire in our third issue is Arian Katsimbras’s “Growing Up, All the Mobile Homes.” There’s a kind of tension to the end of that title—the reader naturally wants to know what about the mobile homes. What’s the verb going to be? What did these mobile homes do? So we read on. The title becomes an integral part of the poem, demanding our engagement.